Pairings: Winning the Match Game

The 2004 Vall Llach Idus complements a reader's New Year's Eve entree.
The 2004 Vall Llach Idus complements a reader's New Year's Eve entree. (By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg
Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Why not resolve to let 2009 be the year you learn to pair food and wine like a pro? We'll get you started with some basics, inspired by an e-mail we received from a reader this month:

"I am writing to ask if you might give me a suggestion or two for pairing wine with a dish that I'm going to serve to some friends on New Year's Eve," wrote Jonathan Kagan from Potomac. "It's Paula Wolfert's 'Fall Apart Lamb Shanks With Almond-Chocolate Picada.' The picada doesn't look to be too sweet. But still, the chocolate made me pause."

For those experienced in pairing wine with food, the mention of each ingredient brings different associations to mind. Any allusion to lamb usually gets us thinking about pinot noir or syrah, while almonds send us in the direction of Spanish sherry. Chocolate almost invariably suggests red wine, whether dry or sweet.

But the No. 1 rule of our top three when it comes to pairing will take you as much as 80 to 90 percent of the way toward an ideal match:

1. Think regionally. If it grows together, it goes together. Picada, which is not quite a sauce but more of a thickening and flavoring agent often made with almonds, bread crumbs, chocolate and parsley, was described by Colman Andrews in his culinary classic "Catalan Cuisine" (Atheneum, 1988) as "one of the bookends of Catalan cuisine, helping to hold dishes together and give them form." So our first instinct was to pair this dish with a Spanish red, ideally one from Catalonia.

Therefore, we went straight to the source: We e-mailed the legendary Paula Wolfert, in whose book "The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen" (Wiley, 2003) the lamb recipe appears. As she was traveling in Morocco, her recommendation was succinct: "Priorat."

Of course. Priorat (pronounced pree-oh-RAHT), in the south of Spain's Catalonia region, is the country's only DOC wine region other than Rioja. The mountainous terroir has been likened to a lunar landscape; the lack of rain forces old, gnarled vines to seek nourishment 10 yards below the slate-rich ground, resulting in smaller grapes (typically, red Garnacha and Carinena) of concentrated flavor and high acidity with a distinctive minerality. However, the cult following these wines inspire makes it tough to find a bargain.

Hard to believe that just two decades ago, Priorat wasn't yet on the world wine map. It took four visionary winemakers to catalyze its rise in the 1990s: René Barbier, now the owner of Clos Mogador and Clos Manyetes; Alvaro Palacios, owner of Finca Dofi and L'Ermita; Josep Lluís Pérez of Mas Martinet, and Dafne Glorian of Clos Erasmus.

A few hours after receiving Wolfert's e-mail, we met up with James Beard Award-winning sommelier Jean-Luc Le Du, who shared a glass of his favorite 2006 Clos Mogador Priorat with us. We were instantly smitten with this intensely inky wine (a blend of 40 percent garnacha, 35 percent cabernet sauvignon, 20 percent syrah and 5 percent pinot noir, mourvedre and merlot) with its dark, lush fruit and powerful structure. Then we learned of its $100 price tag, which is surely more than many readers might wish to swallow.

Wolfert's next e-mail mentioned two somewhat less expensive options: a 2004 Vall Llach Idus ($50 at and a 2004 Clos Figueres Priorat ($80). In search of others, we consulted with chef-restaurateur José Andrés, author of "Made in Spain" (Clarkson Potter, 2008), who recommended Ricard Pasanau's Finca La Planeta, one of the great values in Priorat (but still running about $40).

2. Let your senses guide your choices. In short, with a rich, earthy, braised red-meat dish like this, you'll generally want a comparably rich, earthy red wine that can stand up to it. After taste-testing the actual dish, two winners were both Gran Reservas -- a Malbec-Cabernet blend from Argentina and a Carmenere from Chile, both with lush red fruit and chocolate notes -- and both were less than $25.

3. Balance flavors; tickle your tongue in more ways than one. Contrasting flavors also can be a successful strategy, and while it might be easier to get a sense of a dish's weight from reading the recipe, only by tasting the dish can you tell whether the chocolate adds bitter notes or merely richness. Karen especially loved the pairing of a fruity red grenache from Sonoma that seemed to lighten the dish.

And we both loved the offbeat pairing of the lamb with a slightly chilled medium-dry amontillado sherry, which played beautifully off the dish's toasted almond flavors. (Think foie gras with Sauternes.) We wouldn't serve it as the lone accompaniment, believing its richness would lead to palate fatigue. But if you'd like to offer more than one wine so guests can learn how different wines play off the same dish, serve it as the second glass.

If you resolve to follow our three rules, you're bound to look back a year from now at not only your pairing prowess but also plenty of pairing pleasure.

Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, authors of "The Flavor Bible" and "What to Drink With What You Eat," can be reached through their Web site,, or at

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