Exploring local menus and wine lists reveals both new and old favorites. Diners have rediscovered Rhone wines and legendary regions like Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
At chef Donald Link's restaurant Herbsaint, sommelier Joe Briand says that Pinot Noir is still the star.
"Ever since the film Sideways, people have definitely trended towards Pinots," he says. "Wine drinkers who hadn't had much experience with Pinot Noir tried it and found they liked it. Primarily because of its forward fruit and acid backbone, it's the best food wine, so that's been a big factor."
Its versatility helps. If one person in a party orders fish, another chooses the duck and a third wants the pork belly, Briand often suggests a Pinot Noir, a wine that won't overwhelm the fish but will stand up to the duck and pair well with the pork.
"The duck (leg) confit (with dirty rice and citrus gastrique) just screams red Burgundy," he says. "So I often recommend the 2004 Michel Lafarge Volnay with that dish, and patrons love it."
A less expensive Pinot Noir that customers often choose to pair with many of Link's dishes is Nicholas Potel's Bourgogne Rouge, which is available by the glass or bottle.
Customers are requesting the highly regarded 2005 red Burgundies (100 percent Pinot Noir), he adds. "I haven't found one yet that isn't fantastic. They have so much fruit and so much depth of flavor, and they're drinking so good young, I'm buying all I can get my hands on," he continues. "It's one of those once in a lifetime vintages."
The only drawback, he notes, is that there may not be any left when the vintage is at its peak.
Briand sees Rhone-style varietals as the next biggest group of red wine favorites. "Some of these wines have an earthiness that holds up well to the strong flavors in many of chef Link's dishes," he says. Many diners are choosing southern French wines especially with dishes like the Dijon-crusted lamb shoulder au jus with baked white beans. "It's almost like cassoulet. The dish just seems to cry out for bigger, heartier reds something like a Tempier Bandol Rouge," made predominantly from the Mourvédre grape. The short rib appetizer is a big hit with the J.L. Chave "Mon Coeur" Cotes du Rhone, he says.
On the white side, Briand says that California Chardonnays remain quite popular with customers. "I think they're comfortable with it," he says, but he's had success steering guests to French Chardonnays.
"White Burgundies are certainly food friendly, yet have weight similar to the body of California Chards without the vanilla and buttery, sometimes oaky, heavy malolactic style," he explains.
To go with dishes like grilled farm chicken with crawfish, spring vegetables and creamy grits, and the fish of the day, Briand recommends a couple of unoaked Chardonnays: Silver Unoaked Chardonnay from Caymus' Mer Soleil Vineyard in Santa Lucia Highlands, and a Bourgogne blanc by Morey-Blanc from the Auxey-Duressess appellation, which lies between Meursault and Monthelie in the Cotes de Beaune.
With more buttery dishes like the olive oil-seared gnocchi with lemon, Parmesan and tomatoes, guests like White Rock Napa Valley Chardonnay, Briand says.
When white-wine drinkers don't want Chardonnay, they often gravitate to Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, Briand says, but he's noticing that more and more diners are open to selecting obscure whites such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape blancs, and Viognier or Clairette, also from the southern Rhone. Two white Chateauneufs that have increased their popularity quotient are the Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe and Domaine de Montpertuis, which go well with the antipasto plate of house-cured meats, cheese and white bean crostini, and the fried frog legs with fine herbs.
At chef John Besh's Restaurant August, sommelier Sara Estes reports many of the same responses.
"What I've noticed recently is the trend toward Rhone wines, both red and white, which are doing spectacularly," she says. "The two most popular dishes and pairings are the lemonfish (Parmesan-crusted lemonfish Grenobloise with Gulf lobster, brown butter, capers and preserved lemon) with a Viognier or Rhone-style California white wine, and the lamb (whole roast baby lamb with turnips, morels and fingerling potatoes) with a red Chateauneuf-du-Pape."
Estes says guests love the California Viognier she recommends with the fish, Vino Con Brio Estate Brillante from the Lodi American Viticultural Area (AVA), a blend of Viognier, Roussane, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc. Another wine that pairs well with the fish is the Surh Luchtel Napa Valley Viognier.
One California favorite offered by the glass at Restaurant August, Treana Viognier-Marsanne (Mer Soleil Vineyard), "is making converts of white-wine drinkers who don't want a Chardonnay but want a bigger style white wine," says Estes.
