Going red for winter
Published: Monday, January 7, 2013 at 9:52 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 8:38 a.m.
Syrah is a seductive and savory companion to wintertime meals, a classic Rhone-region red wine.
Its rich black fruit, hints of black and white pepper and smoky, meaty flavor, accented by a healthy dose of natural acidity, makes syrah a delicious pairing with beef, lamb, braised dishes and stews, sausages and anything layered in mushrooms. Sometimes syrah and syrah-based blends taste of salami, sometimes of leather, cardamom spice, cocoa and thyme.
“Syrah is smoky and inky and fruity,” says cookbook author and local cooking instructor Jill Silverman Hough. “It's earthy and kind of low-down and dirty, and I mean that in a good way.”
She also makes the point that almost every syrah pairing is improved by the addition of bacon.
Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein adds that dishes with coarse texture work well with syrah, options such as polenta, black beans or a sauce made with whole-grain mustard. He also recommends playing off the peppery character of syrah by including spices and peppers in sauces and marinades and any side dishes that will accompany a main course.
Herbs are a match, too.
“Whether they are coating a cheese, sprinkled onto a dish, used as an accent for a marinade, or simply adding flavor to the grill's coals, fresh herbs are a winner with syrah,” Goldstein said.
One place to experiment is at Sonoma's Girl and the Fig restaurant, where proprietor Sondra Bernstein offers hearty French winter fare and a Rhones-only wine list. Her braised short ribs with braised kale is just one of many plates of food that would deliciously highlight a meaty Rhone-native red wine like a syrah.
Among the syrahs on her wine list, look for Tres Bonnes Annees 2010 Rockpile Vineyard, Copain 2010 Tous Ensemble Mendocino and Anthill Farms 2010 Sonoma Coast. The Skylark 2010 Red Belly North Coast and Anaba 2009 Turbine Red Sonoma Valley are worthwhile blends, and within the listings for grenache, try Quivira 2009 Dry Creek Valley or Unti 2010 Dry Creek Valley.
Fruity and medium-bodied with dominant flavors of black pepper, raspberries, strawberries, cherries and sometimes a note of violets, grenache is often blended with its red Rhone Valley companion grapes syrah and mourvedre to help balance those wines' darker flavor tendencies. Smelling often of rose petals, it's also the key variety in the celebrated wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and in the Spanish wines of Priorat.
Mourvedre is also most often blended in small amounts with syrah and grenache, and can be extremely powerful and dense, with flavors of black pepper, cherries, blackberries, bacon and leather. Beautifully aromatic, it makes an earthy, gamey wine. Carignane and cinsault are other common blenders occasionally made into their own wines.
In California, good syrah and syrah-based blends abound. Olson Ogden is a small producer based in Santa Rosa that sources syrah from Mendocino's Alder Springs Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley's Unti Vineyard and Napa's famous Stagecoach site, which is also known for cabernet sauvignon.
The wines share a signature structure, depth and concentration, are very dark in color and offer generous blackberry fruit and spice awash in velvety tannins.
Founders John Ogden and Tim Olson love to think about how these syrahs will pair best with food, partnering with chef Richard Haake, formerly of Robert Mondavi Winery and founder of Winery Chefs culinary services, to develop recipes specifically for their wines.
“Rhone-style wines are the wines I enjoy the most on a regular basis, whether I'm having just a glass of wine in the evening or coming up with food pairings for a multi-course dinner,” noted Ogden. “I think they are the most interesting wines being made today by a wide range of enthusiastic producers from a number of interesting places on the planet.”
Sanglier Cellars, named after the French word for wild boar, is another syrah producer to look for, owned by Glenn and Melissa Alexander and based in the Russian River Valley. Glenn Alexander owns and operates Bacchus Vineyard Management, too.
“Rhone reds make great pairings with winter foods,” said Glenn Alexander. “We definitely think of things like beef Daube, grilled lamb and different kinds of stews. My wife would tell you any kind of lamb with syrah is her ideal.”
