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They said it on Facebook: non-beef pairings for Cabernet Sauvignon

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“Food without wine is a corpse; wine without food is a ghost; united and well matched they are as body and soul, living partners.” So said André Simon, wine merchant, gourmet, and co-founder (in 1933) of the Wine & Food Society, the editorship of whose journal passed, in 1963, into the hands of a rising young British writer named Hugh Johnson.

Simon was part of a [mainly British] fraternity of gourmands in the first half of the twentieth century, men (including Professor George Saintsbury), whom today we’d call “foodies.” They enjoyed good food, good wine and good conversation, in an era when the Port was always passed to the left. They were not necessarily men of means; the Society’s other co-founder, A.J. Symons, wrote, for his own epitaph, “No one so poor has lived so well” (a sentiment with which some wine writers might agree!). In the 1920s and 1930s, when the movement was perhaps at its apogee, prices for claret–Bordeaux–came under pressure due to a variety of reasons: the lingering effects of the Great War, the worldwide Depression, the collapse of the French franc, bad vineyard practices, a mummified contract system. Edmund Penning-Rowsell, in The Wines of Bordeaux, has carefully analyzed the “poor succession of [Bordeaux] vintages after 1900” (certainly compared to the Golden age of 1858-1878), pointing out the “not…very satisfactory prices” the chateaux received. Prices even for the great 1929 vintage sank to historic lows, coming as they did mere months after the stock market crashed, in October of that year. “Within eighteen months [afterwards] the first-growth ‘29s could be re-bought for 10,000 frs., exactly half their opening prices.” Quel désaster for the chateaux; a stroke of luck for the gourmands.

The members of the Wine & Food Society would not have understood our modern practice of reviewing wine. They would have been puzzled by the 100-point system (although, one hopes, they might have been more receptive had it been thoroughly explained to them, for they were, above all, rational men). They might have reserved their puzzlement for our tendency today to critique wines with little or no reference to food. If “wine without food is a ghost,” then a wine review without food pairings would have been judged a sacrilege.

Be that as it may, that is our modern way. Yet even those of us who make our living doing wine reviews understand, in our private lives, the importance of the “body and soul” of proper wine and food pairing. So it was that, the other day, talking with cousin Maxine, she remarked on the collection of older California Cabernet Sauvignons that are piling up in our collective cellar. “We don’t have much opportunity to drink them,” she fretted, “because we’re eating less beef.”

Cabernet and steak: it’s the classic pairing. But, like Maxine, I too have been eating less steak for years. Health aspects aside, I don’t make it at home because good cuts are hard to get and even when I can buy it, the risk of overcooking is too high; and nothing is more frustrating than paying good money for a bad steak. In restaurants, I tend not to order steak. Unless the place is a beef specialist (like House of Prime Rib or Harris’, in San Francisco), the risk also is unacceptably high that steak is merely a token item on the menu and will not be satisfying–for the privilege of paying $30 or $40, or more: we ate last night at Bocanova, one of my favorite Oakland restaurants, but I would never order the $48 steak.

So I wondered, What non-beef dishes pair well with a high-end, aged California Cabernet? As usual in such situations, I asked the question on my Facebook page. I expected good answers from my friends; I was not disappointed by the results.

That pairings other than beef were well known to the gourmands is obvious from the menus many of them left behind in their written journals. Professor Saintsbury, in his famous Notes on a Cellar-book, devotes an entire chapter to “records of meals and wines discussed in my own houses, and mostly devised by ourselves.” Forty- and fifty-year old First Growths were commonly consumed at the Professor’s table; what is notable is the relative absence of beef, the result of bad economic times that resulted in an “absurd modicum of meat that was allotted…and when one had to be content with sprats and spaghetti.” With Margaux 1868 and again with ’78 Latour he ate “haunch of mutton,” with ’70 Margaux there were “cutlets a l’Americaine” [presumably veal?], with ’76 Mouton came “mutton cutlets” and “chicken salad,” with ’62 Lafite “Virginian Quails” and with ‘93 Latour and ’96 Leovillle Poyferre “beans and bacon” (!!!!). True, there was one dinner at which 1870 Latour was poured with “Braised Fillet of Beef” but that indulgence seems to have been the exception. At any rate, it’s evident that our modern preoccupation with steak as the perfect Cabernet partner is of fairly recent origin.

