Wine Pairing Tips for the Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes

Now that the Christmas shopping frenzy starts to settle down, it’s time to focus on the most important parts of the holiday season… family, food and wine! My family partakes in the Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner, and as of late we use a lot of different seafood styles throughout the meal. But that is the beauty of this fish feast… there are no steadfast rules of what you HAVE to cook which gives the chef a true sense of freedom and creativity. But it also makes pairing the right wines a little tricky.

To give exact wine pairings is difficult, as there are dozens of different ways to prepare each of type of seafood. It is more about the consistency and texture of the fish and the sauces. For example, an appetizer of raw oysters and clams will covet a far different wine than clams casino or fried oysters. Below are some easy and general wine pairings for various styles of seafood that you may serve for your seven fishes feast, along with some specific wine recommendations.

RAW/CHILLED SEAFOOD:

The general rule of thumb is the lighter the dish, the lighter the wine.  I like to go with Sancerre for this paring. The flinty minerality in these high acid, citrus fruit based wines seem to bring out all the lively flavors and freshness in any chilled seafood dish. Domaine Jean-Paul Balland wines offer a wonderful expression of Loire Sauvignon Blanc and at around $20 the base Sancerre is a great value. Pascal Jolivet is also a solid option and is usually under $20 a bottle. A dry, high acid Finger Lakes Riesling will also work with all those raw bar goodies.  Any of the selections from Herman J. Wiemer (particularly the Reserve Dry Riesling) are sure to please the palate. Pinot Grigio is a popular light white wine for this part of the meal, but quite frankly unless it is REALLY good, it’s a little too neutral. But if PG is your go to, try and grab one from the Collio region…Fiegl always produces a solid offering.

BAKED/FRIED SEAFOOD:

For dishes like baked cod or seared scallops, you still want to keep it light but with a bit more body than your typical PG or SB.  Chablis is a reliable option, as these unoaked wines made from Chardonnay have all the endearing qualities we love about Chard, but without the smoke and wood influence. Simmonet-Febvre is consistently tasty and usually can be found for around $20 a bottle. Albarino can also work out quite well here, as all that minerality and stone fruit balance against most baked seafood recipes. The As Laxas is stunning, and a great value under $25.

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If your fish is getting fried, you’re gonna have to step up to some bigger whites like those Burgundies or California Chards, and here is when you can start getting into the reds. The thicker and heavier the batter, the bolder you can go on the wine. Lighter Chianti Classicos and Pinot work for a delicate sautéed dish, but if you are going with the deep fryer don’t be afraid to pull out a Zin or Syrah, especially if you are cooking up something with a little spice in it. The Mullineux Syrah from Swartland, South Africa is a fantastic option, not just for this meal but for ANY meal! It’s around $30 a bottle which may not be cheap, but drinks like something twice the price.

SEAFOOD WITH PASTA:

For openers, make sure you use the same color wine as you do for the sauce.    For 2015 Pieropan Soave Classico, Veneto, Italy (750ml)white sauces, like linguine with white clam sauce, you can still use the same PG or SB as you served for the raw/chilled seafood. But I like to step up the Italian white game for these dishes and go with a quality Soave (made from the Gargenega grape) or even a Fiano d’Avellino. Pieropan makes a phenomenal Soave called La Rocca, but it ain’t cheap at about $35-40.  Feudi di San Gregorio produces a lovely Fiano and is a screaming value for under $20.

 

Red sauce = red wine… preferably something  a little high on the acid scale. Tomato sauce is high in acid so you want a wine that can match up to it allowing the food and wine Image result for shrimp calamari fra diavolochoice to complement one another. My mom makes a mean shrimp and calamari fra diavolo which is always a Christmas tradition for our feast. I love to pair this up with a quality Barolo or Chianti Classico Riserva. Monsanto CCR for around $20-25 is pretty tough to beat, but the Marchese Antinori CCR for  $40-50 may be my all-time favorite… particularly the 2007 vintage. As far as Barolo, the 2012 Fontanafredda Seralunga D’alba is drinking like a champ right now, and for under $40 is about a good a deal you can get in the Barolo world.

