Dessert Wine Pairings at Oakland’s Commis Restaurant

top pairing
by Emily Bell with photos by Antoinette Bruno
Vol. 12
March 2010   
Restaurant
Who
  • Sommelier Sarah Valor
  • Sommelier Sarah Valor has built a versatile wine list, with lesser known treasures and classic exemplars of Old and New World vineyards to match the high concept, ingredient-driven cuisine of Oakland’s Commis. Under the direction of 2007 San Francisco Rising Star Chef James Syhabout, the Commis menu is a constantly evolving expression of Northern Californian terroir. Formerly chef de cuisine of Manresa, with stints in el Bulli, Mugaritz, and The Fat Duck, Syhabout helms the kitchen of Commis with well-founded confidence, showcasing the region’s seasonal bounty in bold, sophisticated preparations that exhibit the chef’s deep respect for the basic ingredients.

    Valor treats her wine in much the same way, meticulously adjusting her selective list as the seasons and menu items change. “I think of my wine list as seasonal as well,” Valor explains. “I look for lighter wines in spring and summer, and fuller, sometimes gamier wines in the fall.” In a restaurant as seasonal as Commis communication is key, so Valor maintains a constant dialogue with Chef Syhabout and Pastry Chef Carlos Salgado, sharing wines and testing pairings as the seasons—and menus—change. And for dessert pairings, which “many sommeliers think of as an afterthought,” Valor sees opportunity to showcase the versatility of lesser-known wines as not only a compliment to sweeter courses, but a completion of them.

Wine
La Cueille, Patrick Bottex, Vin Du Bugey-Cerdon, France, NV
Dish
Goat's Milk Panna Cotta with Winter Citrus, Pistachio, and Beet-Blood Orange Sorbet
Pairing Note
In her take on the classic Moscato and panna cotta pairing, Valor chose a sparkling wine to pair with a raw goat’s milk panna cotta, a fresh but lush composition of subtle dairy richness accented by a contrast of bright green pistachio and full-bodied, almost tawny sorbet. Tender strawberry notes, low alcohol, and a clean, light-bodied mouthfeel make La Cueille a refreshing, quaffable wine, versatile and ideal for pairing. The wine is subtle enough to avoid overpowering the delicacy of the goat’s milk in the panna cotta, but its clear notes of earth and strawberry resonate deeply with the gently acidic fruitiness of the beet and blood orange sorbet. And the acidity and sparkle of the wine makes the locally harvested green pistachios pop all the more brightly.
Wine
Baton Late Harvest Chardonnay, Charles Heintz Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, California, 2006
Dish
Butternut Squash Custard with Licorice Cream, Gingerbread Streusel, Candied Pepitas, and Root Beer Reduction
Pairing Note
Vanilla, sarsaparilla, bourbon, and ginger flavors are at play in this texturally diverse creation, Pastry Chef Carlos Salgado’s play on classic pumpkin pie, calling for a wine with suppleness, character, and balanced residual sweetness. A 2006 Baton Late Harvest Chardonnay from Charles Heintz answered the call. A late harvest Chardonnay in Sonoma County is a rarity, but the foggy, wet conditions at harvest’s end in 2006 meant Botrytis Cinera, or Noble Rot, could develop and thrive on select remaining clusters of grapes. The resulting wine is silky and honeysuckle sweet, with complex flavors unique to late harvest wines like anise and fennel, which echoes directly with the licorice in the cream. With its buttery sweetness, light viscosity, and gentle acidity, the wine simultaneously compliments and cuts through the custard.
Wine
Rivesaltes Ambre Grenache Blanc, Domaine Fontanel, Roussillon, France, 1998
Dish
Bittersweet Chocolate Tuile with Vahlrona Caraibe Ganache, Cocoa Crumb, and Burnt Vanilla Ice Cream
Pairing Note
In Salgado’s Bittersweet Chocolate Tile, different elements of bittersweet chocolate play off of one another against the creamy, brown-sugary, delicate char of burnt vanilla ice cream. Not your typical sweet chocolate dessert, this bittersweet textural medley calls for a wine with structure and finesse. Valor’s choice, a white Grenache, imparts the seasoned maturity of low-yield 60-year-old vines to the glass while still adding just a whisper of acidity to cut through the richness. The Rivesaltes Ambre undergoes the solera process, a fractional blending of different barrel ages typical of Sherry production. The end result is a surprisingly light-bodied, complex wine that stands up to strong notes like cocoa or dark coffee caramel flavors of ganache without overpowering them with a cloying sweetness. Delicate undertones of sweet oak and floral spice and a gently lingering acidity make for a clean finish.
Wine
Riesling Spätlese, Knebel, Winninger Röttgen, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Germany, 2004
Dish
Bellweather Farms Carmody, Just Warmed with Black Pepper Pastry, Lavender Onion and Arugula
Pairing Note
Chef Salgado offers this composed cheese plate as a savory finish for guests, showcasing Carmody cheese, a creation of local Bellweather Farms, just barely melted on a round of delicately peppered puff pastry. To pair for this dish, Valor had to take into account not only the young and relatively mild Carmody, but the light perfume of lavender and the tawny-sweet punch of aged balsamic. Her choice, a 2004 Riesling Spätlese, balances residual sweetness and a lively acidity, perfect to play in sequence with the sweet, tangy, herbal accents of the cheese plate while still cutting through the basic richness of cheese and pastry. Because the winemaker chooses when to stop the fermentation process for spätlese, the resulting balance of sweetness and acidity in the glass is as much an expression of the vintner as the vintage. Valor loves the 2004 Knebel Spätlese for its exquisite balance and sturdiness, a lively match for Bellweather Farms’ young, supple Carmody cheese.
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