Even if you’re well-versed in the succulence of Syrah and the charm of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, you may hesitate when planning a meal with these wines. The 22 varietals of the Rhône, begun in France’s Rhône region and now grown all over the world, are some of the most interesting and complex wines in the world, beloved by connoisseurs and winemakers alike.
But plenty of everyday wine lovers who know to throw a steak on the grill when serving Cabernet or pop open a Sauvignon Blanc with spring pasta aren’t sure what to pair with Mourvèdre, Viognier, or even Shiraz. We caught up with John Toulze, executive chef at the girl and the fig in Sonoma, Calif., which boasts a Rhône-only wine list, for his take on Rhônely food pairings. Toulze, along with proprietor Sondra Bernstein, was guest chef at this year’s Hospice du Rhône weekend, featuring top Rhône winemakers from the Rhône, California, and Australia at the rustic-chic Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn.
WE: What are some of your favorite Rhône varietals and blends?
JT: I love Grenache—it’s such a food-friendly wine, second only to Pinot Noir. The depth and breadth and body of a good Grenache is beautiful to pair with food. Viognier is another favorite. It’s naturally high in alcohol, but as a white wine, it can and does wear so many hats.
WE: Name a few of your favorite basic food-and- Rhône pairings?
JT: Lamb and Syrah are classic together—the gamey notes of the Syrah bring out the wildness of the lamb. I’m also a fennel freak, and I love white Rhône blends and Grenache with fennel. The Grenache and anise flavor are incredible together. A salad with a meyer lemon vinaigrette paired with a Marsanne/Rousanne blend really brings out the honeysuckle minerality in the wine.
WE: What was on the Blackberry Farm Hospice du Rhône menu, and which pairings would you recommend for home cooks?
JT: I’ve always felt it was my job to create food that can complement incredible wines, and that’s how Sondra and I designed the menu. One of my favorite pairings for the meal is the Baby Arugula and Mano Formate Lardo Salad with the 2009 André Brunel Les Cailloux Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc. The salad is made from shaved and roasted baby fennel, hearts of celery, and fresh-picked baby arugula with a honey-meyer lemon vinaigrette. The creaminess of the lardo (cured pig fat) mimics the texture and mouthfeel of the wine, and the wine’s raciness mimics the vinaigrette.
I also love the Braised Mano Formate Bacon Au Jus with the 2000 André Brunel Les Cailloux Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Centenaire. The bacon is braised in au jus and served with greens, spring onion, and green garlic puree. The sweetness of the Grenache with its southern white pepper spice and meaty/smoky element perfectly complements the smoke of the bacon and the green garlic and chicory in the puree.
Pan Seared Vension Loin with Shiraz Reduction Sauce and Herb Spaetzle
Served at Blackberry Farm’s Hospice du Rhône weekend March 19, 2010. Recipe by John Toulze of the girl and the fig in Sonoma, Calif.
2 cups veal stock
1 cup Shiraz
1 bouquet garni
1 bunch parsley
1 bunch chives
1 cup half & half
1 cup soda water
1 tablespoon lemon Juice
4 cups flour
1 small venison saddle (2+ pounds)
salt & pepper
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
Place the veal stock, red wine & bouquet garni in a thick bottomed sauce pan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Skim any residue that rises to the top. Let the reduction simmer slowly until mixture has reduced by half. Set aside.
In a blender combine the eggs, herbs & the half & half. Blend until smooth. Strain the mixture into a large bowl. Add the soda water and lemon juice. Using a wooden paddle, slowly add the flour. Work until the mixture becomes elastic (6-8 minutes). Refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Set up an 8 inch half hotel pan with salted water. Place a perforated two inch deep half hotel pan over the top and bring water to a boil. Place the spaetzle mixture in the perforated pan and push through using a dough scraper until mixture has completely passed through into water. Cook until the spaetzle is tender (2-4 minutes). Strain the spaetzle from the water and chill.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Remove the silver skin from saddle and split lengthwise. Season the venison with salt & pepper and sear over high heat in a large oven-proof sauté pan until browned on all sides. Place the pan in the oven for 2 minutes. Remove from the oven and let rest.
Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan heat the olive oil and butter over medium heat. Add the spaetzle and sauté in pan until slightly brown.
To serve; place the spaetzle on the middle of the plate, slice the venison into ½” pieces and lean against the spaetzle. Drizzle the Shiraz reduction sauce over the top and serve immediately.
Wine pairing: A dark, peppery Australian Shiraz emphasizes the Shiraz reduction, and the meatiness of the venison mellows and frames the wine.