I was recently invited to a small dinner with Dennis Cakebread of Cakebread Cellars.
Now, I don’t want to fall all over myself, but I do consider Cakebread to be a benchmark California winery. They have an iconic Chardonnay that may be the very definition of a California Chard. However, it’s their reds that really get my attention. Big, sweetly-oaked Pinot Noirs, abundantly aromatic Syrahs and elegant, well-balanced Cabs that are nicely acidic.
Many of the styles and trends (for better or worse…) that we associate with California wines began because pioneers like the Cakebread family saw potential in the California terroir of the Napa valley.
Still, I am not here to discuss California wine styles. That’s not what I do. That’s not my thing.
But I do want to talk about what to serve with this excellent wine. And make no mistake it is an excellent wine with a price point to match. So whatever recipe we develop needs to be equally special.
Which isn’t to say that the food need be “fancy”. Sure this wine is elegant. But its elegance comes from its simple, well-balanced nature. It is a blend of three grapes, with 79% of the blend being Cabernet. If you know grapes, you know Cabernet is a relatively small grape. Meaning more seed, more skin, more stem by volume. This translates into tannins.
Without appropriate aging tannins can be unpleasant. Of course tannins are necessary in good red wine because they add structure by balancing acidity. But not everyone will be patient enough to lay this bottle down for 10 years. So the winemaker has added a touch of Cabernet Franc and 17% Merlot. I’d say for approachability. The Cabernet Franc adds a sturdy backbone without adding a lot of extra tannins. The Merlot adds softness, which tames the Cabernet tannins somewhat in the short run. Of course I am not the winemaker, so these are just opinions and educated guesses.
To be clear, a blend is not a recipe. A blend is changed with each bottling to suit the grapes and weather. The grapes in this Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon are grown at a high elevation, considerably above the fog line. They get a bit more heat than some of the other fields that Cakebread Cellars cultivates. In fact, at dinner Dennis discussed the micro-climates within micro-climates that define much of the Dancing Bear property. These sorts of extremes produce bold flavor and higher alcohol levels. It is the job of winemaker Julianne Laks and viticulturist Toby Halkovich to work with these conditions to bring about the well-balanced wine I keep referring to.
Oh wait, I said I wasn’t going to talk about wine styles or growing conditions. I mention this because despite the harsh growing conditions on Howell mountain (or perhaps thanks to) somehow (even without a decade in the cellar) the tannins are tamed and there is a level of acidity that really helps elevate this vintage into a very food friendly wine suitable for drinking right now.
Which does bring me back to the purpose of today’s post – finding just the right recipe to accompany this wine. When I first tasted it, I was a guest of Dennis Cakebread at a small dinner at Michael’s in Santa Monica (along with Adam and Marissa Rubenstein from VivaLaFoodies and Eve Bushman from Eve’s Wine 101). There were just five of us at the table and three of us ordered the Superior Farms Colorado Rack of Lamb. At first glance it did seem the best choice on the menu to pair with this mostly Cab blend. Yet despite the elegance of the combination I just felt that the delicate texture of a lamb chop might not stand up as tall as it should with this wine. Besides the lamb had the additional oomph of sausage, harissa, watercress, and heirloom tomatoes. A lovely and complex group of flavors, best saved for another day I decided. I was here to taste the wine.
So I chose a grilled duck breast. I was pretty pleased with my choice, too. Because the slight bitter quality that comes with properly char-grilled meat would be mimicked and accentuated by the bold, slightly bitter tannins I expected from a younger Cabernet Sauvignon blend.
Of course the wine’s tannins were not overpowering, as I already said. They were present however, and the grilled meat stood beside them quite well. Same with the lusciousness that is associated with fatty meat like duck.
I walked out of that restaurant knowing I wanted to do a pairing for this wine that would suit everything that I had just learned about it. My first impulse was to go for the jugular and really come up with an unusual recipe. I even discussed it with my brother who is a much better cook than I. We talked about beef and coffee rubs. Turkish flavors are trendy right now, perhaps there was a Middle Eastern direction to follow.
In the end we decided to rely on simplicity and let the wine lead the way. Which means lamb. But we chose a stronger flavored cut than the chops we enjoyed at Michael’s. We chose leg of lamb. A boneless, butterflied, olive tapenade stuffed, leg of lamb. And yes, we grilled it outside on the BBQ to barely past rare with plenty of good black char.
The excellent tapenade recipe come from Cook and Be Merry and the inspiration for the lamb comes from Laurant Tourondel
- 1 1⁄4 c black kalamata olives with pits, yielding 1 packed cup of olive meat
- 1⁄4 c olive oil
- 2 t lemon juice
- 4 lbs boneless leg of lamb
- clv garlic, thinly sliced
- 2 T chopped fresh rosemary leaves
- fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 t lemon zest, from a microplane grater
- 2 t orange zest, in long thin strips
Remove pits from olives.
Place the olives, olive oil, lemon juice and lemon zest in a mini food processor and process until a paste is formed. Transfer to a clean container and refrigerate until needed. Will keep three to four weeks. This recipe makes more than you will need.
Stuff the lamb: Unroll the lamb and spread the boned-out side with 1/2 cup of the olive tapenade. Sprinkle the orange zest on top. Roll up the lamb tightly, returning it to as close to the original shape as possible. Tie it at 2-inch intervals with kitchen twine. With a small, sharp knife, cut slits 2 or 3 inches apart in the top of the roast. Push the garlic slices into the slits. Sprinkle the roast all over with the rosemary, salt, and pepper. Wrap the lamb tightly in several layers of plastic wrap and refrigerate it for 3 days ideally, but not less than 24 hours.
Prepare a charcoal grill with two areas of heat, direct and indirect. Place the tied lamb onto the grates over the flame. It will sputter and flare up so watch it carefully. Grill it turning often to achieve charring on all sides.
Move the lamb to the low, indirect heat portion of the grate and cook with a closed grill about 1 hour until 125 degrees F. is achieved internally.
Remove the lamb to a tray and cover loosely with foil. Let the meat rest for at least 30 minutes before slicing.
SERIOUS FUN FOOD
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