The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

A Daring Pairing

Posted on | April 19, 2010 | Written by Will Di Nunzio | 1 Comment

Last week I was approached by our Wine Acquisitions Director, Christy Canterbury, who came to me with a lovely dilemma. She had been invited to a charity auction called “Taste of the Earth” held by Christie’s, the international auction house, and she couldn’t attend because she was scheduled to fly out to Italy that very night. All the auction lots were wines, wine tastings, or trips centered on wine, and I was among sixteen NYC Sommeliers and wine directors from various companies and restaurants that participated in pouring and chatting; of course because of my late substitution for Christy, the name and picture for the evening showed up in the informational booklet was hers. I did, however, get my own name on my nametag.

I had never been involved in a live auction of any kind. To be a part of one at Christie’s— let alone one based on wine — was a real privilege, and I was excited to go. I knew other sommeliers and wine directors from around the city would be there, but I still wasn’t sure what to expect. As I made my way by subway and by foot to the auction house, I imagined a guy in a tweed suit and horn-rimmed glasses standing at a podium rattling off in quick-fire speech, “Let’s start the bidding at $800, do I here $1000, $1000, thank-you-gentleman-at-the-back-for-one-thousand, do I hear fifteen hundred, fitee…thank-you-new-bidder-at-the-front…” I recognize now that I was basing every mental picture on Bond movies.

Scanning the menu for the evening and the wines that were to be served, I found myself unfamiliar with some of the wines. I recognized the Il Poggione 2004 Brunello di Montalcino, which made my Italian pride flare up because the rest of the wines were French, Californian, German and Chilean. I noticed immediately that the wine director for this event had paired a Sàint-Émilion Grand Cru, a blend of 97% Merlot and 3% Cabernet Franc by Château Fonplégade, with poached Mediterranean Langoustines, a seafood.

It was an odd choice to my thinking, and finally, a guest approached me and looked at my name tag. “Excuse me, Will. Aren’t you supposed to pair white wine with only fish?”

“Most of the time, yes,” I said.

“Then why are we drinking this red with the Langoustines?” the gentleman inquired.

Having tasted the wine and eaten the dish, I had to agree with the implication this gentleman was making in his question—and I had to scratch my head. Why did they pair this Merlot blend with this shellfish? This is the sort of question that brings to mind the blogs of my colleagues Emily and Francesco, and it’s the sort of question that makes me wonder if there are really rules. Just because I don’t necessarily enjoy that pairing, does not mean that someone else might not?

In the middle of my conversation with this gentleman, the wine director for the event approached us to say hello. The question was presented again, and his opinion was that this pairing was a good match, which is natural because he chose the pairing. He turned the question to me, and I had to be honest and say it wasn’t something I would have done. I dubbed it “A Daring Pairing,” not because it was a red wine with a fish dish, but because the weight of the wine seemed to overpower this delicacy. I have often paired a light, fresh red with a tomato sauce fish dish, for example, so a red with fish was not new to me. Still, this particular one felt odd, and not merely to me and my querying guest. So unusual was the pairing that the entire room took it to vote, and one table voted “Ay,” while the other twelve “Nay.”

As I said, there’s not necessarily a right or wrong in choosing food and wine complements; it’s a matter of taste and your palate. Rules are made to be broken or bent.

But occasionally, they are also meant to be adhered to.


One Response to “A Daring Pairing”

  1. Francesco
    April 19th, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

    I couldn’t agree with you more Will. How about some Sauternes with butter fried egg and truffle shavings or a hearty hunk of rare grilled tuna with a delicate Pinot or Gamay? But who’s to stop someone from drinking a Sauvignon Blanc with their charred steak? There is a technical approach to pairing, but the emotional aspect is sometimes more important. However, once the technical rules are known, it is easier to break them. St. Emillion and langostines might be a little over the top if you ask me. What was his reasoning?

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