Monday, June 20, 2011

When Wine Pairing Goes Wrong - Fiano Edition

A couple years ago I enjoyed a special meal at Convivio, the now-closed restaurant in Tudor City. The inimitable Levi Dalton was of course the chef somelier. When eating or drinking at a master's establishment, I think it's a good idea to simply put yourself in the master's hands - think omakase at a great sushi bar. The master sushi chef knows far better than I about which fish are the freshest and tastiest, and how best to serve them. Why would I select my meal instead of asking them to select for me? Why would I tell Levi Dalton, at his restaurant, what I will drink?

We decided on grilled sardines as one of our first courses. They were pretty much perfect, fresh, smoky, slightly chewy in a tremendously appealing way, and left to shine on their own. Levi served us glasses of a wine I had never heard of with the sardines, a Fiano di Avellino. We ate and drank many great things that night, but one of the most memorable pairings for me was this Fiano with the sardines. And I don't even remember the producer or vintage. What I remember is how the wine introduced and then enhanced the flavors of the fish, clean and pure, smoky, savory, complex, bracing, completely satisfying. Fiano! I needed to have some for my very own.

I emailed Levi and asked what to buy. He replied "You want to be looking for Guido Marsella, Pietracupa, Terredora di Paolo (pretty easy to find), La Molara." I couldn't find any of them, in fact I couldn't find any Fiano at all, except for the ones I'd been warned against. Okay, one night a year ago I went to dinner at Vinegar Hill House and they offered a Fiano that came neither recommended nor warned against, and we drank it. It was good, not memorable, but good.

Anyway, I'd kind of given up on finding Fiano until I saw recently that one or two of the producers Levi recommended are showing up on NYC shelves. Why now? Maybe it was sir Asimov's article, but who knows. I was glad to see them, and bought a few bottles. I opened one the other night with friends and wow, did I ever pair it wrong. Levi would have been aghast, to say the least.

There are Fianos to drink young, but the style that I think is most exciting to people who have tried them are the more serious wines, the wines that do very well with a few years of bottle age. There is a smoky, nutty complexity under the lovely surface of bright citrus, complexity that takes a few years to show itself. I have little experience with these wines, so when I saw the 2006 Guido Marsella Fiano di Avellino, $21, USA Wine Imports, I was pretty excited. Highly recommended producer, a few years of bottle age, very reasonably priced, nice!

And then I butchered the pairing. I had a few friends over one night and one of the things I served was the simple and classic fish en papillote, fish baked in a parchment paper packet with herbs and vegetables. It steams as it bakes and the juices are sealed in the packet. It's lovely to cut the paper open at the table releasing the aromas. I used local blackfish, a sweet-fleshed fish that eats shellfish. In each packet was little bed made of slices of asparagus, chopped garlic scapes, chopped fennel, parsley, and a pat of butter.

The fish was delicious. The wine was delicious. They did not, however, go together at all. The wine was so deep and rich, such intense aromas and flavors of smoke, honey, lentil-type legumes (reminded me of Assyrtiko, actually), and sea salt. One friend said that he was getting bacon on the nose! This wine needed those sardines from Convivio, or something equally powerful, something hearty that could stand up and speak clearly in conversation. This fish preparation was simply too delicate. It would have been better with something like a young Chablis or a Muscadet, perhaps a dry Loire Chenin Blanc. Or a young rosé from Provence. Or anything less intense than this Fiano.

Just goes to show that the food can be delicious, and the wine can be great, and things can still go wrong at the table. Don't worry though - no one was hurt, or even insulted. We all actually learned something.


Tim Buzinski said...

I still think you're percentage is high and comparing anyone's pairing acumen to Levi's is, well, an unfair yardstick to measure up to.

Anonymous said...

So were you warned against Romano Clelia? It isn't geeky but has an easy place in my cellar.

The Wine Mule said...

Oh, I remember the Thanksgiving I opened a Madiran, not knowing our host had gone for a spicy Southwestern preparation...both great, but a disaster as a pairing.

Luciano Pignataro said...

This is the italian's translation on my blog

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