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Wine and Food Pairing, When it Counts

Posted on Feb 28, 2020 in Wine , Tom Ward , Montsarra Cava , March-April 2020

Chef Jim Shirley serves the James Beard House in NYC with the perfect pairings By Tom Ward

When you’re preparing a dish, it’s nice to know what wine to pair with it. There are some basics that you can usually count on. Most of us can do the “white with chicken, red with beef” pretty well. When you have a special occasion, and you’re pairing wine with the meal, you want to be a little bit more precise based off the way something is prepared and what seasoning is being used. There are a few more moving pieces, and you want to impress. When you’re preparing a dinner for the James Beard House in New York City, you need to spend some time selecting the wine you’re going to pair with dishes and knock the ball out of the park (sorry, baseball season is upon us.)

It’s a tremendous honor to present your fare at the James Beard House, and this is the sixth time our very own Chef Jim Shirley has had the privilege of doing so, and the second time with his team. Not only do Shirley and his team put a tremendous amount of thought into their wines at an event like this, but at all their restaurant concepts that serve wine. Having the right wines available for the dishes they prepare is crucial to making the experience all that it can be. It’s one of the many reasons people keep coming back.

At the beginning of an event, it is traditional to serve a sparkling wine. For this event, and in order to really showcase the food, they chose the Montsarra Cava. With notes of slightly sweet apple and peach on the pallet, think “fruit driven,” not “cloyingly sweet.” It goes great with dishes like country ham biscuits with Florida turmeric honey; black-eyed pea hummus and smoked Choctawhatchee Bay mullet dip, served with crispy chicken skins; heritage pig cheeks in a blanket; and pimento blue crab puppies, which were passed around to start. The acidity and effervescence are exactly what is needed to cleanse one’s pallet of any fat from the dishes (pork cheek, chicken skins, etc.), but the wine is also delicate enough to allow the food to showcase all its flavor.

The first course, lionfish cakes with red curry, was paired with the Gunther Steinmetz Dry Riesling. I am a huge fan of this varietal and love this pairing. Riesling goes with just about anything and this one is known for having notes of minerality paired with stone fruit, plum and spices like mint and clove. It paired beautifully with this dish, as the vibrant acidity was sure to keep one’s pallet clean and fresh.

The second was cold local arugula and collard greens. For this dish you need something versatile and light. It was paired with the Broadbent Vinho Verde, a favorite of mine for about 10 years. This is a lightly effervescent wine from Portugal, and one of my summertime favorites. Light, crisp and refreshing, not only is it invigorating on a hot summer day, it goes great with greens like this. The fruit of the wine with its gentle bubbles will balance out any bitterness from the arugula and collards. The wine is also delicate enough to allow the food to showcase all its flavors.

The third course was cowpea succotash with Gulf red snapper in a brown butter vinaigrette. There is a lot going on in this dish, but it is still delicate. I love the addition of a brown butter vinaigrette to give an additional layer and more complexity. For this dish they opted for something that pairs perfectly, but you can tell a lot of thought went into the selection. You’d want to have something that is off-dry to slightly sweet, with acidity to keep the pallet clean. This will add a dash of fruit on the pallet, recharging your taste buds, and allow every bite to be more complex than if it was just on its own. Chenin blanc is the ideal grape and the AA Badenhorst Secateurs Chenin Blanc from South Africa is a perfect selection. Small production and made with the utmost care of imparting the characteristics of the terroir from where it’s grown. A wise choice and not a pedantic one. It’s a risk, but a well-placed one that no doubt impressed.

The heritage pork belly crackle with hominy polenta and natural jus was the fourth course served. The wine was a wise choice to bring everything home. The Storm Pinot Noir Vrede is highly rated, only 250 cases were produced, and perfect for this dish. Red fruit and baking spices on the pallet with a silky-smooth finish. Cellaring has allowed the tannins to mellow even more and make it even smoother. Pinot noir is known for having just enough acidity for pork (think of ham at Thanksgiving). When you get into some of high quality, like this one, they are truly memorable.

The final dish before the dessert course was smoked fried Apalachicola oyster on chicken fat bread with a collard green aioli, the wine was a wise choice to bring everything together, the De Martino Gallardia Cinsault. The wine received 91 points from Robert Parker. It’s also unique in that is from the Maipo Valley in Chile, which allows the utilization of ungrafted vines and is not a region known for production of this grape. The winery is known for its judicious use of oak, and this wine is completely unoaked. This location and production technique allow for the cinsault varietal to showcase ripe red berries and acidity, which balances so well with a fried oyster and chicken fat bread. I don’t know if they could have found a more unique wine to pair so well with this dish.

All in all, a phenomenal team, that we are blessed to be able to dine with as often as we like, put together an incredible dining experience when they had to impress. We get to see it whenever we go into one of Shirley’s concepts. The thought that goes into the right styles and selections of wine to pair with the food on their menu is truly impressive. It is hard to pick which of the chef’s concepts are my favorite, as they are all unique and stellar in their own respects. So, stop by any of them and don’t be afraid to ask what wine you should order to pair with your dish. You won’t be disappointed.

Tom Ward is the owner and operator of ATL Vineyard Express wine tours in Atlanta, Ga. He has worked in the wine industry for more than 25 years and has his Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 certification

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