HEARTY SEAFOOD:

This is also a sauce driven pairing in terms white or red wine, but because lobster, king crab, swordfish, etc. can be quite meaty and weighted you can go red for both sauce options. This is about the only time I prefer an oaky, buttery Chard when it is paired broiled lobster and a white wine/butter based sauce. But it can’t be over the top in terms of oak aging (as many of the Cali Chards can be) as the acidity and fruit have to stay in balance. Fox Run in the Finger Lakes makes a stellar Reserve Chard for under $20, and I simply love the Domaine Ferret Pouilly Fuisse. It may carry a somewhat hefty $40 price tag, but is flat out tasty juice.

If your seafood finds itself  in a sea of marina sauce, you can stick with the same red options from the pasta course. However, if you are planning to open up some big dog reds for Christmas Eve, this is the time to do it. A Super Tuscan or Brunello  di Montalcino would be the traditional pairings, but if you have been dying to 2015 PRIDE MERLOT 750MLbreak open one of your aged Bordeaux or Napa gems, this is the time to do it. Renieri and Il Poggione are two of my favorite Brunello producers by far, and if you are digging for a hefty Napa Red, the Pride Merlot is a wonderful option here. Big, classic Napa fruit but with great acidity and super polished tannins  make it an ideal food wine.

Whatever you do… make sure to open something special in the good company of family and friends this Christmas, as that is always the BEST pairing of the season.

 

15 Wines Under $15 Bucks!

Let’s be honest, it’s pretty easy to go out and spend $40 -$50 on a bottle of wine and  feel confident that you are getting something that should be pretty damn tasty. I say ‘should be’ because believe it or not, there are plenty of disappointing wines at that price point. But more often than not, a wine of that price should possess some sort of quality in terms of region, grape selection, production and aging. But what is much harder is to find those $10-15 bottles that taste like something 2-3X the price… but they are out there my friends. Sometimes you have to stomach through a bunch of swill to find those great values, but like anything in life it takes a bit of determination and hard work to discover those hidden gems.

graphic courtesy of foodandwineblog.com

Check out this list of 15 wines, in no particular order, which have a tremendous QPR (Quality Price Ratio) and will run under $15. I am not including vintages as these wines are consistently solid just about every year and possess similar flavor profiles regardless of vintage (for the most part)… Cheers!

White/Rosé

Belle Ambiance Pinot Grigio, CA – This is like the house white wine for my block. A PG with some body to match up to the acidity, with pretty floral notes surrounding the citrus fruit center.

Fox Run Dry Riesling, FLX – Keep it local with one of my favorite Finger Lakes value wines.  A little like Sprite on the palate (lemon/lime with just a quick hit of pettilance) with fresh grapefruit and searing acidity, a home run pairing for any kind of chilled shellfish.

 

Image result for Louis Jadot Chardonnay Bourgogne Blanc

Louis Jadot Chardonnay Bourgogne Blanc – Classic Burgundy entry level Chardonnay with a concise balance of crisp apple and pear fruit, bright acidity and just a hint of that  buttery character.

 

NV House Wine Rosé Can – Good wine is coming in all shapes and sizes these days, so don’t let the can scare you! This is a great summer sipper, porch pounder…whatever you want to call it. Fresh and bright strawberry fruit with an appealing rose petal note.  

NV House Wine Rosé Can, 6Pk, 6 x 375 mL

RedImage result for vidal Fleury Cotes du Rhone

Vidal Fleury Cotes du RhoneOne of the biggest and most expressive CDRs at this price point. Concentrated red and black cherry fruit, peppery spice and mineral notes are all in balance as is the bright acidity and firm tannins. Easily could pass as a Gigondas for twice the price.

vini_salice

Cantele Salice Salentino Riserva – Made from 100% Negroamaro, the dominant grape in this area of Puglia, this has a fairly intense nose featuring dried fruit such as raisin, prune and fig. But the candied blackberry and cherry notes come through on the palate and flow through the dry, pleasing finish. Big yet balanced…

 

Purple Malbec Cahors Chateau Lagrezette’s entry level red, this is simply a wonderful expression of Malbec from the motherland (France) with bright acidity, vibrant black fruits and just a dollop of black pepper.

 

Seaglass Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara – This is a perennial ‘best value’ Pinot for me as it stays light and lively on the palate but exudes true Pinot character, which most Pinots at this price point fail to do.

Underwood Pinot Noir, OR (Can) – Am I having this with a roasted duck? No… But for a light everyday wine this has enough fruit and depth to make it fully enjoyable. And do you know what doesn’t break and shatter all over the floor for your kids to step on and get little pieces of glass stuck in their feet?? Cans… that’s what.

broken bottle

 

Slow Press Cabernet, CA – This has to be the best CA Cab for the Price on the market. All that Paso Robles fruit gives this full bodied wine an opulent core of black cherry, cassis and plum with just a kiss of sweetness. Plush and supple, but with enough depth to enjoy with a grilled steak.

