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With food pairing, the highest scoring wine isn’t always the best

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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.

  1. So, the 2009 Shafer, and similar style wines, are not much use for anything except for pairing with grilled steak?

  2. Well, if I was cooking at home, that’s what I’d do. I wouldn’t attempt anything too fancy because I know my culinary limitations. I’m sure there are talented chefs who could come up with magnificent pairings for the Shafer.

  3. Bill Haydon says:

    Thoughtful post, Steve. It does, however, invariably beg the question of, “if these wines are practically useless with food, are they really the best scoring wines in the first place?”

    I can’t help but think of Top Gear where, if the track is wet, the lap’s time will be denoted by a “W” next to it. Perhaps, critics should start denoting blockbuster wines with a “C” next to their score: C for cocktail wine.

  4. Fascinating post. Maybe an analogy might be an art work that is regarded as a masterpiece (by Francis Bacon, say) but that you would not want hanging on your living room wall.

  5. Really interesting post. I went to Hendry the last time I was in Napa, and it is a really cool little winery. Great people making great wines.

    I completely understand your point about high-scores being about the wines by themselves, and not their ability to pair with food. This article almost makes it seem like high-scoring wines are not meant to be paired with food, but are “stand-alone wines”. Makes sense, really. The bigger concern is that wines that are meant to go with food (like a lithe and delicate pinot noir) are less likely to receive a high score. Do you feel like there is a place for those wines in the 100-point scale?

  6. I think Bill is on to something. If reviewers would start categorizing the wines they score into “Cocktail” and “Table Wines” I think it would make things a whole lot easier for the consumer. I know it would certainly help those of us on the retail side, I’m sure as shit tired of explaining, “Well yes, it did get 95 points but I am positive that Molly Dooker Blue Eyed Boy won’t taste delicious with oysters.” and assuring them that the wine will in fact taste more like a 59 when paired with certain foods. Might also wipe the smear, or negative slant of the term table wine. Yes sir, I think it’s a fine idea.

  7. Samantha, Gabe, etc.: You raise interesting points. I may write about this tomorrow.

  8. Woo Hoo! STEVE! just called me and Gabe inspirational…or some junk. Gonna run with that.

  9. lol. we’re famous!

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