Matchmaking in Alsace – Riesling with food

IMG_6610-1Towards the end of November each year, Thierry Meyer of Oenothèque Alsace plunges down into his cellar in Strasbourg to emerge with armfuls of trusty, dusty bottles. At the same time, chef Jean-Philippe Guggenbuhl starts leafing through his recipe books at La Taverne Alsacienne in Ingersheim near Colmar. Together they come up with a spectacular Riesling dinner menu.

The objective is to prove not just that Riesling – as vinified in Alsace, rather than in Germany – goes uncommonly well with food, but also that it pairs harmoniously with an amazing range of dishes. As in life, some partnerings work better than others. But the fun (for the Thierry-Jean-Philippe team as for the participants) is in putting the wines together with the food and seeing what jells and what doesn’t.

Of course these aren’t just any old Rieslings. Nor is this any old cooking. We’re talking here of some of Alsace’s finest, including bottles from such rare vintages that not even their makers have any left lurking in their own cellars. And J-P’s dinner showed him to be right back on form, fully recovered afer a recent enforced absence from his piano.

IMG_6606-1The apero was a 2011 GC Zinnkoepfle from Seppi Landmann – a lively appetite-sharpener from this jovial wine grower from Soultzmatt. To go with the first course of lobster and strips of mango in a  thyme-honey vinaigrette there was an 08 GC Wineck-Schlossberg from one of our fave growers, Jean-Marc Bernhard in Katzenthal (lovely floral nose, lemony/citrussy notes) and an ’06 GC Schlossberg from the redoubtable Mme Faller et ses Filles in Kaysersberg (vindication of the received wisdom that in horrible years, of which 06 was one of the horribl-est, go for a top domaine). Each was a delight in its own right, but most around the table would have welcomed a little more luscious rondeur in the wines to rhyme with the plump sweetness of the lobster and its honeyed, herby vinaigrette.

IMG_6607-1For the wild cod with ceps (culled in basketfuls two weeks earlier by the beaming chef) and garnishes of pumpkin and potatoes [the standout dish of the whole dinner, all agreed] came an outstanding duo of wines: a ’90 Trimbach Cuvée Frédéric Emile and a magnum of ’89 GC Altenberberg de Bergbieten Cuvée Henriette from the magnificent Mochels in Traenheim. An extraordinary chance to taste these two wines, 22 and 23 years old respectively, both of them superb, mineral-laden, with layers of complex flavours unfolding on the tongue, both more than holding their own with the assertively seasoned and garnished fish dish.

IMG_6608-1Next the chef entertained us with a little foie gras interlude. Billed as La Bille Surprise (“the surprise marble” – tho’ more of a gobstopper than a marble), it was perched on a splodge of warm, spiced, dried fruits and impaled with an El Bulli-reminiscent pipette of Gewurztraminer syrup. The surprise element (not entirely what Jean-Philippe had planned, he later admitted with a cheerful grin) came when you pulled the pipette out of the foie gras and it exploded Gewurztraminer juice all over you.

We mopped ourselves down and gave our full attention to the wines: a ’98 Heimbourg from Zind-Humbrecht and an ’88 Pflaenzerreben from Rolly-Gassmann. My perception of both these celebrated growers is that they harvest their grapes at perfect maturity. Yet the [ripe] acidity of the wines provided yet another surprise and worked against the rich/syrupy/fruity/spicy foie gras. Whether a pair of ripe Gewurztraminers might have worked better than the two ripe-but-lean Rieslings fuelled a fringe debate.

I’m always interested to taste a range of cheeses with white wine – the whole idea seems to work against the automatic knee-jerk, red-wine-with-cheese response. Now, picture a pair of Rieslings – an ’83 Josmeyer GC Hengst Vendanges Tardives and a ’61 (read it again, not a typo) Kitterlé from Schlumberger – with a selection of cheeses from Jacky Quesnot in Colmar. The Josmeyer came across as a bit unfocused, a little flat – unusually for this fine domaine in Wintzenheim whose wines are always crystalline and rapier-sharp. Thierry had snagged three bottles of the ’61 Schlumberger at auction, working on the premise that at least 1 of the 3 would surely come up trumps. He was right. The best of the bunch was deep honeyed gold, rich, amazingly alive and complex at 51 years old – and singing along in magnificent and surprising harmony with a seriously opinionated 18 month-old Gruyère AOC.

IMG_6609-1Things drew to a close with a gorgeous ’07 Herrenreben VT from Domaine Schoenheitz in Wihr-au-Val (think liquid marmalade) and a heavenly ’90 GC Muenchberg VT from André Ostertag, which provided the match of the day with the minestrone de fruits de saison et son sorbet, a fresh little round of diced fresh fruit topped with sorbet.

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