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Shafer Wine & Food

A Delicate Balance

Exploring the hedonistic joy of dining with an older red wine

— By Gerald Asher

When it comes to choosing a wine to drink with dinner, I'm as likely as the next man just to pick something that strikes my fancy. I bear in mind what we're eating, of course, but the weather and the kind of day I've had will play their part, too. Do I need to be comforted or challenged? Am I ready for an old friend or a new acquaintance?

But sometimes it's the other way round. I've picked the wine for the occasion and now I must make sure it has the right setting. In all the column inches about wine and food combinations, there is rarely advice for those who have a special bottle, perhaps put aside for years, with qualities that need to be brought out to be fully appreciated.

Background Check
If I'm not already familiar with the wine, I take time to check any relevant tasting notes I can find on the Internet to get some idea of what to expect. I ignore the blueberries and pomegranates and look for real information that might tell me whether the wine is still fresh and lively, whatever its age, or is it silky-soft and even beginning to fade. Is the wine balanced so that no particular quality dominates, or is there some excess of tannin, or, in age, has the glycerol disappeared leaving a slightly bony structure poking through the charm of an evolved aroma and flavor?

I need to know these things because the first decision I must make is: will another wine best prepare our palates for it? And if so, which one? Even with some age, a good Bordeaux is still apt to show some primary fruit. But the wine's effect on nose and palate is likely to be that of secondary aromas mostly composed in the fermentation vat and during the wine's time in bottle.

A California Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly one from Napa Valley, has a restrained opulence, however, and retains its primary fruit far longer. Even with the passage of time, it will usually dominate fermentation and aging aromas. As a result, the wine presents itself more directly and in greater concentration to the nose and palate. Rarely does it follow the Bordeaux pattern of half-tones, chords in a minor key. Rather, a mature California Cabernet Sauvignon unfolds on the palate harmoniously, into a long, sustained finish.

The first wine should prepare the palate for what is to come. A young Cabernet Sauvignon without too much weight — light, fresh, and fairly simple — is best. Choose something balanced but unassertive, and with just enough fruit to hint at what is to follow. It should bring out the main wine by establishing a base. Be particularly careful not to pick a young wine that is too exuberant or you risk putting the fruit of the older wine in the shade. Allow the older wine to display its subtlety.

The dish for your principal wine should not be complicated. It would take away the spotlight from the wine. And why confuse the palate with multiple flavors at such a time? But, nevertheless, it has to be something worthy of the wine.

Classic Pairing
Despite the classic relationship of Cabernet Sauvignon and lamb, I find a roast loin of veal, cooked just to a juicy pinkness, is perfect with an aged California Cabernet Sauvignon, and, because veal is not a meat we eat every day, it adds to the sense of occasion.

A quick pan gravy made by deglazing the roasting pan with a cup or two of red wine on the stove top, thickened with a little butter and flour, a dash of mustard, and a sprinkling of salt is probably all you need, but the adventurous can try a sauce Périgourdine with a hint of truffle from canned truffle juice or from sea-salt flavored with specks of dried truffle, available at specialty grocers. Haricots verts, or a quick stir fry of bok choy (only a hint of ginger and garlic!) is all I would serve with it.

But what would I serve with that first red wine? Again, I would keep it simple but something we don't eat every day. A good prosciutto, sliced very thin (San Daniele rather than Parma if I can find it) with shavings of Parmesan is a simple but elegant starter with a light, soft red wine. It's also a delicate preparation for the veal. But if I can get away from my guests for a few minutes, I would make a quick sauté of chicken livers with sage and white wine (Marcella Hazan's recipe is the one I use). It's a quick, simple but classy dish that sets the tone for everything else.

Gerald Asher is perhaps best known for his revered "Wine Journal" column which he contributed to Gourmet magazine for many years. He is a contributor to Decanter and The World of Fine Wine, and the author of several wine books, including The Pleasures of Wine.