As October comes to a close, so does #MerlotMe 2016, in which food and wine writers channeled their creative energies into dynamite menu pairings for one of the world’s most popular red wines. Members of our Wine Pairing Weekend group (#WinePW), which convenes the first Saturday of each month, happily devoted themselves to the Merlot theme and, I must say, came up with some wildly inspiring ideas. You can access all of the posts and recipes here. As you might imagine, they are perfect pairings for the cooler days of autumn – comfort food at its best.
To bolster our efforts, a handful of wineries generously provided us with sample bottles – I received three – around which we could build our menus. None of us got the exact same wines, so it was even more interesting to read about the individual bottles and how they stacked up against the dishes. In my original post I talked about the citrus-and-herb marinated lamb chops I served alongside Duckhorn Merlot. It was a beautiful match! I could hardly wait to get to work on the others. Unfortunately, I had to postpone those two pairings until Hurricane Matthew was safely on his way out of our neighborhood.
So here we are, in the last week of October, and I’ve got some delicious ideas to share, thanks to the folks at Grgich Hills Estates and Pope Valley Winery. My first was inspired by one of my fellow Wine Pairing Weekend bloggers, Sarah from Curious Cuisiniere, who presented her recipe for classic Tagliatelle Bolognese. Not only did she give us a recipe that was easy to follow, she explained the importance of every ingredient in the dish. It looked so mouth-wateringly good I knew I had to try it. How did it turn out? Let’s just say it’s my husband’s new favorite dish. (Thanks, Sarah!) And with a last name like Cianchetto, I’d say he’s in a good position to judge!
Pairing #1: Tagliatelle Bolognese with 2012 Grgich Hills Estate Merlot ($43.00, suggested retail)
I paired the Bolognese with the 2012 Merlot from Grgich Hills Estate in Napa Valley. A blend of 95% Merlot and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine has all the elegance you’d expect from cool climate fruit. Most of the Merlot grapes were harvested from vineyard sites at the southern reaches of Napa Valley, where cooler temperatures ensure the wine retains a fresh ribbon of acidity to balance the juicy red and black fruit. A small percentage of grapes grown in the warmer more northerly vineyards were included in the blend to offer additional body and complexity. All of Grgich Hills Estate vineyards are farmed without artificial fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides, and they are certified organic.
The long growing season of 2012 gave the grapes time to ripen perfectly, resulting in a wine that is well-balanced and delicious. After Nature did her part, the wine was aged for 18 months in French oak barrels (30% new; 70% neutral.) Grgich Hills calls this wine a “Cabernet lover’s Merlot,” thanks to its ebullient red fruit and spice profile and firm tannins. I’d have to say I agree! I drink much more Cab than Merlot, and this wine really appealed to me. More importantly, the stronger tannins were a worthy match for the richness of the Bolognese sauce, and the acidity kept the tomatoes from dulling the wine. The wine wears its relatively high alcohol content (14.9%) lightly, making it a great potential match with a wide range of foods, from steak to seared duck breast. I think I’d like to test it out with roasted pheasant or goose. That could make a memorable pairing for your holiday dinner table.
Pairing # 2: Pork Chops with Mixed-Herb Pesto and Tomatoes with the 2013 Pope Valley Winery Merlot ($32.00, suggested retail)
The butcher had a tray of beautiful, bone-in pork chops, and I thought they’d be a good foundation for my next Merlot pairing. I gathered the freshest-looking herbs I could find, a little garlic, lemon zest, and toasted almonds, and threw everything into the food processor with some olive oil, salt, and pepper. Easy enough. I coated each chop with some pesto and topped them with chopped heirloom tomatoes tossed with minced shallot, sherry vinegar, and a dash of oil. Then I baked them in a 400 degree oven for about 22 minutes (for chops about 1 ½ inches thick; adjust for the size you have.) For a side dish, I made baby potatoes coated with a little butter and chopped fresh mint. It was all delish!
Pope Valley’s 2013 Merlot would be a lovely match for most meat dishes, but I think it would really sing with one of the earthy root vegetable gratins that we all love to make in the fall. The wine is 100% Merlot, from the Eakle Ranch vineyard in northeastern Napa. The warm climate and long growing season make for a rich wine bursting with cherry, plum, and strawberry flavor. Intriguing aromas of violets (which I adore) and mocha waft from the glass, letting you know that this wine, while flirty and fun at the outset, is worthy of contemplation. It’s a wine you want to go slow with, taking time to appreciate each little nuance that emerges. Yes, it was lovely with the pork chops, but I’d be happy to drink this wine on its own. Again, the alcohol level surprised me (14.8%) because it didn’t overtake the other elements that give the wine its balance. It definitely wasn’t the first thing I noticed when I put my nose in the glass, and it wasn’t my last impression of the wine either; both fairly common sensations for me in tasting wines above 14.5%. Instead, as we poured out the last few drops from the bottle, I waxed poetic about the scent of violets lingering in the air and the notes of cocoa on the finish. Who wouldn’t love that?
Note: The wineries generously supplied these samples as part of October’s #MerlotMe promotion. I was not asked to write a positive review, and all opinions expressed in this post are my own.