Most sommeliers will tell you that when it comes to pairing food and wine, there are two major strategies you can follow: The food can either complement the wine’s flavor and texture, echoing some of its elusive notes and reemphasizing them, or contrast with the wine, creating sharp contradictory tastes that produce a culinary tug-of-war and enhancing the dissimilarities of each in the mouth.
The first strategy is a holdover from the white-meat-white-wine-red-meat-red-wine rule that our parents and grandparents faithfully followed (and which has since been debunked as overly simplistic and downright wrong when it comes to dishes like grilled calamari, a garlicky delicacy that can easily hold its own against a fruity Beaujolais, or grilled veal chops, that might go nicely with a well-oaked Chardonnay). This rule recommends serving, say, a delicate Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc with a lemon chicken breast and a hardy Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah with a more earthy chateaubriand with mushrooms.
The contrasting strategy, on the other hand, might suggest pairing a crunchy crusted soft-shell crab with a ripe floral-fruity Viognier.
The freshness and richness of the crab will be at the forefront of the dish, while the pan-fried preparation provides a slightly oily and crisp texture.
Meanwhile, the bright acidity of the Viogner offers a gastronomic two-part harmony that can help to cut the oiliness of the food and leave the palate clean.
Both strategies are valid, and while enologists and wine aficionados may argue the benefits of one pairing style over the other, Miguel Ángel Cooley, owner and manager of the upscale Gloutonnerie in Colonia Polanco, recently offered a spectacular four-course, five-wine gourmet dinner at his restaurant in which he proved that you can incorporate both complementary and contrasting approaches.
The first course was a marvelously simple codfish and potato brandade served with crusty melba toast (a dish Cooley said his chef adapted from a recipe that was a staple on modest French tables during World War II, when housewives and chefs alike had to settle for basic, cupboard ingredients over more lavish and perishable foods).
The tasty but unassuming brandade paired with a majestic Dopff au Moulin Crémant d’Alsace Cuvée Julien, a wonderfully brut sparkling wine with a pale hay color, sophisticated tiny bubbles and an apple and elderflower flavor.
The wine, which was unusually bland in its bouquet, was bursting with flavors on the tongue and had a balanced acidity that could have overshadowed the more humble brandade but instead accented its earthy flavors, making for an ideal pairing.
Next up was a baby spinach, pear and Roquefort cheese salad that was matched with a light ruby 2013 Morgon Côte da Py from the Louis-Claude Desvignes vigneron.
The wine itself was full of contradictions, opening with a flush of red boysenberries, followed by a flinty mineral taste (due to a second fermentation in cement casks) and finishing with a blend of resin and buttermilk.
The fruit at the start resonated the sweetness of the pear, just as the lactic finale mimicked the Roquefort cheese, but the Côte da Py’s chalky mineral content contrasted sharply with the bitterness of the spinach.
The end result was a culinary match made in heaven, a perfect blend of the complement and contrast strategies.
The third and main course was a whole Cornish game hen casserole in a creamy tarragon and white wine sauce with fresh vegetables that had a downhome flavor and a subtle clay undertone thanks to the earthen pot in which it had been baked.
For this dish, Cooley opted to serve an equally minerally 2011 Miguel Torres Salmos Priorat with hints of black fruits, vanilla and balsam.
The wine and food seemed to echo each other in terms of flavor, with the tarragon adding a unique dimension to the pairing that played impishly against the balsamic undertones of the Priorat.
In a spirit of reiterating how well repeated flavors can elevate the enjoyment of food and wine, Cooley decided to add a second Priorat midway through the main course, this time offering up a 2012 Miguel Torres Perpetual, which had obviously suffered through a stressed growing period, with the roots sucking in all the gravelly flavors of its terrain.
There was no confusing this robust heavyweight Priorat with a bantamweight cabernet.
Indeed, this was a wine that had lost any semblance of sweet or fruit tangs, and proudly brandished its earthy pedigree.
Did it go well with the Cornish game hen?
Yes, yes, yes! The spicy gravy of the fowl provided a flavor boost to the casserole that complemented the wine and elevated the enjoyment of both.
The final wine served was a semisweet, late-harvest Jurancon Lapeyre with a honeyed herbal flavor.
The dessert wine accompanied a golden crème brûlée that might have been too sweet to eat had it not been tempered by the Jurancon Lapeyre, but the underlying tartness of the wine cut the saccharinity and made for a balanced pairing.