It's one thing to attend a wine dinner and walk away thinking only about how enjoyable the pairing was, and it's another thing to walk away much more educated about the wines had and their history. We experienced the latter of the two scenarios one night at Pinot Provence during one of their "Sommelier's Fireside Dinner" events, this one called "Great Wines of France." They have been having one a month so far and plan to continue the series through 2014 based on its welcome reception. In fact, plenty of their guests were repeats because each dinner is uniquely themed and full of such useful information. It just so happened that the dinner we attended was atypical of their events as it was held in the main dining room rather than their usual private banquet room (a double booking error); however, that did not prevent Certified Sommelier Jörn Kleinhans from delighting us in the history of the wines chosen for the evening. He was accompanied by Adam Edmonsond, both of whom are from Wine Elite, a group that provides sommelier-guided wine tasting experiences
As we were educated on the various regions in France where our wines and grapes used came from (replete with visuals such as a large map of France), the genteel staff poured each delicate wine in our glasses and laid beautifully-arranged plates in front of us. Chef Alfonso Ramirez held nothing back that night with the dishes prepared, and everyone, including the sommeliers, were eager to see how each wine would pair. After all, it was part of the fun each guest and the sommeliers at these programs has been experiencing - talking about the food and wine together without foreknowledge of each. Our first course was a crudo of hamachi, avocado, uni, and pistachio in a coriander vinaigrette paired with a white wine that many might consider German based on the name but is actually from France in a German-centric region - the Domaine Zind-Humbecht Gewurztraminer, Wintzenheim 2003. All French wines, as I've learned from Duc and was emphasized here, are made to be had with food, and this one was no different. Its initial bitter, nearly kerosene-like nose and taste would make it less palatable to those who veer towards sitting on a back patio sipping on glasses of California whites. I found that it paired well with certain elements of the dish but not necessarily as a whole. The coriander seeds made perfect sense as they cracked between my teeth and were washed down with the dry wine but the avocado seemed too buttery. I scrunched my nose at the way the vinaigrette mismatched but found the pistachio a good touch. It nearly felt this way for the rest of the night as I took a journey between complex flavor profiles per dish and varying wines paired with cuisines outside of the native region.
The second course was an enviable plate of Loup de mere atop gnocchi and accompanied by a truffle puree and saffron emulsion, a description that screamed out to me "rich and heavy flavors" upon reading. I wondered how one could pair rose and white wines to this dish considering the decadence of such ingredients but I suppose the key is to cut through it and balanced the palate. You don't want to feel burdened by such ingredient royalty upon your tongue so you opt for a pleasant cleanse of sorts. With two wines, everyone seemed fascinated about talking to their neighbors about which paired better. After all, wine is completely a subjective experience as is food. The two exquisite glasses were of the Chateau de St. Martin Rosé, Cotes de Provence 2011 and Domaine Fevre, Chablis 2006 (a Chardonnay). Duc completely enjoyed the chablis all on its own and I the rosé whose nose made me think of lilacs and flowers, making for a welcome standalone glass. However, their true power only came out once paired with the food. As a whole, the dish seemed best paired with the chablis but separated into its different components of which there were many, I found that a bite with the saffron emulsion lent itself better with one wine while the mix of fish and truffle puree paired better with the other. I suppose it is the nature of there being many elements in a dish to speak to one's palate in numerous ways.
Once we had opened up our appetites with the lighter courses, we were submitted to two dishes of dark savory meats that piqued the interests of our base instincts. The first presented was a Pork belly with chestnuts and brussel sprouts in a maple gastrique and mustard seed, which was paired with the gems of Reserve de Vignerons Cabernet France, Saumur 2009 and a very special Domaine Brana, Irouleguy 1998. We felt like we were being spoiled...because of the wine. To be honest, the pork belly was an absolute miss for me because why, why, why would you add a maple gastrique to everything else? The overbearing sweetness was quite distracting but at least there was amazing wine to take my mind off of the foul play.
The second of the red meat plates was the lovely Lamb loin with roasted porcini, porcini puree, and fennel salad with fennel pollen vinaigrette paired with both the Chateau Gloria, St. Julien 2006 and Perrin & Fils, Chateauneuf du Pape 2009 ("Les Sinards"). Yet again, another divided dish between the wines but I'd have to say that it was the best composed of them all. Overall it worked well enough with both of the wines though of course, there were elements more befitting of one or the other. The lightly crusted loin that was oh so tender had remnants of the fennel pollen, producing an anise/licorice taste that worked out beautifully with the St. Julien while the Chateauneuf du Pape was a fit for just about every part of it. I loved the roasted porcini and porcini puree but I do have quite the liking for mushrooms of any type.
Now though we as guests felt like the evening was progressing along just fine save for the difficulty at some moments in hearing (based on how we were seated in the main dining room), they claimed the service was a tad off. Looking back, I can see what they were referring to though because we were often interrupted from our attention to the wine history lessons by the mid-speech arrival of the staff. As an apology, the Pinot Provence staff took it upon themselves to offer a very special twenty-year-aged wine along with our dessert of Chocolate fondant with mango sherbet and pannacotta - the sweet but clean Royal Tokaji Wine Company Royal Tokaji, Hungary 1995 ("Aszu Essencia"). The original pairing was also poured as well which was the Chapoutier Banyuls, and both were delectable. To think that we were granted the privilege of partaking in a bottle of the Tokaji was enough to make the night. The smallest drop went a long way in coating our throats with the sweet nectar of its specialty. Forget the dessert plate - I was fine finishing off the evening with this!
Overall, it was most enjoyable dining experience I have had recently, and I emphasize experience because though there were a few momentary misses with the pairings, the food was generally fantastic and the wines alone were stellar. We also were well-educated in the history and legacy of each wine and the regions of France along with interaction from the guests present. I do believe that it would be best to see how these events run in more closed quarters though, and you still have a chance this fall as their November event is coming up on the 20th - "Cabernet Sauvignon Around the World." Also make sure to catch Wine Elite to see what other events they have going on around southern California! Our thanks go out to everyone for having us and we look forward to letting more and more people know about this fantastic evening that they can have as well!
Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.