Pairing Wines Up at Natalie’s
The idea of pairing wines can be a daunting task, especially since the age-old rules of red with meat and white with fish are not completely valid. But its simpler than you think. Let’s start with acidity. When confronted with richer, fattier foods, an acidic wine provides a brilliant contrast that actually makes you want to keep eating (like having an ice-cold glass of water with braised short ribs rather than something heavy like chocolate milk). This is why so many dry white wines work well with dishes that have almost always been associated with red, such as a zippy, fresh Riesling with a blue cheese crusted Filet, for instance.
This winter I was asked to host a dinner and facilitate pairings of my own at Natalie’s at the Camden Harbour Inn. I had yet to dine there since executive chefs Chris Long and Shelby Stevens took the helm in the spring of this year, but I knew I was in good hands when I received the preliminary menu that stayed focused while running the gamut in regards to flavors.
I wanted all of the wines I chose to be something new for the diners, but not completely esoteric. I don’t feel that its always necessary to be overly cerebral with pairings, because first and foremost a wine dinner is supposed to be amusing and sometimes entirely based on instincts. This was my strategy:
Butter poached snow crab with fennel, grapefruit, and radish presented a bit of a dilemma, as wine can tend to clash with high-acid foods like citrus. Also, the butter and crabmeat are going to need something to cut through the richness, while complimenting the aromatics of the fennel. A sparkler of sorts made sense for everything, but I was still a bit nervous about the grapefruit, so I opted for the NV Vilarnau Cava Brut from Spain. It had enough acidity to match the grapefruit, but a pleasant creaminess to compliment everything else. (And, who doesnt love starting any dinner with a glass of bubbly?)
Poached oyster with smoked potato, chorizo, and crème fraiche with sofrito was up next and I decided to get a bit more austere with the wine. Once again, there’s a bit of brine and creaminess with the oyster and then several smoky and spicy elements, so acidity is paramount to match up. Vouvray, a region within Frances Loire Valley, is known primarily for its white grape, Chenin Blanc, which can range from intensely sweet to bone dry. For this dish the 2011 Huet Le Haut-Vouvray Sec works brilliantly; it has backbone and notes that I can best describe as lime and salty honey to offset the savory elements on the plate.
Caramelized onion agnolotti with sunchoke pepita pesto and pecorino could go either way in regards to whether you should pour a white or red. Because it’s winter, I assume that customers prefer the warming qualities of red. I choose something light from a region in Greece that is incidentally most famous for its whites (a compromise of sorts), the 2010 Arygros Atlantis Red from Santorini. The wine has a wonderful balance of fruit and leather with tannins that soften when enjoyed alongside the pasta, sweet onions, and the earthy sunchokes.
The pours thus far are generous, which always makes me happy, and it’s reassuring to see a lot of empty glasses on the tables. This is good because honestly, I really had no idea how this was going to work out, as I hadn’t tasted any of the dishes!
Beef tenderloin with veal sweetbreads, lentils, smoked dates and mustard I was sure would be able to stand up to a hefty red. In retrospect, I will say the 2010 Giles Robin Pappilon Crozes Hermitage from the Northern Rhone Valley may have been a bit aggressive for the lean tenderloin, but this very dry Syrah fared quite well with the more pronounced flavors of the accompanying ingredients, especially the sweetbreads.
Chocolate pot de crème with sour cherry gel, rehydrated cherries, and coffee soil with a touch of basil from Pastry Chef Jason Sturdivant made the transition from savory dishes into dessert. Just like the United States founding fathers, I also enjoy Madeira with damn near anything, especially chocolate and fruit. The Rare Historic Series New York Malmsey is sweet, but not cloyingly so, with very pronounced brininess balanced with notes of hazelnut and figs. If you don’t know about Madeira, do yourself a favor and go get a bottle as soon as possible. The chocolate is delicate and not too rich, and I enjoy the texture of the rehydrated cherries that accompany it.
Like an overeager teenager seeking approval, I personally bid farewell to each of the guests to ensure that they enjoyed themselves. There is no question that chefs Long and Stevens delivered a stunning meal, and it was a privilege to be asked to try and make it even better.
The next night, I unwind with a pairing that included plenty of pizza and Champagne.
Natalie’s at the Camden Harbour Inn | 83 Bay View Street | Camden | 207.236.7008 | nataliesrestaurant.com