What goes well with big red wine? It turns out that it's not enough to serve wagyu beef tenderloin: you also have to watch the onions.
Last week I had the belly-busting pleasure of judging wine and food pairing at the Taste of Terroir in Livermore Valley (that's a live Judge Cam screen shot). Of the 16 wines entered, 12 were big red wines: 4 Cabernet Sauvignons, 4 Syrahs, 2 Zinfandels, a Petite Sirah and a Sangiovese.
When I say big, I mean it. I don't have the alcohol percentages because we were tasting blind, but I took home two bottles I liked to finish off, and they were 15.5% and 14.9%. One reason I liked those two (Occasio Winery Del Arroyo Vineyard Livermore Valley Petite Sirah 2008 and Deer Ridge Vineyards Livermore Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2004) was because they weren't quite as ripe-tasting as the others.
But we weren't judging the wines: we were judging how well a winery-restaurant team paired a specific dish with each wine. The Occasio Petite Sirah ended up as part of the overall Judges Best pairing, but the Deer Ridge Cabernet didn't win anything because the dish it was served with overpowered it.
Therein lies a lesson. With that Cab, a restaurant (Pasta's Trattoria) served up a tasty dish of thinly sliced raw wagyu beef tenderloin on a rye crostini dressed with red onions, capers and olive oil. It sounds like a great pairing, and we liked both dish and wine individually. But there were too many onions, and we couldn't taste the wine over them.
Other dishes we liked also failed. Hot spice was the culprit in several; red chili adobo sauce or spicy braised lamb made high-alcohol wines taste hotter.
The Peasant & The Pear restaurant from Danville made a pulled pork slider so delicious that I went out and ate another after judging the competition (who am I to call Pinot Noir fat?). And they even used the Cabernet we were tasting with it in the BBQ sauce. But it still didn't work; the tangy, slightly sweet sauce made the wine taste less fruity and more tannic.
This reconfirmed something I've thought about BBQ for a long time: we think big ripe red wines will be good with it, but they're usually not, unless you're using dry rub. And even then you're better off with black pepper than chiles.
So what did work?
* Meat on meat, without too much spice. The winning dish, from Izzy's Steaks & Chops, was marinated skirt steak served over shredded flank steak with bourbon-infused yams. You need meat to absorb the 15.5% alcohol, and the very slight sweetness of the yams was just right.
* Smoky flavors without too much heat. The most surprising pairing that worked well was a goat cheese panna cotta with black pepper and smoked tomato jam with a Wente Nth Degree Livermore Valley Syrah 2007. The Syrah also had some smokiness, and the panna cotta was a beautiful textural contrast that didn't get in the way of the wine.
* Simplicity. Braised short ribs nearly won a medal with Charles R Vineyards Livermore Valley Zinfandel 2007; it didn't because the potatoes and green beans on the side didn't play as well with the wine. We also nearly awarded a very classic pairing, a crab cake with Concannon Vineyard Reserve Livermore Valley Chardonnay 2008; the crab cake absorbed the oak of the Chard and made it taste more fresh. Unfortunately, there was no category for Best Classic Pairing, and we couldn't very well give that one either of our other choices, Most Innovative or Best Expression of Local Ingredients. The restaurant claimed the crab was local, but any crabs I find in Livermore Valley, I ain't eating.
My fellow judge Leslie Sbrocco kept saying that certain dishes would be better with fewer ingredients; chefs shouldn't fear being simple.
* A little sweetness, especially with wines that have residual sugar. It's dangerous, because too much sugar in food can make wine taste sour. But I can't deny that cherry jam was the key to the award I presented, for Most Innovative Pairing and also the Peoples' Choice
With a big, ripe, sweet, in-your-face Ruby Hill Peacock Patch Estate Reserve Livermore Valley Zinfandel 2008, the winery chefs made a rabbit terrine studded with dried cherries and pistachios, then covered it with cherry demi-glace jam and served it on toasted challah with Zinfandel-infused mustard. The cherry jam and Zin were great together, and it made me wonder if that will work with other high-octane Zins as well.
I hadn't been on a walk-around tasting of Livermore wines in a while, and I was surprised by how uniformly big these were. I suppose that's just following the market, as most wineries there sell wines from their tasting room and are getting immediate feedback on what people like. But Livermore Valley has cooling winds and favorable soils that make it just as capable of producing elegant reds as Napa Valley. (Yes, Virginia, there are some of those in Napa.)
I had an interesting discussion with a grower before we were sequestered. He said this is the coolest summer Livermore has had in years, and that grapes are struggling to get ripe. He was worried about it, but my silent thought was to check back in a few years to see if 2010 is the cooler-climate vintage that brings elegance back to Livermore. I'll see if I can drop by Danville for another pork slider on my way.