Breaking a Wine Pairing: White Wines and Red Meat

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Every now and then, the time comes for food writers to engage in a bicoastal throwdown to see who can “break” a wine pairing. We get all clever about how much residual sugar it takes to ruin a nice piece of salmon or we see who can put the most sulphurous vegetables into a ragout and still boldly slap a cabernet on the table without alienating a dinner party. Accords between food and wine are more subtle and personal than sommeliers would like you to think. If you realized it, you’d stop asking their opinions, and then where would they be? So, once in a while, we have to push.

The summer-fall transition moment proved one of those times for us. The wine in question was a French blend called Premieres Grives, from Domaine Du Tariquet. The main actor in this wine is Gros Manseng, a heavy-bodied thick-skinned grape from Gascony. Like pinot gris, Gros Manseng is actually a “gray” grape, meaning—well, neither exactly black nor exactly white. Even with minimal skin contact, the wines produced from Gros Manseng have a heavy golden tint (Marsanne can look like this too) and, if grapes aren’t handled carefully, a roughneck, heavily tannic and phenolic ass-whupping kind of wine. Premieres Grives (It means “first thrushes” in honor of the autumn flocks who bat cleanup in French vineyards, as starlings do in Napa) is not such a wine. It’s lush, a little off-dry, and quite elegant.

Tasting notes suggested it was a relatively lusty character suitable for a blind date with a big fatty duck breast, a piece of foie gras, or any number of stick-to-your ribs dishes that don’t normally call to mind a white wine at all for many of us, to say nothing of one that flaunts its residual sugar like Broadway soprano. It’s October. In California, it’s still hitting the 90s during the day, which drove one of us to the Smokey Joe because there was no way red meat was going to get cooked indoors. In Ohio, class warfare erupted in the offal aisle. That’s a lot of smolder for a heavy white. What happened?

Amy: A suggested pairing with this wine is foie gras, but since I am one of those people who was perfectly fine with foie being made illegal in California, I decided to go in a different direction: East. My pairing was a grilled leg of lamb and Persian sour cherry rice. Because, go big or go home.

The lamb was butterflied and introduced to some hot coals. The rice dish involved saffron and onions, butter and cinnamon, pistachios and almonds, and dried sour cherries (I used Stoneridge Orchards dried Montmorency cherries, which worked great; Trader Joe’s also has decent ones). So, big flavors, not lightweight.

Upshot—loved it. This wine is a great pick for someone who’d like a white win to surprise them. It’s still crisp, but somehow it is riper and richer than you’re expecting. I wouldn’t use the word “tropical” (although the tasting notes do). Just… luscious. Intense florality on the nose (jasmine and honeysuckle predominating), an apricot note that hit a great unexpected chord with the cherries, good mineral backbone, and a kind of rich quality I would normally associate with a Marsanne or a Tokaji Friulano. There were faint suggestions of nut tones that went really nicely with the rice recipe, and a faint honeyed character that set off the tart cherries wonderfully. Even the strong flavor of lamb was not a problem for this stuff. It harmonized beautifully.

Sara: Why is pâté such a hard sell? It’s just meatloaf in black pumps with a little cigarette breath, people. I make meatloaf and I’m the queen of my adoring family for a night. I make pâté and I’m queen of my own solo universe.

It must be the liver. My pork guy at the farmers’ market had pork liver, which is rare—he says the outfit that does his butchering has issues with them, whatever that means—and I just could not pass it up. Access to good, fresh liver is not an everyday thing (please refrain from uninspired Hannibal Lecter references).

In the liver world, foie gras gets all of the glory. I get it: it’s silky and buttery and offers a richness that’s unmatched in any other edible thing on earth. But it’s a bit one-note to me, while a good rustic pâté packs some balls. It’s salty and pungent and coarse. Sure, I’d not turn down foie gras and Sauternes, but my heart is in what’s earthy, and if I have my pick, it’s a slab of pâté de campagne on twice-toasted, dense dark rye bread with a slice of tomato on top and a glass of this stuff on the side. It’s a classed-up meatloaf sandwich or ploughman’s lunch, I suppose, and though my days are quite short on the plowing, the noon hour is my favorite for indulging in pâté.

And why stop there? I washed it down with a glass of Premières Grives (a bottle’s in the $20 range), which had good acid up front and an off-dry lingering punch of honeysuckle and peach. My pâté lunch is not a light affair (I make my pâté de campagne heavy on the liver), and this leggy beauty added levity to cut through the heaviness. It loved the tomatoes. It did not demure against the brown mustard.

I include myself among the people who think that off-dry (read: a little sweet) white wines are for lightweights; I’ve spent the better part of three decades manufacturing an edifice of badassery whereupon the bitter and the sour are coveted. But the most badass approach is to be open-minded, and accept with grace that which is good. Probably if I invited Keith Richards over for a pâté lunch, he’d not only be delighted to split the bottle with me, he’d pair the pâté with its spiritual soulmate: nicotine.

What we learned: The rules of pairing wines with food are rules because they are handy and tested by time. But it can pay to think outside of the box. Or the bottle.

Amy Glynn is an award winning poet and wine writer. Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor and the author of The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook. Both Amy and Sara have a thing for weird fruit.