The real trick to pairing food with wine is not to take it too seriously, but rather just play with it. When chef Olivier Combe, whose restaurant CO2 is one of the best in Avignon, France, plays this kind of game — pairing his dishes with some of the best wines from nearby Chateauneuf-du-Pape — it’s not only fun, it’s drop dead delicious.
In April, Combe and the producers of Chateauneuf-du-Pape held what you might call a Master Class on food and wine pairing for an international gathering of wine geeks, bloggers, vintners, and journalists.
Wines from Chateauneuf-du-Pape are almost never made from one sole grape variety. A palette of 13 different grapes may enter into the blend. For whites, the chief grape is Grenache Blanc, usually blended with different percentages of Bourboulenc, Clairette and/or Roussanne, the last of which is often fermented or aged in oak.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape is known for majestic reds which account for most of the production, but the pairings at this event included a majority of whites which are often overlooked. Further, Combe’s menu transitioned from white wine to red and back to white again. I love that kind of freewheeling liberty.
Welcoming us was a glass of 2013 Chateau de Vaudieu, barrel fermented white made primarily from Grenache and Roussanne. Simultaneously plump and fresh, with mild but distinct oak notes, it nicely whet the palate for the organoleptic onslaught.
Melt-in-your mouth food and luscious wine
Combe’s home-cured gravlax was the first dish. Cubes of fleshy salmon sat on a light cream sauce, judiciously seasoned with dill, lemon zest and shallots.
Each of the two whites paired with the gravlax worked beautifully, bridges of flavor joining the salmon and the cream sauce. The 2013 Domaine Giraud Les Gallimardes, a blend of equal parts Grenache, Clairette, Roussanne and Bourboulenc, was fresh, full and gently oaky. The 2013 Domaine Patrice Magni was tight and mouthfilling, with vibrant flavors of lemon and lemon zests.
In another life, Olivier Combe must have been a sushi chef, so deftly did he sear the medallions of superb tuna that followed the gravlax. Essentially raw, only the extreme outer edges of the tuna were blistered with a crust hauntingly scented by Timut pepper. It was almost a pity to mask that purity by combining the tuna with the palate-tingling hot-sweet Thai sauce served alongside.
Enter the first red Chateauneuf-du-Pape of the day, the 1985 Clos du Mont Olivet. Like the appellation’s whites, the reds are almost always made from a blend of grapes, primarily Grenache Noir, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. The Mont Olivet, for example, was 80% Grenache, assembled with small amounts of Syrah and Mourvèdre. Aging with dignity, it was a smooth and inviting weave of dried fruit and herbs and very much at home with the tuna sans Thai sauce.
Then it was back to white Chateauneuf-du-Pape with the 2011 Clos Saint Paul that accompanied a large slab of melt-in-the-mouth foie gras. A blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Roussanne, the wine was rich and mellow, with notes of oak and faint hints of oxidation. Enjoyable as the wine was, everyone felt that a much, much older white Chateauneuf would have been a better foil for the foie gras — an enticing proposition that earned a round of applause.
The main dish was a toothsome parmentier of long-simmered, minced pig’s cheeks mixed with black olives on a thick gravy seasoned with sage, thyme and red wine, and topped with a succulent mound of creamy potatoes.
Of the two reds served, it was the 2004 Domaine du Bois de Boursan Cuvée des Félix, an organic wine, that won universal acclaim. Chiefly Grenache with some Mourvèdre, it had aged beautifully, presenting a homey tapestry of dried red fruit and herbs which married seamlessly with the parmentier.
More from Zester Daily:
Next, slices of Comté — each from a specific sub-region — were paired with the 2011 Domaine des 3 Cellier Réserve, a white made from pure Roussanne, fermented and aged in barrel. Pale gold, with a hint of butterscotch, it went nicely with the nutty, borderline butterscotch flavors of the cheese, but the wine served with dessert might have been a more vibrant partner.
The dessert finale
Dessert was a chestnut tiramisu made by the chef’s wife, Jeanne. This cloud of froth accented by chestnut was paired with a fascinating wine from Domaine de la Charbonnière. A blend of Clairette and Bourboulenc, harvested late when the grapes were totally shriveled, it was extremely sweet but nicely balanced by acidity. By law, it’s not a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, though this type of wine was historically made for communions and baptisms.
Since my palate does not appreciate sweet-on-sweet, I’d have served this with the foie gras or with the comté and I’d have paired the tiramisu with a good bourbon or Armagnac or an ice-cold iced coffee.
So sure, certain dishes go best with certain wines, but I polished it all off anyway.
Main photo: Parmentier of long-simmered minced pig’s cheeks mixed with black olives on a thick gravy seasoned with sage, thyme and red wine, and topped with creamy potatoes. Credit: Copyright 2015 Federation des Producteurs de Chateauneuf-du-Pape