Sommeliers are kind of like designated drivers: When you're drinking, you can let them choose the direction your evening takes, particularly when letting them select the wines to serve with your entrées.
Tom Matthews and I had a good driver the other night when we dined at Marea, the hot new Italian restaurant off Central Park.
We settled in with a rich, yeasty non-vintage Barone Pizzini Franciacorta Brut while we studied the menu. The wine developed a wonderful floral, perfumed aroma in the glass, with the fruitiness eclipsing the bread dough yeastiness.
We decided on the four-course, prix fixe menu, with each of us ordering different dishes, which in turn we shared, and we asked sommelier Francesco Grasso to select wines to match with each dish.
I find this approach a great alternative to ordering and drinking one bottle of wine through dinner, particularly when the wine and food matches sing in harmony. And even when they sometimes don't, you usually learn something, and you can usually find an alternative.
For the antipasti, we sampled the lobster and butternut squash soup, with porcini mushrooms, and the grilled octopus rice salad with fava and yellow tomato.
Grasso answered the lobster with a wine from Spain's Basque, a 2008 Txakoli Rosé Gurrutxaga, which is 100 percent from the Hondarribi Beltza grape (something I had to look up after dinner).
For the octopus he poured a 2008 Greco di Tufo from Benito Ferrara. Both wines worked well with both entrées. The rosé, served at a perfect chilled temperature, took on a smoky edge and its acidity kept the berry fruit lively. The Greco di Tufo offered a complex blanched almond flavor.
For the pasta dish (veal ravioli, sweetbreads and fungi), Grasso uncorked a striking Sicilian red, the 2006 Cerasuolo di Vittoria "Pithos," which was notably complex and offered scents of dried cherry and berry and hot brick wall. I'd never had anything quite like it: delicate, earthy and refreshing. Grasso was four for four at that point.
But then we took a couple of detours. With the San Pietro (with the salsify, Brussels sprouts, pancetta and saba preparation) we were poured a pale and innocuous 2007 Carlaz Primaterra (made from Vermentino), which had been decanted. When we politely waived it off, he quickly went to the bullpen for a reliever, promptly delivering a rich, full-bodied replacement, a 2007 Sartarelli Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi "Tralivio," which we both liked.
We had two pasta dishes, which were delicious, before enjoying the whole branzino baked in a salt crust. Grasso served the 2004 Antece DeConciliis (100 percent Fiano, decanted, too), which tasted tired to me, and Grasso went to the bullpen again, bringing in a 2006 Fiano di Avellino Guido Marsella, which was more complementary to the tender, succulent fish.
On the evening, Grasso was four for four, with two saves, since the wines we found less appealing were quickly replaced by more appetizing choices.
Letting the sommelier choose the wines is an adventurous way to dine, and communication is important. The sommelier needs to know what kinds of wines you like, or don't like, and then you need to let him know if the pairings are working or not.
Stewart Lancaster — beaver,pa — October 30, 2009 12:54pm ET
James Laube — Napa, CA — October 30, 2009 8:27pm ET
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