We did not like what we were seeing. The sommelier was heading our way all gloomy-faced. It looked bad. We braced ourselves for the worst.
Like a doctor with bad news, he approached our secluded window-seat table at the exquisite Treadwell Farm to Table Cuisine restaurant in the tiny lakeside Ontario enclave of Port Dalhousie. He avoided eye contact. Thankfully, we were already sitting down.
He brought two new wine stems, and without saying a word, poured only the smallest of drops into our glasses. It was our 1975 Chateau Montrose, a usually gorgeous second growth Saint-Estephe Bordeaux that we had bought at auction and cellared for more than two decades.
Hesitantly, he asked us to sniff it (not a good sign).
Bringing the wine close our nostrils was simply horrifying. The dreaded word was hanging in the air. CORKED. Horribly, beyond hope, corked. Like old socks and really stinky sweaty armpits corked.
This kind of thing happens from time to time, especially for those of us who have a few old bottles tucked away in the cellar.
We told James Treadwell, the restaurant’s sommelier-owner (along with his chef dad Stephen), that it was okay. All was well. We had brought along a spare. And that gloomy face quickly disappeared.
Buying and holding good wine is a perilous adventure. Those who choose to cellar their prized treasures always run the risk of waiting too long or, as in the case of the Montrose, hanging on to a wine that never really had a chance. Cork taint does not occur in the cellar; it’s doomed from the moment it is bottled.
For those of us who collect wine to drink as it ages, the rewards can be extraordinary and well worth the risk. A perfectly cellared bottle of wine develops such extraordinary nuances and flavours as it ages. Tannins and acidity soften, fruit integrates with the oak, and wonderful tertiary notes emerge that can only develop with age. Not all wines age gracefully, of course, but when you find the styles that do well over time, the experience can be ethereal.
Drinking those aged wines, however, can pose problems when pairing with food. Acidity and tannins are prime catalysts for successfully matching foods to wine. When acid loses its sharp edges and tannins soften, you are relying on subtle, albeit amazing, flavours when finding a perfect food mate with mature wines.
We decided to put the pairing challenge to various sommeliers and chefs. We uncorked five well-aged wines of various styles to solicit their thoughts on how to couple these wines with foods and asked them why it works.
Chateau Lascombes 1975/Dufferin County
lamb with mint salsa verde
Once the nasty business of the corked Montrose was laid to rest, Treadwell, a masterful sommelier who specializes in matching local cuisine to small-production Ontario wines, carefully liberated the fragile cork from the bottle of the “spare” we had brought. It was a 1975 Chateau Lascombes, a second growth property in Margaux, made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a pinch of Petit Verdot, and the smile sweeping across Treadwell’s face as he nosed the 37-year-old wine said it all: we were in for a treat.
The 1975 vintage in Bordeaux was noted for its ripe fruit, high tannins and longevity. It was a bright spot in an otherwise lackluster decade and the wines have proven to stand the test of time. The question was always those aggressive tannins and whether they would ever come into balance with the fruit.
The nose showed a riot of leather, cherry, earth and roasted meats while in the mouth it still had some of its vigor of youth but with nicely rounded tannins, good structure and texture.
Treadwell said the wine deserved a traditional pairing and suggested the roasted rack of Dufferin County lamb with mint salsa verde and duck fat fondant potato.
“Lamb and Bordeaux have always been a classical pairing,” he says. “When dealing with mature Bordeaux (in this case, the 75 Lascombe), I think lamb is still your best option, but stay away from strong flavours in the dish (marinades such as hoisin and soya, excessive spices, etc.),” he added.
The dish we settled on was on the “subtle side, with the most pronounced flavour in the dish (outside of the lamb) being the mint in the salsa verde.” Treadwell explained. “I find that herbs such as mint and thyme can work well with the savoury-driven flavours of mature wines, without overpowering the wine’s delicate fruit flavours.”
Alternate pairing: Treadwell brought out a selection of cheeses that worked beautifully with the dish: Fourme d’Ambert (blue), Toscano (Piave-style), and Thundering Oak (Gouda-style).
Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz 1992/Braised beef cheeks
on a tortilla with a chili tamarind sauce
We’re in the St. Catharines kitchen of Aussie chef Adam Hynam-Smith and Tamara Jensen, otherwise known as the super food truck duo playfully called El Gastrónomo Vagabundo.
Hynam-Smith is a bold and brash Australian who loves his native staple of Shiraz, that spicy grape that made his country famous in the wine world.
Those familiar with the “El Gastro” team come to expect spicy fare whenever their food truck parks to dish out its delectable and inventive tacos, tortillas, soups, and salads.
We opened up a Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz from 1992, an iconic Australian red from the Adelaide Hills region. It was beautiful on the nose with notes of stewed plums, warm cherries, raspberries, kirsch and lovely peppery spices. It was still lively on the palate with ripe fruits but with softening and drying tannins.
Hynam-Smith picked up notes of over-ripe blood plum and just a “smidge” of bitterness. He started rifling through his fridge for ingredients. He whipped up a pan-roasted dukkah made of cumin, coriander, sesame seeds, hazelnuts and salt. It’s pungent and esoteric but not quite right with the wine.
Then it dawns on him. The Shiraz would go perfectly with tender braised beef cheeks on a tortilla with a chili tamarind sauce (garlic, ginger, chilies, fish sauce and coriander roots), garnished generously with fresh-squeezed lime with a side of pickled red cabbage and granny smith apples. He calls the dish the Cheeky Bessie.
Hynam-Smith says the pairing “does not go down a normal path. Wine with spicy food attacks a different part of the palate.”