With the assistance of winemaker Russell Bevan, Sanglier makes a Kemp Vineyard syrah worth finding for its ripe dark fruit, a Kick Ranch grenache-syrah-mourvedre blend, and a blend called Rouge du Tusque, a combination of syrah, petite sirah and grenache.
A dense red wine with historic roots in California and celebrated for the dark structure it can bring to zinfandel, petite sirah also traces its roots back to the Rhone Valley but is its own beast, full of boldly dense, dark, black-plum fruit flavors and peppery, lip-staining tannins.
Also known as durif, petite sirah is a hybrid of syrah and peloursin grapes. It needs time, lots of it, to mellow and is sometimes loved, and sometimes not, by those who love the other red wines of the Rhone.
Why do syrah, grenache and other Rhone varieties go well with wintertime foods?
“I'd like to think it has to do with the wide range of styles these kinds of wines can be made into,” added Ogden. “They can be big and bold or soft and fruity. There's something for just about any kind of meal.”
Recipes from Richard Haake, Winery Chefs (winerychefs.com): Pair this dish with Olson Ogden Alder Springs Vineyard Syrah.
Makes 10 servings
2 teaspoons whole mustard seeds (black or brown will do)
2 teaspoons whole cumin
2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds
2 whole cloves
1 cup chopped onion
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1-2 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped to taste
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
½ teaspoon cayenne
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1¼ pound boneless pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch cubes
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
12 ounces red potatoes, cut into 1-inch chunks
½ teaspoon sugar
Put 1 teaspoon of the mustard seeds, the cumin seeds, coriander seeds and cloves in a dedicated spice grinder and grind fine.
Put spice mixture and onion, garlic, ginger, vinegar cayenne, paprika and 3 tablespoons of water into a blender and blend until smooth.
Rub 1¼ teaspoon of salt plus turmeric, black pepper and 2 tablespoons of the spice paste from the blender all over the pork. Refrigerate for a couple hours or 30 minutes minimum.
Pour oil into a heavy lidded pan and set over medium heat. When oil is hot, add remaining teaspoon of mustard seeds and let them pop. As soon as they begin popping, add the remaining spice paste before they burn. Fry for 3-4 minutes or until paste is lightly browned (or no longer smelling raw), add the pork and its marinade. Stir and cover, reducing heat to medium. Let the meat cook for 10 minutes, stirring every once in a while. Lightly brown the meat.
Add the potatoes, enough water to cover them (about 2 cups), the remaining ½ teaspoon salt and the sugar. Stir and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat and cook gently for about an hour or until the meat is tender. Serve over rice with some peppers on top to indicate its spiciness.
Pair this recipe with Olson Ogden Stagecoach Vineyard Syrah
Grilled Rosemary Skewers of Lamb with Fig and Red Onion
Makes 10 servings
25 to 30 pieces of fresh rosemary, 3-inch sprigs
1 pound leg of lamb meat, trimmed and cut into bite-size pieces
1 pint of fresh figs, preferably smaller figs, halved
2 small red onions, peeled, cut into pieces the same size as the lamb
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
¼ cup olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped rosemary
2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 teaspoons finely ground black pepper
Clean and trim the rosemary, making skewers;sharpen the thick end of the rosemary and keep the leaves on the thin end. Set up a prep area with a bowl of the skewers, onions, lamb and figs. Skewer the rosemary with the onions, lamb and figs. Repeat this until the product is used up.
In a mixing bowl combine the vinegar, olive oil and rosemary. Place the skewers in the bowl meat first, standing the skewers up in order to just marinate the edible part.
Light the grill. Take a long piece of foil, as long as the length of your grill. Fold it over and place across the front of the grill. Use this to protect the skewers from burning. When the grill is hot, clean the grill with a brush. Wipe the grill with a towel and some canola oil to prevent the meat from sticking to the grill. Carefully cook the skewers of lamb, until the meat is medium-rare. Remove the skewers from the grill, season generously with salt and pepper and serve.
Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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