A Hot Pairing with a Cold Wine

by Emily Bell
Aliza Elizarov
January 2015

Restaurant

Wine pairings may seem to take place in a vacuum, the result of a studied decision based on things like flavor, texture, sugar, and acid. And that’s fair, if we’re near-sighted. Far-sighted, a great wine pairing has a legacy of influences. Witness: Chili lobster with chilled Sancerre rouge at Marc Forgione. On paper, it’s a balance of harmonies and discords. Historically, the pairing has roots in everything from phylloxera to vineyard day-drinking to something we can only call the Rick Bayless factor—but we’ll get to that.

According to at least one assessment, Sancerre production veers about 80 percent white, 20 percent red, and for good reason. When phylloxera hit, American rootstock helped revitalize vineyards, and Sauvignon blanc proved the heartiest graftee—working beautifully in the region’s chalky, pebbly, silex-rich soils and completely overtaking Sancerre’s white production. In fact, it was so successful, the 1936 appellation “Sancerre” meant Sauvignon blanc; reds were only added in 1959. And while it’s unlikely production levels should change needlessly, it does seem possible that next generation sommeliers would pay more attention to that 20 percent of red. This is, after all, the age of the “humble wine find,” with proud sommeliers holding up a plucky, maybe previously unnoticed bottle the way a college football team once hoisted a lovable, physically unassuming Rudy (Rudy! Rudy Rudy!).

Not that Sancerre rouge is at all unassuming. Like Rudy, it’s just harder to notice in the company it keeps. Made with 100 percent Pinot Noir grapes, Sancerre rouge is typically un-oaked, leaving room for an unabashed, juicy acidity and fruit that expresses anywhere from light red to hefty rose—vibrant, yes, but still waiting for its big break. Marc Forgione Sommelier and General Manager Matthew Conway first tasted the rouge while practicing blind tasting with the American Sommelier Association 10 years ago. “It was presented in the context of all the different styles of Pinot Noir from around the world,” he says. An impression was made, but the first time Sancerre rouge “really wowed me,” says Conway, “was at my first buying job at Café Gray. I was looking for an affordably priced, high quality red Burgundy and David Newlin from Skurnik brought me a sample of Domaine Vacheron instead of Burgundy.”

Conway fell for the swap, but the more compelling drinking experience happened in France (as many do). “It was the summer of 2007. I was at a bistro in Paris, and they served me Sancerre rouge, chilled,” says Conway, whose curiosity was piqued as his thirst was slaked. “They explained that with the popularity of white Sancerre, growers had a hard time moving the reds, so they elected to serve them to the vineyard workers with lunch. Due to the often hot temperatures they would chill them down and serve them ‘fresh.’ That’s how vineyard workers were used to having it with lunch, and it caught on. Simple and refreshing, they called it.”

Conway might have just gone home with a warm memory of some chilled wine and imagined afternoons of vineyard workers supine in summer heat, but serendipity—and HVAC issues—stepped in. Thanks to a broken air conditioner, “the weeks leading up to opening were blistering at times,” Conway thought of his chilled Sancerre rouge. Looking for something to serve at the restaurant, he settled on the 2012 Alain Gueneau to serve not only as a chilled option, but as the house pinot noir, complete “with our personalized Marc Forgione label on it.”

But the heat-happy Sancerre rouge and Forgione’s chili lobster didn’t make an immediate match. Inspired by the classic Singaporean chili crab, Forgione’s recipe does a crustacean-swap, subbing lobster (tail, claw, and knuckle) and drenching it with a rich, Sriracha-spiked lobster emulsion, all adding up to an ideal pair for a demi-sec Riesling. “Sugar with spicy, a bit of a cop out for a sommelier,” Conway admits. “But it worked!”

In general, Conway and Forgione like to pair with an eye to complementary oppositions. “We’re always looking to add a contrasting element to the general theme of the dish while being mindful of small components that may play a factor in the pairing.” At the time, however, they hadn’t thought to pair the chilled Sancerre rouge with the temperature and flavor heat of the chili lobster.

It wasn’t until Rick Bayless came in to dine that the idea came up. Dining with his family not long after the restaurant opened, Bayless ordered a bottle of the house Sancerre rouge. And then, says Conway, “We sent him a mid-course chili lobster because he’d never had it before, and you cannot come to [Marc Forgione] without trying the lobster.” Conway left Bayless to enjoy the dish, but he was called back. “He called me over and told me ‘This is an amazing pairing. I know it is weird, but you have to taste this with Marc!’” Conway recalls he and Forgione were “equally blown away.” Not only did the pairing work, it played up another contrast Conway hadn’t really worked with as much—temperature. “The cool temperature and bright red fruit contrast perfectly with the hot temperature sauce, loaded with Sriracha.”

Indeed, with all the elements at work in wine pairing, temperature is easily the least toyed with. The appropriate temperature of a particular wine is what matters—not what it’s paired with. Except here, Conway and Forgione are able to bend the rules, with a flexible wine (which they serve “chilled in the summer, warmer in the winter”) that always comes cold when it’s poured with the chili lobster. “As mentioned previously, we are all about contrast—that works—and this is an interesting avenue to explore,” says Conway. “Uncharted territory in many ways.” Sometimes it only takes a little serendipity—and a little Bayless—to get there. 

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