A Wine & Food Tasting Drives Home a Point

Not many winemakers would chortle and say, ‚€œFantastic!‚€ when
their wines come in last in a blind tasting. But that was precisely the
reaction of Steve Smith, winemaker of Craggy Range Vineyards
in New Zealand, when his Sauvignon Blanc was rated sixth out of six at a
tasting this past Tuesday at Per Se restaurant in New York. The judges
were some of the Big Apple‚€™s most persnickety wine writers, and yours
truly representing DC. The last-place finish for his wine helped Smith
prove a point.
What is a great wine? One that wows you with its point score,
aroma, fruit, complexity, and long finish, perhaps with some
‚€œminerality‚€ thrown in? (Wine-geek alert: Tossing about the word
‚€œminerality‚€ will earn you entr√©e into all sorts of exclusive wine
circles.) Or is a great wine one that complements your dinner, enhancing
a flavor here and there, and rendering the whole of food-plus-wine
greater than the sum of its parts?
Perhaps more important, can those two wines be one and the same?
Does a wine that wows by itself inherently pair well with food? One
might think so‚€”if it‚€™s a great wine, it‚€™s a great wine. Right?
Well, not necessarily, Smith would say. Smith is also a Master of
Wine, which is not just someone with a PhD in oenogeekdom but more like a
Nobel Prize winner. He argued that wine reviewers, geeks, writers, and
judges tend to look for characteristics in a wine that don‚€™t
necessarily make the wine food-friendly. Aggressive, intense fruit
flavors, sappy ripeness, and soft acid can make a wine stand out in a
suspect‚€™s lineup but maybe not at the dinner table. Smith prefers to
look for ‚€œtexture‚€ and ‚€œbalance,‚€ two characteristics that can
be hard to describe and, unless you‚€™re looking for them, easy to
‚€œAny wine that is out of balance in its components will tend to
taste even more out of balance with food,‚€ Smith said. ‚€œWines that
taste a little acidic by themselves taste more acidic with food, and
wines that are flat taste even more flat and insipid when paired with a
meal. Wines that impress with in-your-face fruit do not always hold up
well with food.‚€
Smith had the ‚€œjudges‚€ do a blind tasting of six award-winning
New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs‚€”‚€œSavvy‚€ to the Kiwis‚€”followed by
the same six in a different order, with three dishes prepared by Thomas
Keller‚€™s kitchen crew. (Chef-groupie alert: Before the tasting, I saw
Keller inspecting his Bouchon bakery one floor below. I even overheard
someone whispering, ‚€œLook‚€”there goes Daniel Boulud!‚€)
How did the wines fare with and without food? Well, the Craggy Range Te Muna Sauvignon Blanc 2006,
which finished last in the initial tasting, was the group‚€™s favorite
with food. (I rated it fifth and second, respectively.) By itself, I
found the wine reticent in that it had virtually no
aroma‚€”extraordinary for a New Zealand Savvy‚€”but just when I was
prepared to dismiss it altogether, some appealing nectarine flavor
emerged on the palate and finished rather strong. Smith described it as
having a ‚€œtalcum powder‚€ texture, something I chalked up to
antipodean jet lag. My favorite wine from the initial tasting, the Kim
Crawford 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, did not fare as well with food.
The Te Muna shined with a salad of sturgeon with horseradish cream
and little pea-size balls of Granny Smith apples that played hide and
seek with my fork. This was a dish that wreaked havoc on the other
wines. The Te Muna also paired well‚€”as did all of the others‚€”with a
dish of shaved fennel and butter-braised lobster knuckles.
So what were my takeaways from this tasting, other than
the startling realization that lobsters have knuckles? My rankings
differed widely from those of the group, suggesting that either New York
wine writers are idiots or I‚€™m an idiot or reasonable palates may
differ. Fennel shares an affinity with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc of
any style. And Craggy Range‚€™s red wines are even better than their
whites. But more on them some other time . . . .
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One Response to A Wine & Food Tasting Drives Home a Point

  1.  Richard Best says:

    Lobsters have knuckles? Whodda thought?Does this tasting suggest
    a “Parkerization” of another category of wine? I look for lots of oomph
    on the nose — being a big fan of wine itself. But the antagonist here
    has a point: wine should be food friendly, and points systems don’t
    usually take that into account. Thanks for the report.RegardsRichard Best – The Frugal OenophileOntario Canada

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