 

Rosso di Ca’Momi, CA –  A fun blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot and Petite Sirah. Medium to full bodied with a fairly intense nose of toasted vanilla, blackberry and clove.  Super value at around $10.

 

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Chateau Souverain Merlot, CASorry Miles, but I am drinking THIS f&%king Merlot! It has some real umph to it with big dark fruit flavors, toasty oak laced with clove and spice aromas. Probably the best wine of the bunch here…

 

Lines of Wine

Columbia Crest Grand Estates, WAWhile the Syrah is my favorite in the line, this value brand under Ste. Michelle Estates is continually awarded “Best Buy” accolades from top publications, and for good reason. Tough to find a bad one in the lineup.

Image result for columbia crest grand estatesHomeGroup

Handcraft Wines, CA – The Delicato family produces this line of wines which offer tremendous value and drinkability across the board. Taste the Dark Red Blend and the Petite Sirah and you will understand exactly what I mean.

 

Bota Box – Boxed wine is not how you may remember it. This is no Franzia or Almaden, so get over the stigma already. Bota is producing really solid juice from all over the world (although mostly CA). And at $20 a 3L box (or $5 a bottle) there is no better value on the market, particular for the whites like Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.

Image result for bota box wine

How To Do A Steakhouse On A Budget

There are few culinary delights that can surpass that of a top tier steakhouse dining experience. From the seductive aromas of grilled beef and butter that are taken in at first entry to the last sip of port enjoyed with that decadent chocolate lava cake, they offer something  utterly satisfying that few other restaurants are able to do. But all of this hedonistic enjoyment can cost a pretty penny. The better steakhouses will charge $45+ for a cut of beef, and that normally does not come with any sides…just a piece of meat on a plate. Once you factor in all the starters, the trimmings to accompany the steak, not to mention that big Napa Cab, a few desserts, espressos and after dinner drinks, the bill can end up totaling the same as your monthly mortgage.

But does a steakhouse meal have to be that exorbitant? In a word…Nope!There are some very simple ways to cut a few corners in order to still enjoy all that a quality steakhouse has to offer while keeping the expenditures down. It’s all about efficiency.

The first pitfall for many is the allure of the seafood tower…as it clearly rocks. However they really are over the top when you consider all the crustaceans they load them up with.  You may be better off just ordering your favorite shellfish for yourself. Whether it is a half dozen oysters or a shrimp cocktail platter, the amount it will cost for the individual appetizer will be significantly less than the per person cost of an overindulgent seafood platter tower. The ever popular bacon appetizer can also suck you in as they are fantastically delicious, but super pricey for what is usually a single strip serving. And let’s be honest, you are about to dive into a giant, juicy piece of meat… do you really need more meat as an app?

The biggest unnecessary expense in most steakhouses is that of Napa Cabernet Sauvignons on the wine list. Why you may ask? Because they are effing delicious and make for a perfect pairing with grilled meat…plus they are sort of a status symbol to some, particularly those trying to impress clients or first dates. These establishments are well aware of this and will mark up those wines more than others. I find that CA Merlot and Zin, as well as the Cotes du Rhone and Spanish selections offer the greatest pairing value without skimping on quality, depending on the producer and year of course. But without question they almost always carry significantly lower markups. A good rule of thumb is to go with the second least expensive wine in any given section of the wine list, although even if you get the cheapest bottle they are typically not pouring swill at any of these fancy joints.

One place you don’t want to skimp out is on the steak. The main reason you are probably dining at a highly rated and expensive steakhouse is to enjoy that perfectly cooked piece of dry aged beef… so go for it! However there is no need to add that lobster tail for the surf and turf effect, or even those few grilled shrimp on the side. Remember, shellfish ain’t cheap. If you choose to order side dishes, you want to stick with two sides for every four people. So an order of creamed/grilled spinach and hash browns is more than enough for a table of four. Again, the steak is the star of the show so let that bad boy shine!

