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2009 New York Wine Experience: Celebrity Chef Food-and-Wine Pairing

Emeril Lagasse, Mario Batali, Charlie Trotter and Wolfgang Puck test their ability to pair wines with each others’ dishes

Robert Taylor
Posted: October 27, 2009

If all you have to go on is a restaurant menu’s brief description of a dish, trying to pick a perfect match from the wine list is incredibly difficult. What’s the texture of the dish? Is there an unmentioned component that will clash with the wine’s flavors?

But that’s exactly the challenge four celebrity chefs—Mario Batali, Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck and Charlie Trotter—had to meet in this year’s twist on their annual food-and-wine pairing competition, always a big draw at the Wine Experience.

Instead of pairing a wine with their own dish and seeing who made the best match, as in years past, they had to choose one to pair with a dish prepared by one of their colleagues especially for the event. And the chefs weren’t exactly about to make it easy for each other—or for Wine Spectator executive editor Thomas Matthews, who had to try to best them in picking matches for all four—by providing a lot of detail in their descriptions.

First up was Lagasse’s dish, a Bay scallop gratin with corn, chorizo and tomato in a Manchego cheese fondue. Trotter had to go first with his wine pairing, the Terlato Family Vineyards Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2007 (not rated, $32). Trotter admitted to cheating slightly—“I had the team at my restaurant in Chicago recreate the dish”—though it turned out very different from what Emeril served. In choosing a wine, Trotter said, “I wanted something that had a creamy element to it that would work with the rich scallops, and just enough acid to help with the chorizo. I tried about 10 Chardonnays. … I think [Terlato’s 2007] pairs perfectly.”

Matthews said the chorizo in the dish made him instantly think of Spain. “Spain has come an extraordinary way with its white wines, though they still aren’t really that well known.” His choice, Avanthia’s Godello Valdeorras 2008 (90 points, $30), showed vibrant fruit and acidity, due to the very cold maceration of the grapes, and was aged in oversized oak barrels. “This has a little bit more assertiveness and is a little bit bolder than the Chardonnay,” he said. When the audience members were asked to vote for their favorite, they were evenly split.

Next up was Batali, who served porchetta (a savory, roasted, deboned pork dish) with a fennel gratinato. Lagasse, pegged with the wine pairing, selected the intense, jammy Gamba Zinfandel Russian River Valley Moratto Vineyard Old Vine 2007 (NR, $43). “I can visualize flavors and taste and texture," said Lagasse, “and knowing [Batali’s] style, I knew that fennel would be introduced; I knew there would be a little bit of spice, some richness.”

Noting that pork can pair equally well with reds and whites, Matthews chose Loimer’s Grüner Veltliner Qualitätswein Trocken Kamptal 2007 (90, $22) from Austria. Batali chimed in, “If this [dish] was served in the heart of Chianti or in Tuscany and you poured a white wine with it, you would be shot dead.” But Matthews explained that he thought the white would make a good match because it’s “fermented in stainless steel, clean and fresh, with that herbaceousness or lentil flavor that Grüner classically has” to complement the fennel.

Puck, of Austrian heritage, favored the Grüner, but Lagasse disagreed, asking the crowd, “Is that Zin not smoking, or what?!” He then attempted to excuse Matthews for selecting the Grüner. “There’s the unfortunate position you’re put in because you had no opportunity to taste this dish,” Lagasse said, referring to both the porchetta and the task of the seminar as a whole. “I think what he meant to say was, ‘You have no taste,’” Matthews replied, to the crowd’s amusement. Although the Grüner had strong supporters in the audience, the Zinfandel won out.

Trotter’s dish was a gratin of 96-hour red-wine-braised artichokes, charred eggplant confit and jerked goat. “When Charlie told me he was going to prepare a 96-hour braised eggplant and jerked goat, I thought ‘Is that a joke?’” Matthews asked. But after tasting the dish, he commented that it all comes together into an “immense, soul-satisfying mélange.”

“I’m really impressed with the complexity of [Trotter’s] dish. It has so many flavors and so much going on,” said Puck, who chose the Morlet Syrah Bennett Valley Bouquet Garni 2007 (NR, $85) from Sonoma County. “I chose the Syrah because it’s not over-the-top and it has really good acidity, and I thought it would go with the goat and the eggplant. I was a little nervous because there were artichokes in there!” Puck said, as the vegetable is notoriously difficult to pair with wine.

Matthews returned to Spain for the smoky, minerally Descendientes de J. Palacios Bierzo Pétalos 2007 (90, $22), from the indigenous Mencía grape. “I appreciate the lightness on the palate of [the Mencía] and its lesser intensity and aggressiveness,” Batali said. “This is a wine that allows this dish to be in charge; I would say this dish goes better with the Mencía.”

But when the audience voted, Lagasse called it: “Even Steven.”

Puck served the final entrée, wild boar braised in Madeira with Moroccan-themed spices: ginger, cinnamon, all-spice and white pepper. Not included in the advance description were accompaniments of a serrano ham-topped graham cracker and a small tart of apricot marmalade, Roquefort cheese and a caramelized walnut. Batali chose The Rare Wine Co.’s tangy, nutty, drier-style Historic Series Charleston Sercial Madeira NV (not rated, $45). “I love Madeira,” Batali said. “I’m a big fan of acidity, and this one is delicious. I thought it would … cut through some of the richness of the dish.”

Matthews went with a daring choice, the rich Fonseca Vintage Port 2003 (96, $92). “Once the Madeira was on the table, I was backed into a corner!” he said. “What wine could I pick that would stand up to a Madeira? And then I thought, we really don’t think about these quote-unquote after-dinner wines at the table. I went full-bore and tried to knock that Madeira out.” While the Port made a fortuitously classic match with the blue-cheese tart, some of the chefs felt the sweetness overwhelmed the boar. Nonetheless, when the votes were cast, Puck made the final call: “It’s a tie!”

All in attendance enjoyed the entrées, wines and chefs’ antics. And Puck couldn’t resist offering Matthews a good-natured backhanded compliment as the seminar concluded: “You know what, Thomas, for the first time this year, I am surprised by how well you chose the wines!”

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