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Keller and Penfolds

The famous chef pushes wine matching to the limit

Harvey Steiman
Posted: October 3, 2005

Thomas Keller, chef of The French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York, is known for extravagant dinners numbering close to two dozen courses. That many courses makes matching a wine with each one border on the absurd, but, as it turns out, Keller can cook for specific wines with the best of them.

On a balmy late-summer evening at The French Laundry, he took up the challenge of matching dishes to a range of Australian wines. Foster's Wine Estates, which recently added Penfolds to its stable in its acquisition of Southcorp, brought to Napa Valley an annual dinner in which the winery trots out the current vintages of Penfolds' best wines to the press and key members of the trade. To make things more interesting, they sprinkle a few older vintages into the proceedings.

The wines range from a fragrant Riesling to mouth-filling Shiraz. Keller's fascinating solutions include lobster with Cabernet and roasted peppers with Shiraz.

The opening round is a dazzler. Slices of raw scallop with an emulsion of Meyer lemon mirror almost exactly the flavors in the Riesling Eden Valley Bin Reserve 2005. Meyer lemon, less tart and more floral than regular lemons, strikes a perfect balance.

Things get really interesting with the red wines, starting with the Shiraz South Australia St. Henri 2001, a wine with no apparent oak character to modify the generous fruit. The intense flavors of roasted red peppers, oven-baked plum tomatoes and boiled cipollini onions bring out extra depth, a bit more of a gamy character lurking in the wine. Another vegetarian dish, tender ravioli filled with butter bean puree and dressed with Niçoise olives, chickpeas and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, has the opposite effect on the Shiraz Barossa Valley RWT 2002, toning down the spicy French oak notes and turning up the volume on the fruit.

Keller's most audacious idea pairs the Cabernet Sauvignon South Australia Bin 707 with lobster. The plate features a juicy chunk of the tail meat over a puddle of rich brown sauce flavored with figs. A few batons of braised fennel and several halves of roasted green figs share the plate. The lobster and its sauce make a surprisingly seamless match, gaining added depth with the fennel. The roasted figs are a miscalculation, however. The fig flavor in the sauce finds a balance with the wine, but by themselves their sweetness tightens the wine's structure, emphasizing the tannin and acidity to unfortunate effect. I kept the rest of the glass to try with other dishes, and it showed even better with the steak.

Keller chose lobster for Cabernet partly because there were more red wines than whites on the program; a parade of meat courses would have been too heavy. But also, I think, Keller and Roberts wanted to puncture the myth that you can only drink white wine with seafood. For my taste, the critical factor is freshness. Fish or crustaceans that have not sat around developing that strong "fishy" character do no harm to a red wine, even a big red like a Cabernet.

The rest of the menu stays within more conventional bounds. Crisp fried sweetbreads make the stunning Cabernet Sauvignon Barossa Valley Block 42 1996 taste even more youthful and impressive than the Shiraz South Australia Grange 1996 and 1998 served with the next course. The dish for the Granges uses the richly flavorful flap meat from a prime rib grilled like a steak, its heady texture so good it sends most of us into a temporary swoon. Extra acidity from a vinaigrette made from a sauce Bordelaise (a classic red wine sauce) amps up the richness of all the red wines with the steak.

Keller's creative route to showing off the wines with his food underlined the exciting qualities of the Cabernets and put an exclamation point next to them. Good as the two examples of Grange were, the Cabernets, especially the Block 42, climbed even higher with the steak dish. When you can make a couple of Aussie Cabernets overshadow Grange, that's magic.

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