Pillitteri Vidal Icewine 1998/Seared
foie gras with quince jam
“People drink icewine far too young,” says Allison Slute, resident sommelier and export manager for Niagara’s Pillitteri Estate Winery. She has just poured a stunning 1998 Pillitteri Vidal Icewine, a classic example of just how magically these sweet wines develop beyond the ripe apricot, peach and honey notes of their youth. The mature, secondary flavours can be complex with toffee, caramel, and nutty-spicy notes washing over the palate. But while the flavours transform into all those sublime and mellow confected notes, the natural acids soften and the sweetness folds into the rich fruit profile.
Slute, who travels up to 90 days a year to market and sell Pillitteri icewines in Asia, Europe and the U.S., says the 1998 Vidal shows “the perfect balance between maturity and freshness that make it ideal for food pairings.”
She suggests a savoury seared foie gras with some traditional accompaniments like a quince jam or paste, brioche toast, or “maybe even a little frisée salad on the side would be nice.”
Slute says it’s important to not let the chef “overdo” icewine and food pairings. A simple pan-seared scallop with a buttery glaze works beautifully, as would a big, fat piece of duck (or even game meats such as venison and elk).
On the sweet side, says Slute, a “luxe bread pudding would be a really interesting pairing — brioche bread as a base, vanilla bean custard, with the addition of some brandy-cognac-soaked dried apricots and sliced almonds. I would even go so far as to use the brandy-cognac used to soak the apricots in the custard, or to flavour a crème anglaise to accompany the bread pudding.”
Joseph Phelps Insignia 1997/Foie gras three ways
Mark Moffatt, general manager and sommelier at the popular Crush Wine Bar in downtown Toronto (now director of wine at Shangri la Hotel Toronto), has a word for the Joseph Phelps Insignia 1997 he just poured into our glasses. “Captivating.”
The iconic Napa Valley Cabernet (with a bit of Merlot and Petit Verdot), shows “great notes of blueberry, dried strawberry, vanilla, cocoa and licorice,” Moffatt says. “The purity of fruit on the palate is impressive.”
The wheels are turning for Moffatt. He’s thinking about a mint-infused rack of lamb to “soften the tannins” which are still very much alive in this big trophy wine. At the same time, the “fresh earth notes are calling to me.” Maybe an egg-yolk pasta with wild mushrooms and black truffles, he suggests.
One thing you want to do with an older vintage wine such as this, says Moffatt, is to avoid the obvious. “Stay away from lean cuts of beef. Anyone can pair Cali Cabs with steak. Where’s the fun in that?”
He says it’s key for the chef to understand the age and vintage of the wine when preparing and matching food to it. “The food has to be precisely prepared and the wine has to be of outstanding quality.”
Moffatt says the perfect match for the Insignia is something he calls foie three ways: Seared foie gras, foie gras au torchon, and foie gras terrine.
He would serve it with three separate compotes made of cherry, blueberry and strawberry.
Domaine Schlumberger Cuvee Christine Gewurztaminer 1990/Rabbit pasta with fordhook greens, fazzoletti
and triple crunch mustard cream sauce
We had saved our final wine, the Domaine Schlumberger Cuvee Christine Gewurztaminer 1990, for last. It was a much more complicated wine to pair with food and we were looking for an entrée rather than a dessert that restaurants traditionally want to serve with late harvest Alsatian whites (or any sweet white wines).
On the 54th floor of the TD Bank Tower in Toronto, the view is spectacular. You can see forever on a sunny day from the panoramic view at Canoe restaurant.
Presiding over the wine list at Oliver and Bonacini’s flagship restaurant, head sommelier William Predhomme takes his job quite seriously and has earned a reputation for designing creative tasting menus with inventive wine pairings. The top Toronto restaurant caters to a well-heeled clientele of Bay Street bankers and discerning diners who jam-pack the eatery from lunch to dinner looking for only the finest in food and wine.
He deftly opens our sweet treat and presents a perfectly preserved cork. The wine is surprisingly fresh for 22 years in a bottle.
It has developed interesting nuances with time. White flowers, dried apricot, buckwheat honey, mango, cloves, tropical fruit compote, and lychee nut all with a viscous, weighty feel on the palate.
It’s not “flabby,” says Predhomme, savouring a long sip. “But it is lower in acid.”
Predhomme takes a regional approach to wine-food pairing. In this case, he thinks about Alsace and the foods that are matched to the wines there. Hearty Germanic fare with a French flare, lots of pig, and mustard come to mind for matching with Gewurz.
He brings out a maple braised St. Canut suckling pig (shoulder cut) with spring onion and green tomato relish. It is luscious with the Gewurz, the fatty goodness of the rich pork melts in your mouth next to the sweet and spiced wine.
But it is what comes next that is awe-inspiring.
He brings a plate of rabbit pasta with fordhook greens, fazzoletti and triple crunch mustard cream sauce. Predhomme calls it the “X-Factor” pairing.
X-Factor? How about WOW factor. The first taste, as the fruit, spice, rabbit, greens and mustard come together, is explosive. It’s a cacophony of succulent flavours that balance out into seamless perfection, a fabulous melt-in-your-mouth paragon of deliciousness. It is hard to imagine a more dynamic food-wine pairing. The dish “brings out the spice in the wine and plays down the sugar,” says Predhomme. “It’s all flavour country.”
Indeed, the dish accomplishes exactly what you want when pairing old wines to food.
“You don’t want the wine to overwhelm or compete with the food,” he says. And, in the case of the rabbit and mustard dish, this is evident in the harmonious pleasure that is derived with every sip and every bite. A gorgeous marriage of food and wine that gives both an equal voice at the dinner table.
Or, to put it another way, mind-blowing.
Note: This story was originally printed in Tidings wine magazine