The 2nd Annual StarChefs.com Somm Slam at the 6th Annual StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress - Day 3
Some face time for Somm Slam winner Alexander LaPratt
After a quick introduction to Somm Slam finalists Jill Zimorski and Alexander LaPratt, the final round of competition heated up with a final blind tasting—this time with the added pressure of decoding the wine's origins out loud. First up, Zimorski analyzed the wine by sight, smell, and taste, calling out her notes (pale straw color, evidence of legs, no oak on the nose, citrus notes). She then tasted and swirled and decided it was a Sauvignon Blanc from Australia. Next Alex LaPratt took his turn, and remarkably, his conclusions were almost identical. Except LaPratt added (with spot-on accuracy) that the wine included Semillon grapes in addition to Sauvingnon Blanc and it hailed from Margaret River (righto, mate).
After the blind tasting, the somm’s were presented a spice jar—a portent of the culinary challenge to come—that they had to sniff and taste to identify the spices inside (among them cardamom, turmeric, ginger, orange peel, cumin, cinnamon, clove, garlic, black pepper, and star anise). Although LaPratt scored higher on the blind tasting, Zimorksi nudged ahead by pinning down more of the jar's aromatic elements.
For the third portion of the Slam, LaPratt and Zimorski had to pair wines with dishes from Chef Hemant Mathur of (recently Michelin bejeweled) Tulsi. Indian food is notoriously hard to pair with wine, and the Somm Slam wine cellar had been diminished by two previous days of pairing. Mathur first served a Spinach Soy Croquette and Tomato Salsa, with a quick dose of heat, high acidity from the tomatoes, and a lasting dose of spice notes. Zimorski chose a 2009 Cave de Tain l'Hermitage St. Joseph Esprit de Granit, employing the "like with like" pairing strategy. Knowing that spinach and red wine is potentially a ruinous combination, she took a chance on this spicy, moderately alcoholic wine to work with the dish and not burn or overburden the palate.
LaPratt took a different route with a crisp unoaked 2009 De Martino “Legado” Chardonnay from the Limari Valley in Chile. He was looking for something off-dry to calm the spices in the dish, but having no such options, he thought the tropical fruit in the wine would “fool your tongue” into thinking it was sweet.
The next dish was Tandoori-style Lamb Chops with Mustard Potato Salad and Apple Chutney. This time Zimorski chose a white wine, the Pinot Gris from Mt. Difficulty in New Zealand. She explained that, often, the most important factor in pairing a dish is not the protein, but rather the accompaniments and sauces. The lamb was exceptionally tender and almost sweet, but she chose the Pinot Gris wine to accentuate the mustard-seed laced potato salad and apple chutney.
LaPratt took a different tact by choosing Pinot Noir, also from Mt. Difficulty, that highlighted the muscle and spice of the lamb (the meat's Australian DOC perhaps enhanced the match with the New Zealand red). LaPratt sought a low-alcohol, low-tannin wine with cool acidity like a red Burgundy, which he found in the Mt. Difficulty Pinot Noir.
In the end, the audience scored both contestants with nearly equal scores. Such smart pairings made for a tough judging, but Emcee and Master Sommelier Fred Dexheimer had it under control. After deliberation, he announced the winner, Alex LaPratt, by a single point on a 100 point scale. He will enjoy a a two-week, all-expenses-paid tour of Australia's greatest wine regions, presented by Wine Australia and Meat & Livestock Australia.
By Jeff Harding