Back in October, organizers of Taste of Atlanta’s Best Sommelier contest offered up a devilishly hard food-wine pairing question for the final four competitors. It went something like this: “You have eight guests at your restaurant for a three-course dinner plus passed appetizers to start things off. The host has brought three different vintages of Château d’Yquem plus a couple bottles of Ygrec, a rare, dry white wine from the world’s most famous dessert wine maker. Please come up with a fabulously interesting menu for these wines. “Oh, and no dessert, please.”
Throw in a two-minute time limit, a live audience and this challenge, which the contestants had to answer with no time to prepare, and you wonder if the judges were demanding or just plain evil.
The contestants, Matt Bradford of Canoe, Robert Evans of Davio’s, Jacob Gragg of Aria, and Atlanta’s Best Sommelier for 2011, Joon Lim of Kevin Rathbun Steak, showed why they rank among the country’s best wine minds. They not only displayed remarkable of poise and knowledge of d’Yquem, but a firm grasp of tastes, textures and food preparations. Various forms of glazed duck with gastrique sauces were suggested, along with sweet corn purees, seared foie gras with caramelized pears, risotto with blue cheese and ingenious uses of honey with non-dessert courses.
Final Jeopardy hard? Yes. An unprecedented, impossible menu, not quite. Occasionally at fine-dining establishments, even at Château d’Yquem, meals featuring sweet wines from Sauternes throughout the dinner are offered as an alternative to “normal” wine pairings.
No one could be more pleased to hear the challenging wine-pairing question than Bill Blatch. British-born Blatch may be the most famous wine personality you’ve never heard of. For decades, the affable wine merchant has blended many of Bordeaux’s greatest wines. In Bordeaux, he is the winemaker’s winemaker and critics, such as Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker, don’t hazard guesses on upcoming Bordeaux vintages without first reading Blatch’s highly anticipated annual review.
While Blatch can talk for hours about the celebrated red wines of Bordeaux, his heart is made of gold, the liquid gold of Sauternes. I sat down with Blatch during his trip through Atlanta. Our conversations drifted through the art and science of blending, gossip of Bordeaux luminaries, but clearly Blatch’s passion lies with the sweet wines of Bordeaux, especially those from Sauternes region.
Blatch would have enjoyed Atlanta’s Best Sommelier question, but two minutes would not have been enough for the loquacious Blatch. “It is not at all uncommon in France to have people drink Sauternes before the meal as an aperitif,” says Blatch, who as called Bordeaux home for the past 20-plus years. “We’ve done many dinners with Sauternes throughout the meal and had great fun with spicy dishes, rich dishes, slightly sweet glazed meats, cheese courses….Sauternes is a remarkable adaptive wine.”
With perhaps the exception of seared foie gras and dessert, Blatch laments the absence of Sauternes on American dinner tables. As if standing before the House of Commons, Blatch lays a persuasive argument for increased use of Sauternes. Not the least of his reasoning is the fact that a diner can go through a multi-course dinner and consume not more than eight ounces of wine, due to the intense flavors of Sauternes that are taken in tiny sips.
“When we do meals with Sauternes people sip rather than drink. Guests finish and feel fresh as a daisy,” says Blatch, who I must remind readers sells quite a bit of Sauternes for a living.
I asked Blatch for his top three favorite food-wine combinations for Sauternes. Here are his unexpected answers:
1. “On any occasions when you eat cheese. The richness and saltiness of cheese marries well with the wine. In fact, I enjoy a glass of Sauternes with potato chips. Really, anything salty will work.”
2. “Indian [take-out food]. I did a dinner in Washington, D.C., with very spicy vindaloo and the Sauternes cut through the heat like nothing. It also works great with spicy versions of Chinese cuisine.”
3. “I particularly like [Sauternes] with strong, garlic sausages or spicy sausages. There’s really nothing better.”
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a wine consultant for Tower Beer, Wine & Spirits. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.