"We've been very impressed by these California Viognier-based wines, perhaps even more so than with the French Viogniers," she says.
With the lamb, Estes recommends Chateau La Nerthe Chateauneuf-du-Pape. "Rhone reds and lamb seem meant for each other. That Chateauneuf goes with everything on the menu," she says.
Heading north in France to Burgundy, Estes sees white Burgundies coming back into vogue. "People are finally getting it," she says. "They are more willing to try and then are more receptive to French Chardonnays. They're surprised by the difference between Napa Chardonnays and French white Burgundies. I'm seeing that that whole big, buttery, oaky California thing is not as popular as it once was. People are moving on."
One of the wines they're moving to is Marc Colin Saint-Aubin 1er Cru en Remilly. "It's a great little wine, kind of an introduction to Burgundy from a single vineyard, 'en Remilly,' shared with the prestigious Chassagne-Montrachet appellation," Estes says. "If you don't want to spend the big bucks, you can get almost the same wine for much less. It's quite versatile, pairing very well with everything." The wine works great as a first course bottle with all the appetizers and salads, especially the chopped salad and Belle River crawfish, she says.
Another white Burgundy that's garnering a good deal of attention and is served by the glass, Domaine Talmard Macon-Chardonnay, often appears on the five-course tasting menu. "It's light, crisp and great with shellfish," says Estes. "It provides guests with an option to choose a lighter style Chardonnay."
On the red side, Estes says that the Sugar and Spice Duckling (with Anson Mills grits, roasted duck foie gras and local strawberries) calls for a big Burgundy such as a Pommard.
"Many guests ask for the king of Pommard, the 2005 Comte Armand Pommard 1er Cru Clos des Epeneaux," she says. "But I try to keep a nice balance and find that many patrons want a more moderately priced wine, so I suggest a lesser-known red Burgundy such as the 2005 Camille Giroud Marsannay. It's perfect with the duck, drinks like velvet and it won't break the bank."
As for other notes on what guests love, Estes replies, "Champagne, Champagne, Champagne. Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, Champagne was requested for a toast or special occasion. Now, you sit down and you have to have Champagne."
Estes suggests drinking both sparkling wine and Champagne. "Since many Champagne houses have estates in California, I often recommend the more reasonably priced new-world sparkling wines which are delicious: Domaine Carneros, the California extension of the French house Taittinger, is an excellent choice."
At Cuvée, whose name often refers to the blending of grapes, sommelier Reno De Ranieri oversees a huge wine list heavy with red Burgundies and Pinot Noirs from California and other countries as well.
Although they're selling more of the riper 2003 Burgundies, the 2005 vintage is in huge demand, he says. "These wines are certainly a passion for many guests and go better with food than any other reds," De Ranieri says.
"One example, the duck (Steen's-cured breast, confit leg, walnut-blue risotto, Hudson Valley foie gras and pear glace) a classical study in two preparations of cured and smoked duck has some incredible flavor going on there. A great pairing with the dish is a Jean Raphet Clos Vougeot. It has a dusty, austere nose with a little touch of mint or eucalyptus on the backside," he says.
De Ranieri matches 1999 Maison Leroy Volnay with the duck as well as the chicken "Chicken and Waffles" with boursin, pancetta and coq au vin blanc and the pork loin chop Milanese.
De Ranieri also observes that red and white Rhones are popular choices by customers. For chef Bob Iacovone's seven-hour roasted veal short ribs with a crawfish boil Hollandaise, poached tails and asparagus, De Ranieri often fields requests for a Rhone or an Australian Shiraz. He also recommends Yann Chave's Hermitage as well as the producer's Crozes-Hermitage Le Rouvre with the veal ribs.
"Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a huge buzzword," says De Ranieri, "as evidenced by the popularity of wines such as Domaine Saint Prefert Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the 2005 Domaine Saint Prefert Collection Charles Giraud Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
"When paired with food, these wines run the gamut with both a hearty beef filet mignon and lighter dishes with their jamminess on the front end and power to stand up to the filet, yet still light-bodied and smoky and peppery enough to go with the chicken or salmon (mustard- and herb-crusted salmon with lump crabmeat/brie orzo and lemon confit)."
