Dry Wines Get Their Just Desserts

top pairing
by Jeff Harding with photos by Antoinette Bruno
Vol. 31
October 2012   

After a whirlwind tasting tour of San Francisco, we caught our breath at Madera, where Pastry Chef Mellisa Root rejuvenated us with her fanciful sweets. The sheer complexity and whimsy in her Celebration of Plums, Tea-Smoked Maracaibo Chocolate Ganache, and Raspberry Gin Fizz would cause anyone to pause in childlike wonder.

Expecting a sugar high, we cautiously asked Sommelier Paul Mekis if we could taste dry wines with the desserts, and in pro-somm style, Mekis quickly consulted with the chef and brought us his pairings. For the plum and chocolate dishes, he served a Syrah from Saint-Joseph, J.L. Chave's 2008 "Offerus." The pairing highlighted the earthy, jammy compressed plums and brought out the lavender and blueberries in the wine. Smoke notes made the chocolate and tea flavors jump, which in turn highlighted the campfire smoke and bacon flavors in the Syrah.

A 2010 Hallgartener Jungfer Kabinett Riesling from Fred Prinz in Germany's Rheingau showed us parallel flavors of lime and tangerine in the wine and the Gin Fizz. The blue slate and red volcanic minerality are a highlight from this coldest of wine-making regions and cut through the rich lemon créme fraîche, cleansing our palate and ensuring that we'd finish all the desserts.

Having previously discussed pairings of smoky Rhône Valley wines, and the acid-hound's favorite, Riesling, when we saw Root's Rice Pudding paired with an organic Chenin Blanc from Carmel Valley in California, our sugar-addled brains began to whir. Chenin Blanc typically has so much acid it can be vinified into sweet, dry, moelleux, or sparkling styles, we could hardly wait to see what Mekis had in store for us.

Restaurant
Who
  • Wine Director Paul Mekis
  • A seasoned pro with 30 years of corkscrew-wielding under his belt, Paul Mekis is the consummate professional, just the man you want guiding you through his prize-winning wine list. Friendly and helpful, Mekis accepted our request with a naturally graceful demeanor, and made it seem quite ordinary. Of course, he was thrilled at the challenge and artfully made four home-run pairings in charming style.
Wine
Chenin Blanc, Heller Estate, Carmel Valley, California 2007
Dish
Vanilla Bean Rice Pudding, Caramelized Walnut Financier, Plumped Sultana, and Bartlett Pear Sorbet
Pairing Note
Rice pudding sounds like it belongs squarely, and snugly, in the world of comfort food, but in the hands of Mellisa Root, it’s a homey starting point for a luxurious maze of flavors. The underlying pairing ingenuity in this dish is cooking golden raisins in a Grenache Blanc, which adds a tangy green apple note that lightened the creaminess of the rice. The caramelized walnut garnish in the financier kept the flavors earthbound, leaving room for the wine to lift us up.

Mekis chose the Chenin Blanc for its rich and creamy vanilla notes, but the green apple tang in the rice made that crispness stand out in the wine. In contrast to Loire Valley Chenin Blanc, the California version is dryer on the finish and has more subtle minerality, but it remains classically refreshing. Nutty custard notes with flecks of honey rounded out the brightness of the wine, lightening the earth notes in the dessert. And, we realized, our spirits.

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