For Special Bottles, Pair the Food to the Wine
While conventional wisdom usually favors the main dish, with the wine playing servant, why not turn it around and make wine the focus? If you’ve been waiting for the moment to break out that special aged bottle you’ve been saving, it’s now.
The complexity that aging brings to wine is accentuated by the perfect food pairing. We present our centerpieces for various wine styles, with sample bottles from our dream cellar and suggestions for starters, sides and alternate dishes. Just remember: This meal is about relaxing and focusing on the wine, so keep it simple and prepare as much as you can ahead of time.
With their prominent tannins, Cabernet and Nebbiolo are asking to be aged. With time, their tannins mellow and harmonize, yielding some attention to the wine’s other attributes, like shades of fruit and spice. Cabernets develop notes of cigar box, cocoa and cedar, while Nebbiolos show tobacco, leather, truffle and dried flowers. Both are best paired with rich dishes. These pairings also are terrific with aged Bordeaux, especially Cabernet-dominant bottles from the Left Bank.
From our dream cellar:
Combining flavor and tenderness, ribeye steaks are a special occasion in themselves. This pairing is like a yin-and-yang relationship: The tannins in Nebbiolo or Cabernet temper the indulgence of the richly marbled beef, while the fat in turn softens the austere tannins. A good truffle butter amps up the luxury factor but also brings out complex flavors from both the meat and the wine. Nebbiolo and white truffle is a classic combination, but Cabernet’s herbal quality is a natural with it as well.
In this recipe, the boneless steaks cook uniformly and are easier to slice than their bone-in counterparts. Buy the very best quality meat you can find and truffle butter that’s made with real truffles, not truffle oil or “essence.” Urbani makes real truffle butters that are widely available in specialty markets and via mail order; either white or black truffle butter will work.
- 2 boneless ribeye steaks, at least 1½ inches thick, 12–16 ounces each
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons truffle butter
Pat steaks dry. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Let sit at room temperature for one hour.
Preheat oven to 400˚F. Heat large cast-iron skillet or griddle over medium-high heat. Coat bottom of pan with oil, then add steaks. Brown deeply on both sides, 2–3 minutes per side. Transfer pan to oven. Cook until instant-read meat thermometer inserted in the center of one steak reads 130˚F for medium-rare (start checking after 10 minutes).
Transfer steaks to a cutting board. Add one tablespoon truffle butter to skillet (the residual heat will melt it); swirl with any pan juices and pour over steaks. Cover loosely with foil and let rest 5–10 minutes. Slice against the grain and serve with remaining truffle butter over the top. Serves 4–6.
Tempranillo was once thought to be related to Pinot Noir. While these wines are very different, aged examples can be exceptionally elegant, exhibiting deep berry-cherry fruit and an earthy, animal character. Tempranillo is most closely associated with the Spanish regions of Ribera del Duero and Rioja, while Pinot Noir is linked with Burgundy.
From our dream cellar:
Domaine Emmanuel Rouget 1999 Echézeaux
Rack of lamb is a breeze to cook—much easier than the individual chops—and an irresistible sight on the dinner table. Lamb is often paired with “gamy” wines, but Tempranillo and Pinot Noir are less likely to overpower the lamb’s flavor. A traditional pairing in Ribera del Duero is with lechazo, suckling lamb roasted over vine cuttings.
“Frenching” refers to the butcher removing meat from the ends of the bones to create a handle of sorts for each chop. For this recipe, it’s optional and based on what look you prefer.
- 1 full rack of lamb (8 rib chops)
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
- 3 tablespoons fresh parsley
- 1 tablespoon fresh mint
- 1 teaspoon fresh rosemary
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
Preheat oven to 375˚F. Sprinkle lamb with salt and let sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. While lamb sits, pulse the garlic and herbs in a small food processor until a coarse purée (or crush together in a mortar and pestle).
Heat a large cast-iron (or other heavy ovenproof) skillet over medium-high heat. Coat bottom of the pan with oil, and sear the broad parts of the lamb until deeply colored, about 2–3 minutes each side (don’t sear the exposed meaty ends).
Turn off burner and position lamb with bones facing down, so the meatiest parts are elevated from the pan surface. Coat all the exposed parts (except the bones) with the herb mixture and transfer to oven. Cook until an instant-read meat thermometer inserted in the center of the rack reads 130˚F for medium rare (start checking after 15 minutes).
Transfer to a cutting board, cover loosely with foil, and let rest 10 minutes before transferring to a serving platter. To serve, cut into double-chop portions. Serves 4.
Chardonnay and Riesling, so different in youth, take on similar characteristics as they age. Their bright fruit starts to take a back seat to such diverse notes as smoke, butter and beeswax. The vanilla and sweet spice of an oaked Chardonnay morphs into toast and nuts, and Riesling develops the “petrol” character so revered by its devotees. This savory side, coupled with both wines’ high acidity, makes them perfect pairing partners for a range of dishes, especially those that combine delicacy with richness.