If you have ever actually looked at what jacks up the bill at the end of the night, more often than not it ends up being beverages of all kind. Of course the wine and booze are the biggest culprits, but the fancy coffees and all the accoutrements are no slouch. I love a double espresso with Sambuca as much as anyone, but in a steakhouse that one little luxury can run up to $20. Stick with the regular coffee and split a dessert or two instead of going overboard with the port, cognac and oversized dessert platter. Or skip the dessert and coffee altogether and enjoy the last course in the luxury of your own home.

Bonus Wine Tip: Ask the server if they have any by the bottle wine specials. Many times these steakhouses have an older bottle they may need to move out in order to make room for a new vintage. If they have a few loose bottles that are no longer on the menu and don’t have a listed price, you may get lucky and score one of those older Napa Cabs or Bordeauxs at a bargain price.

So get out there and enjoy some of those fantastic steakhouses that Westchester has to offer, as there are certainly many to choose from.

Salute!

 

Hands Down The BEST Value Super Tuscan Around!!

Tasting Notes: This Il Fauno has easily become my new favorite Italian wine under $25. When I first tasted this gem I had it pegged as a $50 Super Tuscan, so at half the price this is just a tremendous value. Black cherry and blackberry fruit cascade over the brown spice and chalky tones. Firm tannins, lively acidity, a discernible mineral character and a silky smooth finish make this something to enjoy now but will also age for the next 3-7 years or so. Simply a delight…

More info on Il Fauno di Arcanum 2007 IGT Toscana, Tenuta di Arceno:

The Jess Jackson family purchased the Arceno estate in 1994. Located in he southeast corner of Chianti Classico, it has 223 acres of vines. But unlike most estates in the region the grapes are all Bordeaux varietals; Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. This is an ideal showcase for the remarkably talented Pierre Seillan, winemaker for the Jackson’s Veritas wines as well as his Grand Cru Chateau Lassegue in St. Emilion. Here, Seillan blends 57% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon and 19% Caberent Franc. The grapes for this wine come from a warmer, well-exposed section of the estate, where the grapes get well ripened and take on a voluptuous quality. Il Fauno is aged for 12 months in 30% new French oak barrels.

Unlike Miles…I AM Drinking Some F@#$%&g Merlot! But From Which Region?

If you have seen the movie Sideways, the title should make perfect sense. For those who have not seen it (in which case it needs to be at the top of your Netflix list), the main character (Miles) is a huge Pinot Noir snob. The thought of drinking Merlot while out to dinner enrages him to the point of dropping a well placed F bomb that has become legendary in the cinematic wine world. But I’m here to tell you, Miles is f*#&$^g wrong! There is so much great Merlot out there right now, and from various wine producing regions. Below are my top three in ascending order.

3. Bordeaux – Even though Bordeaux is infamous for it’s Left Bank Cabernet Sauvignon wines (the wines of Margaux, St. Estephe, Pauillac, Medoc, etc.), it is Merlot that is the basis for the majority of Bordeaux wines. St. Emilion and Pomerol wines are almost exclusively made from Merlot and offer some of the best value in the region. Merlot from here is typically soft, floral and even a bit earthy and usually carries a raspberry component along with black cherry flavors. It can soften some of those powerful Cabernet driven blends and can stand on its own when grown in the right areas. So go and find some 2009 or 2010 St. Emilion or Pomerol wines and then tell me you don’t like Merlot.

2. Napa – Good Merlot in Napa is like Cabernet Sauvignon light. It can carry all the same cassis, black cherry and plum flavors but with softer tannins and even some floral notes. It’s typically not as bold or powerful, but can be just as flavorful and alluring. I have to stress that I am talking about GOOD Merlot here, which most of it is in Napa. But don’t confuse this with your cheap California style of Merlot, I am definitely in full agreement with Miles on that one. However I’ll drink Whitehall Lane Merlot for around $20 over most Napa Cabs at that same price point.

1. Tuscany – I have tasted a number of Super Tuscan wines as of late that use Merlot as the main, or even ONLY, grape variety that have been simply stunning (Il Fauno di Arcanum 2007 and Re di Renieri 2009 to mention a couple). The coastal Tuscan influence does wonders for this varietal imparting blueberry and blackberry fruit flavors along with licorice and floral nuances. This was a large factor why these Super Tuscan producers basically told the Chianti DOC to go screw…because they thought they could make better wine by blending Sangiovese with Cab and Merlot, and man were they right!

So try not to be a sheep and hate on Merlot…next time you are at your local wine shop pick up a bottle. Just make sure it’s from one of these three regions and if it’s any of the specific wines mentioned above you are in for a real treat!

Cheers!