The first sight in the show was garlic-chili shrimp giving off steam, especially when white wine splashed in the pan, before being served on a bed of warm hummus.
So there you see the task at hand, pairing a wine with the earthy tones of hummus. Normally we would make a decision whether to try to match the notes in the food or to contrast. So with spice should one look for a spicy wine, or something soft and smooth. Spice on spice is normally a risky move that would require a deft touch to pull off right—not something to try the first time by just looking at he ingredients without ever having tasted the dish. Also, matching n mild, earthy wine with the smooth earthiness of the hummus and the subtle smoke of paprika could turn out too bland.
So we looked for a wine that had the earthiness of its terroir but also some spicy notes. Since Athens Imports was supplying the wines we were limited to our own import portfolio. We thought about a Chardonnay-Viura from Navarra, with a fruity Chardonnay punctuated by a slightly pungent Viura from España. I decided on a Tupun Torrontés, the signature white varietal of Argentina that is floral and aromatic—in contrast to both the spicy garlic-chili and the earthy hummus, with only the slightest pungent note to complement the spice and awaken the hummus.
We tried a second experiment before we moved to the next dish, a Rosé all the way from Western Australia from Fishbone Wines. I don’t go for the sweet soda pop rosés so popular with beginners, but the Fishbone has a slight residual sweetness to go with its clean bones that I thought would make it a good palate cleanser. That is a consideration always when moving from one dish to the next. It is also something to think about with spicy foods. Cleansing away the heat gives the mouth a rest, refreshes the palate and gets it ready for the next spicy bite.
In this case we were moving on to Braised Chicken with Parpardelle and Mushrooms. Now with mushrooms you are really talking earthiness, like the fertile soil of the forest floor. Since the chicken thighs were braised in red wine, we went for a Torreon de Paredes Merlot Reserva from Chile. Rated the third best Merlot in the country by the Chilean authorities, it has a bite deeply embedded in the smooth fruitiness of the Merlot but lacks the harsh tannins of many California varieties. I thought it was perfect to smooth over the dark meat with deep fruit flavors and also have the depth and texture to interact with the freshly made al dente Parpardelle pasta.
The next dish presented once again some opposing complexities, and also went backwards on the sliding scale of heaviness. Usually a wine tasting progresses from the lightest wines to the heaviest, which generally means whites precede reds. But after serving dark meat chicken braised in red wine, Chef Byrum went for a flaky and delicate white fish in sweet garlic sauce on a bed of risotto.
And of course we are dealing with sweet and spicy again. And as if the white fish were not delicate enough, we had to match the supersubtlety of flavor and the smooth texture of risotto! What to do for a wine? We thought a Viña Sardasol Rosado de Lágrima would fit the bill, a rosé that would not overpower the fish, but with strawberry notes that would complement the flavors of the dish, matching the sweetness of the sauce and contrasting with the spice. But as the importer our wines are in a warehouse in California and the local distributor could not get it together to supply any from its warehouse in time, so we went for plan B which worked even better: Las Perdices Viognier.
Viognier is a Rhone varietal that came very close to disappearing from its French place of origin before it was repopularized and planted in lands as far away as Australia and, in this case, Argentina. Viognier is characterized by peach and pear notes with a touch of spice. But what made the Viognier from Mendoza, Argentina perfect for the fish dish is that it is smoother and rounder in taste and texture than its counterparts in France or California. It also has notes of the fruit and nut orchards that dot the terrain, beautiful peaches, pears, apricots and almonds. This Viognier could have the sweet and spicy interactions with the sweet and spicy dish, without overpowering the fish, but swimming smoothly alongside it instead, and the round, mellow background fruit could have the same palate-cleansing qualities we referred to earlier.
OK, now for dessert, Chocolate Sicilian Cake, and one more time, the bitter earthy note of dark chocolate at one extreme and the enticing super creamy almost imperceptible savor of ricotta cheese at the other, accented with chopped almonds and dried cherries. We love chocolate with red wine, though cringing at the outright mixture that has been so popular and drags down the bar of what a good wine should be—shades of White Zinfadel— we won’t mention any names in Trussville. But a red is the thing. We have had good luck with velvety Malbecs, but with ricotta cheese, that is another thing. We went for lighter Pinot Noir again from Las Perdices. It is a little heavier in texture because of the warmer climate of Mendoza, but light enough for the taste and texture of the ricotta to survive. Again, it is redolent of that terroir of almond orchards and even has a very distinct note of cherry. There, we got through the gauntlet with parings enjoyed by everyone. What a relief.