From local, vine-ripened tomatoes and just-picked ears of corn to the first crop of apples, butternut squash and Brussels sprouts, the transitional season from late summer to early fall is a culinary treasure trove. Chefs, guests, and sommeliers get giddy at the availability and variety of seasonal ingredients—and the wines that partner with them.
The fresh food options are so vast this time of year, you can practically change menu options and pairings with the nature of the week’s weather, notes Bruce Sherman, chef at North Pond in Chicago. At the 90-seat restaurant, which focuses on American cuisine with a French influence, it becomes a challenge during this time to select from the diverse offerings of the farms, fields and waterways, he says.
Sherman ticks off a laundry list of great late-summer ingredients: tomatoes, peppers, corn, pears, apples, onions, striped bass, lobster, pork and pheasant. He turns to rich, earthy white wines such as white rioja or vermentino, rosés and southern Rhône blends to match this transitional cuisine.
One favorite pairing is the elegant, strawberry-scented 2012 Blackbird Arriviste (priced at $14 a glass), a rosé of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. It’s served with heirloom tomato gazpacho with chilled lobster and black olives. Grilled pork and peaches find a winning partner with the citrus- and peach-tinged 2012 Bodegas Terras Gauda albariño ($17 a glass) from Spain’s Rías Baixas region.
Beyond the usual suspects
For many guests, the choice is clear when it comes to ordering wine during this time of year—and it can prove to be conundrum for sommeliers. “With all of the summer vegetables and seafood prevalent on our menus, the pairings can get a little white-heavy,” notes Brent Kroll, wine director for the 18 concepts of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, headquartered in the Washington, D.C. area. “Creating variety and surprising partners can be a fun challenge,” he says.
Kroll has an all-inclusive philosophy when it comes to the process of seasonal pairings. “I round up the usual suspects of wines I think would go well with the flavors in a dish, and then I take a few outliers that have a shot at pairing well,” he explains. “I take the components of the dish and try to mix them all together and try them with several wines.”
He notes that many guests request highly acidic wines like sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio. But Kroll generally likes to mix things up by suggesting bottles like falanghina from southern Italy, or malagousia from northern Greece. He is admittedly partial to indigenous Greek varietals, many of which are known for their sea-breeze notes and savory quality.
At The Partisan, a 100-seat, meat-focused concept, Kroll partners prawns with the 2013 Gaia Wild Ferment assyrtiko ($14 a glass; $56 a bottle), a full-bodied and tart version of Santorini’s signature grape. The dry 2008 Marc Tempe riesling from Alsace, France ($70 a bottle) goes nicely with Berkshire pork.
At Bastille, a 46-seat, upscale French bistro in Alexandria, VA, beverage manager Mark Slater reaches for lighter-style European whites and reds to pour alongside the abundance of easy to pair fruits and vegetables in the late summer season. The 2012 Von den Terrassen grüner veltliner Weingut Sepp Moser ($39 a bottle) from Austria’s Kremstel region works well with mussels in a tomato-saffron broth, with peppers, eggplants, onions and fennel.
A Provençale-style stew with tomatoes, onions, peppers, eggplants, zucchini, fennel and olives with fresh herbs and a basil emulsion finds its match in the 2012 Bernard Baudry “Les Granges,” ($40 a bottle), a cabernet franc-based red from Chinon in France’s Loire Valley. “The squash, melons and apples [in the late summer to early fall transitional period] are great with French unoaked chardonnays from Pouilly Fuissé and chablis, or with Loire Valley chenin blanc-based wines like Vouvray Sec and Savennières,” he says.
Add some sparkle
Kroll extols the versatility and extra refreshment sparkling wines produce—especially during the dog days of late summer. “Something like a rosé [bubbly] works with tomatoes or strawberries, or barrel-aged sparkling for corn off of the grill.” The crispness in the Dumont Demi-Sec Champagne ($45 a half bottle) matches that of acidic sorbet, while the Shafer Frolich, a Blanc de Noirs Trocken from Nahe, Germany ($64 a bottle) cuts through the fat of a whole pig’s head.
The Partisan and the adjacent Red Apron Butchery’s menus are charcuterie-heavy. Kroll likes to pair them with a classic yet oft-maligned dry red Italian sparkler, lambrusco.
Kroll recommends the Fiorini lambrusco from Emilia- Romagna, Italy ($40 a bottle) with mortadella; it would work equally well with grilled salmon, or fried or grilled chicken. Modern versions of lambrusco are not like the treacly sweet versions of yesterday, he notes. And the bubbles cut through the richness and fattiness in salume and other cured meats.
