Those of us who cellar wine for future drinking do so in part because the extra years mellow the wines, and theoretically make them friendlier for food. That plan cuts both ways, however. As wines age they become less overt in their characteristics. The good ones become more complex but they also are more fragile.
You can pair a hearty dish with a young wine with some certainty that it won't harm the wine. That same dish could overwhelm the subtleties in the wine you’ve been patiently waiting for.
I took some educated guesses that worked well in my wine matches for a dinner I cooked for some visiting musician friends last weekend. I knew they didn't get much of chance to drink older New World wines, so I gravitated toward mature bottles of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
I also knew that I would not have much time to prepare on the day of the dinner, which we scheduled after their afternoon concert. I had to figure out how to cook everything in advance. The only exception was to sear a panful of fresh scallops to put over a Kabocha squash purée for a first course.
This squash makes a very silky purée. Made the day before, it had some fresh ginger, lemon and a touch of cashew butter for flavoring, all designed to make a comfortable match with wine from Australia, in this case Pierro Chardonnay Margaret River 2002 (which I'd rated 90 points when bottled under cork). Pierro, a small producer, makes a particularly ageable Chardonnay, and at seven years old it feels like it’s just coming into its prime. 2002 was a particularly fine vintage for Pierro.
The wine's texture was as silky as that of the squash, and the flavors got a nice kick from the subtle level of ginger in the purée and the blood orange segments I swirled in the pan with some white wine to make a simple sauce.
For a main course, I needed something that could cook entirely in advance. For me that meant braising, because these dishes actually taste better the second day. But for a couple of non-red meat-eaters in the group, I would have gone with lamb shoulder or beef short ribs to match with the Cabernet. They do eat chicken, however, so I braised some boneless chicken thighs in red wine, chicken broth, onion, carrot and celery, with some chopped black olives to make a flavor bridge with the Cabernet.
The wine was Caymus Special Selection 1986. Peter, one of the musicians, was especially enthusiastic when he saw that one on the menu. "I’ve never had it, but it’s a legendary wine," he said. He lifted the glass to his nose. "Wow. That’s amazing," he said. "I’ve never smelled anything that complex."
The wine defined "elegant." It was polished and rich without showing much weight, complex with flavors of berry, plum, tar and tea, and really long on the finish. It liked the chicken dish, sprinkled with toasted pine nuts for a garnish and served over quinoa cooked in chicken broth. The second bottle was a tad earthier, but it perked up nicely with the chicken and olive flavors.
The trick for these matches was to realize that both wines were so perfectly balanced, neither too sharp nor soft, not too bulky or thin, and the food had to have the same balance. Anything too acidic or sweet would throw off the match, so the ginger in the squash purée had to be a murmur not a shout, and the olives in the chicken an undercurrent, not the top note. For eight servings I used only about 1 tablespoon of ginger for the squash and 1 cup of dry black olives for the chicken.
Andrew Bernardo — Halifax, Nova Scotia — April 8, 2009 2:58pm ET
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — April 8, 2009 9:59pm ET
Michael Bonanno — April 9, 2009 2:16am ET
Scott Collier — Texas — April 10, 2009 12:36am ET
Barclay Burns — Chicago, IL — April 10, 2009 9:00am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — April 10, 2009 12:01pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — April 10, 2009 12:29pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — April 11, 2009 6:04pm ET
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