Top Pair: From Slovenia to Hawaii, Pinot Nero Goes the Distance

top pairing
by Jeff Harding with photos by Antoinette Bruno
Vol. 30
October 2012   

Wines from Eastern Europe are making a big splash right now. We tasted a range of wines from Georgia at the 7th Annual International Chefs Congress, and Croatian wines, Balkan Wines, and wines from Moldova are all buzzing just below the radar. Slovenia, neighbor of classic wine regions Italy and Austria, is well known for its production of oak for wine barrels, so it’s a little surprising their wines don’t get more menu play.

Perhaps all the more surprising because wine production in Slovenia dates back to 5th century B.C. (we’re talking old Old World); the Movia estate alone has produced wine since the 1700s. The region is mostly known for white wines, particularly the Ribolla Gialla grape popular in Italy’s Friuli region (in Slovenia it’s called Rumena Rebula). But the Kristančič family took control of Movia in 1820, and in 1973 started making Pinot Nero under the current winemaker, Aleš Kristančič. Using the Italian name of the grape is likely an homage to the success of Pinot Nero in Italy, but whatever you call it, the wine is making waves, even reaching the far-off Pacific, where we fell in love with it.

Wine Director Kevin Toyama Chef Vikram Garg works closely with Sommelier Kevin Toyama to craft wine-friendly dishes with seasonal, local ingredients. That would make any somm’s job a little easier, but Toyama has the skill and insight to match wines on multiple levels. His philosophy in pairing accentuates ingredients in a dish, but he goes one step further, choosing a particular vintage or style that helps him make the ideal match.
Pinot Nero, Movia, Slovenia, 2004
Hamakua Mushrooms, Veal Loin, and Sherry-Soy Jus
Pairing Note
As a student of wine, Garg creates a dish with a wine pairing in mind, almost directing the dish toward a specific wine. This not only sets up Toyama for success, it’s creatively refreshing, especially when wine is often an after-thought or solely the consideration of the sommelier. “A partnership of food and wine” is Chef Garg’s goal, Toyama explains. And from our tasting at La Mer, it’s a partnership that works.

The veal loin and mushrooms are cooked sous vide, allowing the delicate mushroom flavor to penetrate throughout the meat. In the final prep, the mushrooms from the Hamakua coast of Hawaii add another layer of depth and earth notes to the dish, and the Sherry-soy jus adds just the right amount of umami and salt. Sherry has fruit notes, but when reduced with the soy, its oxidative and earth tones shine and are further brightened by the soy. Salt often clashes with high alcohol, tannins, and oak, and it’s here that Toyama’s skill becomes apparent, in choosing an Old World Pinot Noir.

If Garg served the veal served with fruit compote, a young New World wine would be ideal. By contrast, the Movia Pinot Nero has just the right balance of lightness and umami depth to keep the delicate mushroom flavors alive in each bite. A bit of age on the wine lets the phenolic ripeness mellow and round out, similar to the tender and rich quality of veal when it’s slow cooked. Toyama explains further, “I often describe [the Movia Pinot Nero] as being the opposite of what one expects in Pinot Noir: dark berries versus red, damp forest floor earthiness, modest acidity leading toward a seamless finish.” With this dish, “It’s a balancing act,” he says.

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