With food pairing, the highest scoring wine isn’t always the best
The conventional wisdom in wine-geek land is that the highest scoring wines, including Cabernet Sauvignon, are often not the best ones to drink with food, because the wine overpowers the food. I think this is a valid point.
I’ve given extraordinarily high scores this year to Cabernets from Shafer Hillside Select, Marita’s Select Private Reserve, Flora Springs Hillside Reserve, Freemark Abbey Sycamore, Clos du Val JG’s Joie du Vin and others, but if I were cooking dinner at home (or ordering in a restaurant, for that matter), I’d have to think long and hard about what to pair them with. Notwithstanding the fact that all these wines are tannic and need age, the problem is that they’re so potent in themselves–almost a separate food group–that any pairing runs the risk of not doing justice to either the food or the wine.
The 2009 Shafer, for example, is one of the most massive Napa Cabs I’ve ever reviewed, which would count against it were it not for the fine balance of acids, tannins and oak, all of which gives it a sense of wholesome completeness. The default pairing for a wine like that is grilled steak; you can’t go wrong. The wine’s tannins will stand up to the meat’s fatty richness, while a smoky sweetness extends from charred protein to the fire-roasted oak barrels the wine was aged in. But beyond this simple steak recipe, I’d be hard pressed to come up with something more elaborate that wouldn’t rob the wine of its complexities. Of course, you could always slather the steak with gorgonzola cheese, which would amplify the Cab’s fruity sweetness, but that’s not really making it more complicated. It’s just making it, well, cheesier.
Now that I’m only days removed from our Thanksgiving feast, I think I would never have put that Hillside Select on the groaning board. We had all the usual stuff–roast turkey with sausage stuffing, homemade cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, buttered sweet potatoes, green beans, Brussels sprouts with crumbled bacon, and a fantastic arugula, fig and blue cheese salad with Sherry vinaigrette. It was as delicious as could be, but quite frankly the Shafer would have been a minor disaster in that setting. It would have been pulled this way and that, like a galaxy being torn apart by a black hole, with the various sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami tastes of the foods making the wine clumsy and stripped of its glory. Its center of gravity would have been discombobulated. That’s no disrespect to the wine: it’s just saying that these pairing decisions matter.
What did work? A Hendry 2011 Block 24 Primitivo, bearing a Napa Valley appellation. In itself, this is not a great wine. There’s plenty to find fault with. It’s too fruity. It’s too alcoholic. It’s overripe. Compared to the Shafer’s tailored power, the Hendry is rustic. It’s not the sort of wine that does well in a tasting, and so does not earn a high score.
But on that Thanksgiving table, it was ideal. Everybody liked it. They want something they can enjoy with whatever is going into their mouths, and the Hendry did exactly that: it provided yeoman’s service. In fact, most of the foods on the table made it taste better, not worse, as they would have with the Shafer. The sweet foods echoed its fruit. The rich foods tamed its tannins. The creamy foods mitigated its super-ripeness. Throughout it all, the wine was strong enough to preserve its identity. It went with the punches, so to speak. When I practiced traditional Wado karate, we were taught the concepts of nagasu, inasu and noru. Briefly, these refer to the fighter constantly shifting his position, moving out of the enemy’s way, deflecting his attacks, parrying his thrusts, all while remaining in control, looking for eventual dominance. It’s fair to say that the Hendry exhibited this sense of countering everything the food threw at it, and remained harmonious and centered. It ran no risk of losing its center of gravity, because it doesn’t have a center of gravity. It’s all free-floating, a shape-shifter whose protean character made it be friends with just about everything it encountered.
The irony of all this is that a rustic wine can often perform better under such circumstances than the most exquisitely refined wine. Still, I feel comfortable giving higher scores to wines like the Shafer, whose very extraordinariness makes them rather less versatile at the table. The score refers to the wine, in and of itself. What you do with it is another matter.