From our dream cellar:
Just because salmon and trout can withstand strong flavors and cooking methods doesn’t mean they always should. There are few things as elegant and timeless as a whole poached fish with its skin removed and blanketed with paper-thin cucumber slices to resemble scales (though salmon fillets are also delicious when poached). Use white wine in the poaching liquid, and serve it with a homemade mayo mixed with a little curry powder to echo the wines’ subtly exotic flavors.
Fish poachers are inexpensive and make an effortless task of poaching whole fish, but a stovetop-safe roasting pan covered with foil works as well. If using a poacher, be sure you don’t buy a fish too big for it. When buying the fish, tell the fishmonger you’re poaching it whole so he can clean it appropriately. Homemade mayo is foolproof with a blender or food processor; adding curry powder is up to you.
- 1 whole salmon or trout, cleaned, gutted and scaled
- Kosher salt
- 1 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
- 1 lemon, sliced
- 4 bay leaves, or a handful of fresh thyme, dill or fennel
- 1 English cucumber, sliced paper-thin
- Homemade mayonnaise (recipe below)
Set salmon in poacher or roasting pan and cover with cold water. Add large pinch of salt (the water should be pleasingly salty), onion, lemon and herbs. Cover pan tightly and place over two burners set to high heat. Bring to boil, then turn off heat and leave on stovetop until cool. Carefully transfer salmon to a serving dish and gently scrape off skin from the body leaving fins, if you like. Garnish with one or more overlapping rows of cucumber slices, and pass mayonnaise separately. Serves 6–8.
- 2 eggs, at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ½ teaspoon fine sea salt
- 2 cups neutral oil, such as sunflower or grapeseed
- For curry mayo, 1 tablespoon curry powder and 2 more tablespoons lemon juice
Add eggs, mustard, lemon juice and salt to blender or food processor. Turn machine on, blend for about 5 seconds, then add oil in very slow, steady stream. Transfer to bowl and season to taste with more salt or lemon juice; whisk in a little warm water if it’s too thick. Whisk in curry powder and additional lemon juice, if using.
Sweet wines are made for food. Where some can get cloying with repeated sips, the right pairing can bring out all the other characteristics beyond sweetness. Late-harvest wines are those left on the vine to concentrate sugars. They include botrytized wines (like Sauternes, Barsac, and Tokaji aszú), late-harvest German Rieslings (Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese) and those from Alsace (Vendanges Tardive and Sélection des Grains Nobles), icewines and passiti made from partially dried grapes. Fortified wines add brandy or another spirit to stop the conversion of some sugars to alcohol, and include Port, Sherry, Madeira and vin doux naturels. Both styles have sufficient acids and/or tannins to play well with rich, savory dishes as well as desserts. When pairing them with desserts, always choose a wine sweeter than the dessert itself.
From our dream cellar:
Blue cheeses, like Roquefort, Stilton or Cabrales, on a platter with nuts and dried fruit, are a classic match for sweet wines. Sauternes with Roquefort, and vintage Port with Stilton, are among history’s most exalted pairings. The sweetness and salt balance each other, bringing out complex secondary flavors in both cheese and wine. This platter would be great at the end of a meal, but you might also try it at the beginning, when your palate is at its sharpest.
George Pitsironis, wine director, UNION, Pasadena, California
“With my last few bottles of 1978 Cheval Blanc—and I do this with any mature Bordeaux, for that matter—I grilled a dry-aged, bone-in rib-eye, at least 3-inches thick, with French black truffles and potato/mushroom gratin with more truffles shaved on top.”
“A few Valentines ago, I had a bottle of ’95 Gruaud Larose I’d been saving, and that morning [I] found a bottle of Vilmart ‘Grand Cellier’ Champagne on sale…We popped the Vilmart while the Gruaud Larose opened up in the decanter. Dinner was seared tuna steaks with ginger, garlic and soy, and simple roasted Brussels sprouts.”
Chris Upchurch, owner/ head winemaker, DeLille Cellars, Woodinville, Washington
“I celebrated my 25th harvest at DeLille with a 10-year vertical of Harrison Hill [a Bordeaux-style red blend], and for the special event, I made my black duck—a killer combination. It’s black-trumpet mushroom soil with black-garlic sauce and cracked black pepper combined with sous vide duck.”
Shannon Tucker, wine director, Foreign Cinema, San Francisco
“I just drank my last bottle of a home favorite, 1997 Domaine Gérard Raphet Gevrey Chambertin, Lavaut St.-Jacque’ 1er Cru, which shows all the beauty of Burgundy, but in a totally approachable and eminently drinkable way. With it, I made roast chicken and boiled new potatoes rolled in butter and herbs, super simple, but so delicious.”
- 1Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo | Ribeye Steaks with Truffle Butter
- 2Tempranillo and Pinot Noir | Rack of Lamb
- 3Chardonnay and Riesling | Whole Poached Fish
- 4Late Harvest and Fortified | Blue-Cheese Platter
- 5What Wine Professionals Eat with Their Special Bottles