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Pork ribs, Napa’s eastern mountains and a top Syrah


Dinner last Saturday with Maxine and Keith featured barbecued pork ribs for the main course. Spicy, sweet, fatty, smoky, meaty and succulent. What to drink them with?

Maxine thought a white, but I vetoed that. I’m sure there’s a white wine somewhere in the world to pair with pork ribs (maybe an oaky Grenache Blanc or even Sauternes?), but all we had at the time was Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling wine, and I didn’t think any of those would work. I had earlier tasted some miscellaneous reds, so we had a pretty good selection to try out: a delicious Merriam 2008 Windacre Merlot, a fine Courtney Benham 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon from Stags Leap, Krutz 2009 Krupp Vineyard Malbec, a spicy Kenwood 2010 Jack London Zinfandel, Krutz 2009 Stagecoach Vineyard Syrah, and another Merriam Windacre, this time the 2008 Cabernet Franc.

Which wine do you think paired best?

First, I should explain that the side dishes were Israeli cous cous with black beans, grilled zucchini squash and Brentwood butter and sugar corn grilled in the husk, so sweet it needed neither seasoning nor butter. But grillmeister Keith’s ribs dominated the room like Bill Clinton working a crowd.

I thought, intellectually, that the contenders were the Merriam Cab Franc and the Krutz Syrah. The Cab Franc struck me for its spiciness, and the way the fusion of cherries and oak had a jammy, brown sugary sweetness that would echo the sweet flavors of the ribs. As for the Syrah, well, it was so outstanding on its own, full-bodied and layered, and so smoky-sweet that it seemed like a no-brainer. When the actual taste test went down, the Merriam Cab Franc was okay, but  the Krutz Syrah beat it by a mile. A brilliant pairing, really, in which the wine brought out the intensity of the ribs, and the ribs brought out the sweet depth of the wine, which had the volume to stand up to–but not be dominated by–the ribs’ fatty richness.

This Stagecoach Vineyard has entered my consciousness over the last several years as one of the most noteworthy in Napa Valley, which is to say in all of California. I’d long known the name from the many wineries that vineyard-designate it, but only visited the vineyard for the first time two years ago, when Dr. Jan Krupp, of the owning Krupp family, toured me for an article I was researching on the Atlas Peak appellation. I learned that the vineyard necessarily qualifies only for a Napa Valley AVA because just 30% of it is within the Atlas Peak boundary. The rest of it spills over a kind of canyon that leads to Pritchard Hill, on which another 30% lies. At that time, I had only an imprecise vision of Pritchard Hill (the October 2012 issue of Wine Enthusiast will have my big story on it) and the quality of its wines, but with my focus on it since last Spring, I’ve now realized what great real estate Pritchard Hill is, especially for Bordeaux varieties and Syrah.

There are differences between Atlas Peak, Pritchard Hill and the land inbetween, but the fundamentals still apply: mountain intensity, purity of focus, intense minerality from the rocks. Here’s something I hadn’t known: Dr. Krupp told me it in 2010, so I don’t know if it’s still true today, but “Atlas Peak has more vineyard acreage than all other Napa Valley mountain AVAs combined.”

The fact that Stagecoach qualifies “only” for the basic Napa Valley AVA is another proof that what counts in California is not the legal appellation on the label, but the vineyard name and, behind that, the quality of the viticulture and enology practiced by the producer. Years ago, I wrote an article on California’s greatest vineyards. Stagecoach wasn’t in it. Were I to write that article today, it certainly would be (and some of the vineyards I included would come off!). Cabernet is Stagecoach’s forté, as evidenced by wineries inlcluding Paul Hobbs, Krutz, Conn Creek, Sequoia Grove, Charles Creek, Krupp, Palmeri and Miner, but as we have seen Syrah can be spectacular. If all Syrah were that good, Syrah would have an honored place in the pantheon of California varietal wines, a place it does not current enjoy.

  1. Carlos Toledo says:

    Which wine do you think paired best?

    Easy: A salice salentino or an aglianico. Ideally a rather hearty one as there are softer versions of these wines.

    They can run over pork ribs (yes, the sauce is the key) or indian foods with no much effort.

  2. Did you happen to catch the alcohol on the Syrah?

  3. You most certainly share my love for all things hog. For me ribs and hot dogs/sausages are the toughest to pair. After many years of trial and error I’ve discovered that the pairing question is answered by two things. The sauce and the rub. By your description of the ribs, I’ll assume a moderate (in terms of heat) rub and a red sauce. For this a syrah is the perfect call especially if it’s from Atlas Peak in general and Stagecoach in particular. But.. if you change the sauce and/or rub it brings more varietals into play. I’m always playing with sauces and rubs and then trying to find a perfect wine match. One of my favorites is a sauce I invented a number of years ago. It’s a guava, honey, tequilla, lime sauce (red based) and is fantastic with ribs. This sauce comes in sweet and then finishes with a blast of peppery heat (from the garlic and tequilla) and just a pinch of sour. I’ll pair this with a rub that’s moderately spicey. My favorite wines for this formula is a Luna Canto (sangiovese and cab blend) or a Shafer Relentless. Both pick up the heat and the sweet rather nicely. If I go with a hotter rub an Outpost Grenache works very well as would any number of Rhone Reds.

    I also do a an earb rub treatment with a honey red sauce which brings full bodied Pinots into play. A Radio-Coteau Alberigi or one of the Rochioli offerings are nice here.

    I’ve not had success with any white pairings if there’s a red sauce in play. However, if the sauce is a Carolina Mustard Sauce then a nice dry Reisling (such as a Trefethen) is a fantastic pair.

  4. @ Bob: Good point about the rubs.

  5. Sounds fantastic. It’s funny, I’ve had more wins from Pritchard Hill or Spring Mountain than Atlas Peak. I just don’t see the wines often. Recently picked up some 2010 Failla Estate Syrah, at 13%abv. Young, but like every example from this producer, it typifies good Syrah, that tension of sauvage, meat, pepper, with elegant herbal floral qualities. A recent Owen Roe was under 14abv and beautiful. Syrah isn’t selling in big numbers for a ton of reasons, I imagine, market placement, volume available, range of prices and styles, lack of knowledge.

  6. i would have guessed the zinfandel would be the thing to pair with ribs, but my california nostalgia often tilts towards zin.

    I’ve always had good luck wit the stagecoach vineyard…not the least reason being that the price is usually pretty reasonable, especially compared to other napa wines. is there a reason for that?

    i am also a strong believer in the fact that a good vineyard trumps a good sub-ava every time…and the more sub-ava’s i see, the less value i put into their existance. while i once believed in them, i am now starting to think they are pure marketing

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