I wouldn’t have enough time to try all the pairings my Facebook friends suggested, but there are many tantalizing ones: braised pork loin with mushrooms, cheese sauce and a red wine-bouillion reduction; mushroom-stuffed raviolis and cheese; rack or leg of lamb (of course); grilled halibut with black olive butter; a “warm corn tortilla black bean taco with a subtle fire-roasted salsa and queso fresco” (from Amelia Ceja); applewood-smoked barbecued salmon; braised lamb shanks; lamb and goat cheese lasagna; porcini mushroom risotto; ham with black cherry reduction; coq au vin. For something culinarily different (and perhaps more interesting), Michael Turner suggests Cabernet with “foot rubs and hot tubs”; I might add the Cheez-its Shauna Rosenblum swears by.

  1. Excerpt from Robert M. Parker, Jr.’s
    “Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide”
    (Fifth Edition, copyright 1999):

    “Food and Wine Matchups”

    “As [a] food [wine] . . . [Cabernet Sauvignon is] remarkably one-dimensional. . . . work[-ing] well only with dishes that have relatively straightforward and simple flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon marries beautifully with basic meat and potato dishes: filet mignon, lamb fillets, steaks, et cetera. . . . The basic rule, then, is: complex wines with simple dishes, and simple, uncomplex wines with complex dishes.”

  2. . . . then again, you could purportedly follow Parker’s lead by downing oysters with Harlan “Estate”:

    Links:

    http://articles.latimes.com/1999/feb/24/news/mn-11202/6 turning the page to . . .

    http://articles.latimes.com/1999/feb/24/news/mn-11202/7

  3. “in an era when the Port was always passed to the left.”

    Perhaps you mean “in a country where the Port is always passed to the left.”

    The gentlemen you refer to were, of course, all English – and it still passes clockwise over here!

  4. Excerpts from Jancis Robinson, M.W. Web Site:

    “Matching Food and Wine: The Paradox”
    (December 31, 2001)

    Link: http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/jr406.html

    Am I the only person in the world with a cellarful of red wine and a preference for white wine food?

    Here’s the paradox. To judge from what’s in our glasses, the world’s wine drinkers increasingly choose red wine in preference to white. But to judge from our plates, we’re less and less interested in the sort of food that red wine has traditionally been drunk with.

    . . . modern eating patterns show a distinct move away from chewy dark meats towards fish, pasta, vegetable dishes and, of course, the ubiquitous chicken. Yet according to traditional food and wine matching advice, all of these are better washed down with white rather than red wine.

    Maybe the time has come to tear up traditional food and wine advice. . . .

    . . . most modern red wines taste much more supple. . . .

    Modern red wine has become, if you like, liquid chicken: inoffensive, versatile and hard to avoid.

    In fact, you can drink modern red wine quite happily with almost any food, so long as it’s not too sweet. . . .

    . . . wine today is being drunk with all sorts of things that the traditional wine and food advice would not countenance. . . .

    . . .

    (French cuisine is an exception to all that I have said so far. The French live and eat in virtual isolation from international food trends. . . .

    . . .

    The truth of the matter is that it is perfectly possible to drink more or less any wine with more or less any food. . . .

    . . .

    . . . Global warming might become so significant that the world’s wine drinkers will start to demand that the first duty of a wine is to be chilled. And that really will be a test of modern red wine’s suppleness.

  5. Don’t be afraid of steak. I’ve switched to a Paleo type diet the last couple of years and eat more of it than ever before.

    I prefer grass fed beef, but Trader Joe’s sells a two pack of filets that’s the perfect small serving. I brown the filets in a cast iron skillet and then pop it into a 400 degree oven for a few minutes to finish off. The key tool is an instant read meat thermometer: once it reads 125 to 130, you’ve got a rare steak. Overcooking is under control.

    Decant your Cab or Bordeaux or Malbec or Tempranillo or Zinfandel or Syrah and your good to go.

  6. interesting point Bob. I somewhat agree with you, because I think the old-fashioned idea of “red wine with red meat, white wine with fish” is an oversimplification, and our modern wines and modern palates are ready to go beyond that. As an Oregonian, I am happy to serve pinot noir with salmon, or rose with red meat. But as a wine snob, I was surprised to read Steve’s suggestion of cabernet with halibut. Yes, you can drink any wine with any food, but that doesn’t mean they will bring out the best in each other. I think halibut and a white Rhone will bring out the best in each other, and I don’t feel that way about halibut and Napa cab. Now, mind you, I could very well be wrong about that specific food pairing. But I think the concept of two complimentary things bringing out the best in each other is sound.

