Wine pros | Pairing Pinot Noir and lamb

Wine pros

Pairing Pinot Noir and lamb

A report on the fascinating food and wine matching workshop that was held at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon last month which showed that you can find a pinot pairing for almost any kind of lamb dish.

I was lucky to land on a subject so close to my heart as the seminars at the IPNC are often more technical in nature and this was apparently the first time they’d run one with food.

The tasting was based on four Pinots: a 2004 Domaine de L’Arlot Nuits-St-Georges 1er Cru Clos des Forêts, Pegasus Bay Prima Donna 2006 from Wairapa, New Zealand, a 2007 Dutton Goldfield Freestone Hill from the Russian River Valley in California and another 2007 Pinot Noir, the St Innocent from the Momtazi vineyard in the McMinnville AVA in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

We tasted the wines blind, then, once their identity had been revealed, the winemakers talked about them. We were presented with four different dishes to try with them which had been created by local NW chefs from different cuts of lamb and a suggested list of ‘secondary’ ingredients. These were all cooked dishes but served at (warmish) room temperature.

  • The Nuits-St-Georges was paired by Kevin Gibson of EVoE in Portand with a poached sausage made from shoulder of lamb and seasoned with dried persimmon and thyme. This worked really well. The wine was the most mature of the four, delicate, subtle but intense with a fine silky texture and a delicate touch of cooked strawberry fruit: the dish quite classically French in flavour with a slight fattiness that was offset by the wine’s minerality and acidity.
  • The Pegasus Bay Prima Donna was also mature for a New Zealand red but still had much more primary fruit than the burgundy and a touch of spice, matched very cleverly by chef Rene Erickson of Boat Street Caf, Seattle with some lean loin of lamb, rubbed with Herbes de Provence and served rare with a plum and preserved lemon relish and some earthy Puy lentils. This was a brilliant touch which brought out all the brightness and complexity of the wine. (Interestingly she said she’d originally thought of using blackberries or tayberries as an accent but found them too similar to the flavours in the wine)
  • The third dish, from Jason Stoller-Smith of the Dundee Bistro, was leg of lamb, which I think from my rather scrawled notes had been smoked over Pinot Noir vine cuttings. It was again served rare (but had slightly dried out) and was accented with olives, mint and cherries. In my view it just slightly unbalanced the very lush Dutton Goldfield Pinot, accentuating its sweetness and oak at the expense of its acidity. (Probably the olives and the smoking) It worked better with the Pegasus Bay Pinot.
  • The St Innocent Momtazi Pinot - like the burgundy from a biodynamic vineyard - was more evolved and quite funky with what winemaker Mark Vlossak described as a ‘sauvage’ character and a fresh acidity. It made sense pairing it as Cathy Whims of Nostrana in Portland did, with a braised dish of lamb shank and beans cooked with white, wine, olives, toasted cumin and cinnamon but the addition of tomato threw the pairing making the wine taste unexpectedly sweet. It was however lovely with the L’Arlot Nuits-St-Georges.

So the stand-out pairing for me was the Pegasus Bay Pinot and the loin of lamb with its original and fresh-tasting salsa which proves that contrast is sometimes better when you’re pairing than attempting to mimic the flavours in the wine.

I was also struck by the fact that the age and style of the wines was as important as their provenance. As Dan Goldfield of Dutton Goldfield put it “If it’s wild mushroom season you’re not going to be thinking about the current vintage.”

Some of the most interesting insights and tips came from the chat around the pairings and observations from the moderators, Ray Isle of Food & Wine and wine educator Evan Goldstein. For example:

* As you are cooking have a glass of the wine you’re planning to drink beside you. First it makes the process of cooking far more fun but it allows you to make adjustments along the way. Everyone’s palate is different. (Evan Goldstein)

* At table don’t hit the seasoning without tasting the food first. Salt and pepper both accentuate alcohol. (EG)

* Your cooking medium is important. Serving food raw or steaming, boiling or poaching it is not going to have as much impact as grilling or smoking it. (EG)

* Adjust your pairing to the top note in a dish. Acidity is one of the great underrated characteristics of wine and food. (Ray Isle)

* Let one thing be the star. If that’s the wine serve it with something simple. (RI)

* One of the problems in restaurants is that young cooks tend not to drink wine - they drink cocktails and beer and so don’t develop a wine palate. (Cathy Whims)

* Chefs at winemakers dinners tend to dumb down the food (Brian O’Donnell of Belle Pente. That certainly wasn’t true of the lunch we had at his winery which was cooked by the team at Beaker and Flask).

* For winemakers, there may be something in the vineyard that gives you a clue to a pairing. For instance thyme which goes great with rabbit. (Dan Goldfield)

* Pairings are seasonal. If we were doing this tasting in February it would be a very different story. (Jason Stoller Smith)

A really fun session and, for those of you in the trade, a good model for conducting a food and wine tasting.


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