Fork and cork teamwork
At Coppervine, a 62-seat contemporary American restaurant in Chicago, beverage director Don Sritong and chef de cuisine David Wang collaborate for months before releasing the next season’s menus.
“I’m inspired by the cuisine and what’s available to me,” explains Wang. “I create a dish that ‘tastes’ like spring, summer, fall, winter, and pairings help to refine the flavors of the food and help to focus what the dish’s intent is.”
To bridge the summer-to-fall season, Sritong serves slightly chilled Cru Beaujolais, fresh barbera and sparkling shiraz with dishes including heirloom tomatoes, fresh figs, gooseberries, cherries and soft shell crabs.
Each menu item at Coppervine has a suggested wine, cocktail and beer pairing, and both Sritong and Wang have been pleasantly surprised at how well guests have taken to it. “Over seventy-five percent of our guests experience at least one course with a suggested pairing, with many others trying pairings throughout the night,” Sritong says.
Sritong likens the experience of a great culinary pairing to enjoying a warm chocolate-chip cookie with a cold glass of milk—a combination of physiological, psychological and nostalgic pleasure.
Take the Temperature
Of course, geography does play a part in what’s available seasonally—and for how long. “The end of summer here in the Lowcountry is the hottest part of the year—we are still eating peaches, melon, berries and crab, clams and shrimp from the sea,” notes Matt Tunstall, sommelier for Husk, a 137-seat Southern-focused, restaurant in Charleston, SC. “The style of food is clean and crisp because of the intense heat outside that stays around well into the evening.”
Tunstall also treats his 50-bottle wine list seasonally, and bottles geared for the season mirror the cuisine’s freshness. “In the late summer, many selections are clean, crisp, energetic whites and aromatic, thin-skinned red wines that want to be refreshing and are light on their feet.”
For instance, the sweetness and acidity of the 1998 Kruger-Rumpf “Münsterer Rheinburg” Spätlese riesling from Nahe Germany ($15 a glass) matches that of the South Carolina compressed watermelon with house-made ginger ale vinegar and Bourbon-barrel-smoked sea salt.
Getting closer to autumn, Tunstall suggests pairings like the earthy 2012 Lioco “Laguna” pinot noir from Sonoma Coast ($15 a glass) with a confit North Carolina duck leg served with creamy Anson Mills oats, butternut squash, bourbon apples, Brussels leaves and brown-butter jus.
“The challenge is finding the temperature change and weight of the food,” notes Tunstall. As the days become crisper, chefs increasingly turn to heavier dishes—which require more weight and concentration from a wine. He especially likes how flavorful braised meat dishes can stand up to richer wines with a healthy tannic structure in the early fall.
When putting together a wine selection for a season, Tunstall says, you have to cover the flavors, produce, proteins and style of the chef. He cites open communication and a sommelier’s working knowledge of a chef’s style as integral to this process.
Sherman believes every successful wine and food pairing has one thing in common: “Wine pairing is about balance, finding a complementary relationship with wine to food. The wine enhances the flavors, yet washes it away too, readying the palate for the next bite.” That philosophy holds true, no matter what the thermometer or calendar says.
Sidebar: Hyper Local, or Just Hype?
Menus at restaurants that have a seasonal or sustainable slant typically list ingredients sourced from nearby locations, touting the freshness and quality of produce, meat, poultry and fish that doesn’t have to travel far as proof of their commitment to buying and serving local. But is hyperlocal always feasible? And how does location and seasonality come into play?
“For me, it’s about the flavor of the food and the quality first,” says Bruce Sherman, chef at North Pond in Chicago. “I’m not more interested in where it comes from than how it tastes when properly treated.” Maintaining a seasonally focused wine list is another element of keeping up with the evolving nature of agriculture, he notes.
Matt Tunstall, sommelier for Husk restaurant in Charleston, SC, is more adamant about adhering to this culinary mantra. “To be honest, I am surprised the term ‘hyperlocal’ is still being used and questioned. Food in season tastes better, it’s less expensive and it’s better for you,” he notes.
It could be stifling, from a wine pairing stance, if an operator is locates in an area that had trouble growing produce year round, Tunstall admits. “But what is life without challenges?”And as for local wines, they must pass muster, just like ones from any other region in the world, says Brent Kroll, wine director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group in Washington, D.C. “Hyper local is only good if the product is good, too—being local just to be local isn’t enough for me to feature a wine on one of our lists.”