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Wine and Food Wednesday
What to Serve With A Bold Syrah-Petite Sirah

By Stephen Eliot

As mentioned earlier this week, we had the genuine pleasure of attending a tasting and luncheon at Shafer Vineyards in Napa Valley’s Stag’s Leap District last Friday, the focal point of which was a complete vertical of the winery’s Syrah-based (with 20% Petite Sirah) Relentless offerings dating back to 1999. We will address the wine findings in the near future, but it is lunch itself and how the wines showed with food that is the topic of today’s ramblings. This morning, Chef Michael Weller, one of my close friends and colleagues on the California Culinary Academy faculty, who incidentally with his wife just happens to be a huge fan of Relentless, asked me with a touch of friendly envy in his voice, just what the folks at Shafer chose to serve with eleven vintages of Relentless. My answer set me to thinking.

Now, those familiar with the wine know it to be a big, broad-shouldered, immensely powerful, tannin-rich bottling that makes no apologies about being very ripe. Given its stripe, I had rather expected something equally big and bold, say hearty braised short ribs, slowly cooked lamb shanks swimming in sauce or, perhaps, a classic garlic-larded, rosemary-infused leg of lamb roast. A no-brainer, I thought, whatever would be on the menu would surely be on the extreme end of things as far as flavor and seasonings went. That, however, was not the case. The menu consisted of simply prepared, medium-rare rack of lamb paired with roasted winter vegetables. No heavy sauces, no potent spices, no blaring garlic, just succulent, perfectly cooked ribs of lamb that, when brought from the kitchen, left me wondering if they might not be overpowered by the wines we had just tasted.

The lamb, if one relied on the wisdom of the elders, would have seemed better suited to Pinot Noir, a polished Cabernet or a rounded Merlot, I thought, but Relentless? Well, the meal was, in a word, marvelous, and it was moreover an object lesson in the virtues of balance. Yes, Relentless is a wine or real muscle and size, but it is also one of structure and balance as well. Its alcohol is not modest, but it is never unduly hot or given to cough-syrup viscosity, and, for all of its pepper and spice and undisguised tannin, it never wavers in its expression of very deep, well-defined fruit. The older vintages whose angles and edges are beginning to soften and smooth were especially comfortable partners to the lamb, but even those still-sinewy younger wines did not overdo it and, in fact, were not even close to being too much of a good thing.

Lunch turned out to be an entirely serendipitous and timely reminder that ripeness alone does not necessarily define any wine, and, that even when speaking in a commanding and confident voice as Relentless most surely does, balanced wines can and will surprise at the table.


by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/8/2010 4:21:04 PM

Postscript by Charles Olken: To me, there were two additional items that made the combination of food and wine work so well. The first was the layer of spices on the lamb itself. Every bit had its own bit, and that helped with the combination. The second was the use of pan-roasted root vegetables to fill out the plate. These little morsels, probably cooked with butter and very rich and very tasty on their own, seemed to absorb all the flavors of the meat, the spices, their own earthiness and the wine and helped hold everything together. I was surprised at the amount of starch, earth-borne vegetables and the relative absence of greens, but, in this case, it made it all work in ways that provided yet another lesson in wine and food pairing.

PS and root veggies
by Christian Miller
Posted on:12/10/2010 2:06:35 PM

I completely agree with your take on pan-roasted root vegetables. For you vegetarians out there wondering what to pair with rich red wines (and you folks complaining about what to serve with big oaky Chardonnay), they are the answer. We like to roast chopped parsnips, potatoes, red peppers, whole garlic cloves and shiitake mushrooms together with fresh herbs and a generous dose of olive oil.

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