Another Rhone red De Ranieri likes with the salmon is the 2001 Rasteau Domaine La Soumade Cuvée Confiance. White-wine drinkers often choose a white Burgundy like the Jean Philippe Fichet Meursault to pair with the dish. Another possibility is the unoaked Diatom Chardonnay, Clos Pepe Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills AVA: Its terrific acid balance would help to cut the richness of the dish, De Ranieri says.
Revisiting white Rhones, he's discovered a big winner in suggesting the Domaine Saint Prefert Chateauneuf-du-Pape blanc to guests. "It's very fresh, with a lot of nuttiness and bitter almond skin on the backside, and great with seafood or salads and versatile enough to be enjoyed with the spiced shrimp Napoleon, scallop dish (seared sea scallop over an artichoke and hazelnut spaetzle finished with brown butter) and the tuna."
The tuna duo chilled yellowfin tuna carpaccio and seared tuna loin served with asparagus and Nicoise/lemongrass/Dijon vinaigrette brings another palate pleaser to De Ranieri's mind. "Italy's Otella Turbiano 'La Creete,' with its high acid, is an easy drinking wine, a good palate cleanser, and great paired with the tuna," he says.
While De Ranieri is developing a customer base for the big red Spanish wines he loves, he's finding plenty of support from customers for bold reds from California like Orin Swift's "The Prisoner," a blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet, Syrah, Petit Syrah, Charbono and a dash of Grenache blend, Swift's Papillon Bordeaux blend and Turley Zins.
At Iris, where chef Ian Schnoebelen, one of Food & Wine's 2007 Best New Chefs in America, is ensconced as co-owner/chef, his general manager Laurie Casebonne also wears the sommelier moniker.
"Most of our customers are primarily French and California wine enthusiasts, although Spanish wines are becoming increasingly popular," Casebonne says.
"Our wait staff is very wine savvy and able to recommend new favorites that are not as well known to our adventurous younger clientele," she says.
Domaine Leon Barral Faugeres, a Syrah and Grenache blend with a touch of Carignan from the Languedoc, just west of the Rhone region, is a wine that guests have found works very well with the duck breast (with Napa cabbage, Spanish chorizo, picholine olive jus and rosemary honey), she says.
"This is one of our favorite pairings," she says. "A Rhone blend with duck and olives. It's an excellent wine, medium bodied, fruit forward with just enough earthiness, herbal character and good acidity."
Casebonne lauds one of her favorite wines, the highly regarded Domaine Tollot-Beaut Savigny-Lavieres 1er Cru, a red Burgundy, as a stunning pairing with one of the chef's own favorite dishes: the lamb meatball soup (a mixture of veal and poultry stocks with fresh herbs, three lamb meatballs, topped with a slice of toasted ciabatta bread spread with kalamata olive tapenade). Pinot Noir with soft tannins and an excellent acidity definitely complements it, she says.
The sweetbreads appetizer (with sage leaves, grilled wild green onions, roasted sunchokes and mushroom-sage jus) is complemented by the Carpe Diem Pinot Noir from Firepeak Vineyard in Edna Valley, she says.
Casebonne cites the Domaine Daniel Chauveau Antique, from Loire, a 100 percent Cabernet Franc, as a great pairing with the rabbit (housemade Kurobuta bacon-wrapped confit leg, roasted loin and a little rack of riblets with red chard, baby carrots, baby bok choy and wild mushroom jus). "The wine's from Chinon and a bit softer with more complexity and an earthy character," she says.
Echoing the desires of some of Cuvée's customers, Casebonne says Orin Swift's "The Prisoner" does quite well. "With all those different grapes, the wine is rich and full bodied with good acidity and a lot of character," she says. "Customers find it delicious with the veal cheek ravioli appetizer as well as the Kobe beef short rib."
Another wine that also goes great with these dishes is the Elyse Nero Misto, a mixed bag of 11 black grapes that's big, bold and pairs exceptionally well with the lamb (Niman Ranch loin with goat cheese ravioli).
Among the white-wine favorites, another blend takes center stage. The Waterbrook Melange Blanc from Washington's Columbia Valley, a Conundrum-type blend, stars Riesling and Gewurztraminer in leading roles with Viognier, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc playing bit parts.