  7. Jonathan O'Bergin says:

    Hi Gabe, My suggestion of Porcini mushroom crusted halibut did not make it on Steve’s list, but I can assure you is a great combination. My method includes finsihing the dish with a red wine and butter reduction sauce and the better the wine in the sauce, the better the match.

  8. well, i suppose that’s why we read wine blogs – to learn about wine. Porcini mushroom crusted halibut with cab sauv starts to make more sense…and i never say no to a red wine & butter reduction. Thanks Jonathan

  9. I am well-acquainted with serving Pinot Noir with salmon. (Do it myself.)

    Probably got the idea originally from David Rosengarten’s tome:

    http://www.amazon.com/Red-Wine-With-Fish-Matching/dp/0671662082

    Other pairings of red wine with fish run into this problem . . .

    From The American Association for the Advancement of Science
    Science Now Website
    (October 22, 2009):

    “Why Fish and Red Wine Don’t Mix”

    Link: http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2009/10/22-02.html

    By Phil Berardelli

    For ages, diners have been told that drinking red wine while eating seafood can produce an unpleasant fishy aftertaste. The rule of thumb has been red wine with meat, white wine with fish. But the rule is not hard and fast. Seafood can taste fine with some reds, whereas some whites can ruin the meal. What’s the common factor?

    Researchers at Mercian Corp. in Fujisawa, Japan, a division of which produces wine and spirits, decided to find out. They conducted an experiment with seven experienced wine tasters who were offered 38 varieties of red and 26 types of white. Over four sessions, the volunteers tasted the samples, along with pieces of scallops, the seafood most likely to produce the fishy effect. Then the researchers chemically analyzed the wines for a possible link to the aftertaste.

    The culprit appears to be IRON, the team reports in a recent issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. When the element’s content rose above 2 milligrams per liter or so, the seafood-dining experience turned SOUR. The team double-checked their results by soaking pieces of dried scallops in samples of wine. Scallops dunked in vino with low iron content smelled normal, but pieces soaked in samples with high iron content reeked of fish.

    The researchers report that they haven’t yet isolated the compound in the scallops that reacts with the wine, but they suspect it’s an unsaturated fatty acid, which could be breaking down rapidly and releasing the DECAYING FISH SMELL when exposed to iron. How much iron a wine contains depends on the amount in the soil where the grapes were grown, as well as other factors such as how the grapes are harvested and processed. Red wine tends to have a higher iron content, hence the admonition against mixing it with seafood.

    [Bob's aside: An example of high iron content soil? Italy and its lava-spewing volcanoes.]

    “We were surprised in our finding,” says research chemist and lead author Takayuki Tamura, “because we thought that polyphenols or sulfur dioxide [produced] the unpleasant sensation.” These components represent a larger percentage of wine content than does iron. He explains that because iron does not “induce color change, accelerated oxidation, or cloudiness,” vintners tend to ignore its potential role as a meal-spoiler. But the new findings, he says, offer winemakers the opportunity to reconsider the downside of iron contamination.

    The paper’s science is sound, says enologist Gordon Burns of ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, California. Still, he says, there are better reasons to avoid red wine with fish: Any robust red wine, regardless of iron content, would likely overwhelm the delicate, subtle flavor of many seafood dishes. Red wine, he says, often pairs better “with a big stew or a hearty chunk of meat.”

  10. It is now some twenty years or more ago that I was summoned (!) up to the Napa Valley to listen to a winery owner tell me how to make my newsletter better. “Come have lunch with me and I will tell you all about it”.

    So, I dutifully went up to the winery and sat with the owner on the back deck of his office overlooking the valley and had a delicious piece of slow-cooked salmon with a light but evident Jamaican jerk seasoning.

    And out came the Reserve Cabernet to my surprise and quiet consternation.

    But, much to my surprise, the richness of the Cab and the rich, savory nature of the salmon absolutely worked with each other in a way that has changed my impressions of red wine with fish forever.

    More recently, at a meal at Cyrus, that Michelin Guide two-star restaurant in Healdsburg, now sadly closed, I asked the sommelier to choose wine-by-the-glass pairings for our several course meal.

    He brought out a Syrah for the halibut, and even though I had learned my lesson with the salmon and Cab, I was still a little surprised. But once again, the pairing was spot on.

    I am still not ready for Harlan Cab with oysters, but one giant perk of being around so much wine and food is the discovery of rules that have been broken.

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