Thursday, July 21, 2011

Taming of the Spice, Traminette

Editors note: This article was originally published on May 24, 2011

Spring in the Mid-Atlantic is a test of patience and the constant question of how long will we have Spring weather this year, 1 week? 2 weeks? It seems that winter weather likes to stretch as long as it can and Summer weather likes to start as early as it can. This past weekend was the first really glorious Spring weekend in the Washington, DC region. As I sat out on my patio enjoying the fleeting hours of daylight a cool breeze started to ever so slightly pick up. This is a time of juxtaposition. Warm days cool nights, shaking off the dreariness of winter and welcoming in the rebirth and renewal that Spring offers. Boots give way to Flip-flops, snow shovels give way to garden trowels. The contrast during this change of seasons is where I drew my inspiration for this month’s article.  A Traminette paired with a Spicy Asian inspired grilled steak salad.

When someone finds out that wine is a subject I enjoy, I am invariably peppered with questions especially about food pairings. “What wine goes with spicy food?” is often one of the first questions asked. I remember fondly how I learned the answer to this question. It was 1997 in Dublin, Ireland and a classmate of mine had discovered a delightful Indian restaurant not far from our dorms at Trinity College. When we sat down to dinner the wine list was presented and my classmates sent it my way with the joking comment “let the Californian pick the wine?” I nervously smiled and was slightly daunted as this was one of my first experiences with Indian food. Never being shy to ask a question, I asked the owner what he would recommend and he said “if you we were going to have a spice dish an off-dry Riesling or Gewürztraminer would be ideal.” I selected the Gewürztraminer and let the owner pick the perfect wine that would go with our dinners and our student budgets. The result was a delicious memory and a great lesson learned.
While I am a strong believer in drink what you like, there is special synergy when the pairing of the wine and the food is a perfect match. For those that follow the rule Red wine with red meat white wine with white meat or lighter meals, while it is a good rule of thumb, if always followed there are some wonderful pairings that would be missed.  This month’s  pairing is an example of a pairing that would be missed. The reason is most would focus on the fact that it is a steak salad and would think, steak equals red. The word in the description to focus on is “Spicy”. Spicy foods offer an opportunity to pair wines that leverage the bold flavors offered that are often muted due to the heat of the hot peppers that are often central to the dish. Besides leveraging the bold flavors, an off-dry wine also tames the heat or spiciness of the meal.

Traminette  is a cross of the French America hybrid Joannes Seyve 23-416 and the German Gewürztraminer. In the mid-sixties at the University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign, Herb C. Barrett set out to produce a large clustered table grape with the flavor of Gewürztraminer. The result was sent to the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station grape breeding program. Traminette was born and gained popularity because it produced wine of excellent quality, was a good producer, showed partial resistance to several fungal diseases, showed a cold hardiness while retaining a similar characteristics to it parent; the Gewürztraminer.  Traditionally, Traminette has slightly spicy notes with nice apricot and honey overtones.

The Traminette featured is a 2009 Barrel Oak Winery Traminette. Barrel Oak Winery is one of the newer wineries in Virginia. Nestled in the hills of Fauquier County in the heart of Northern Virginia’s horse an wine country, Barrel Oak Winery opened, Memorial Day weekend 3 years ago. Barrel Oak Winery has demonstrated that making great wines can be environmentally friendly while creating an inviting experience for the visitor and their four legged companion. Yes, dogs are very welcome at the winery.  In fact a quick glance at the Winery’s web page one quickly sees the acronym B.O.W. The winery’s commitment to being environmentally friendly is equally evident and began with construction of the winery. The winery and tasting room sit on top of a hill with the wine making operation and cellar below the tasting room in a structure built into the hill.

This sub-terrainian structure leverages the insulation provided by being underground thus reducing costs of cooling. However Barrel Oak goes further, the winery’s  cooling and heating system is Geothermal. The Geothermal heating and cooling system offers a cost savings while lowering the carbon foot print of the winery. This environmentally friendly mind set extends throughout the wineries operations. The bottles and boxes are made from recycled materials, the grape skins after pressing are composted, and the hilltop tasting room is a vast 2 story open space with windows and doors that can be opened to provide the natural cooling that cross ventilation offers.   
When visiting this award winning winery, a visitor should take some time to take advantage of picnicking on the expansive patio area overlooking the vineyards, neighboring horse farms, the historic John Marshal house and a portion of the estate’s 70 acres.
Spicy Asian Grilled Skirt Steak on a bed of Napa Lettuce, green onions, water chestnuts, with toasted almonds, sesame and ramen noodles and garnished with grape tomatoes.

I have said in a past article that I love to grill, that was January and after knocking off the icicles and sub-freezing temps with a howling wind really put that statement to the test. Grilling on a late spring afternoon is so much more pleasant.  The steak was marinating for the better part of the day in a marinade of classic Asian spices with a strong pepper base.  After firing up the grill and while waiting for the charcoal to achieve the perfect cooking conditions. I toasted the ramen noodles, almonds and sesame seeds and prepared the spicy pepper vinaigrette reduction for the salad dressing. As both cooled, the charcoal became ready for the meat to be placed on the grill. The Skirt Steaks were placed on the grill. Given the cut of the Skirt Steak, thin and long, meant this would be a quick cooking process.  In no time the steaks were being turned and then removed from the grill. The steaks were left to rest as the Napa Lettuce and green onions were chopped up.  The toasted mix of almonds, sesame and ramen noodles were combined with the Napa lettuce, green onions, water chestnuts and were tossed in the spicy vinaigrette reduction dressing. The Steak was sliced up into think pieces and placed on top of the salad mixture.

The nose of the Barrel Oak Winery 2009 Traminette is very floral with hints of its parent the Gewürztraminer. At first taste, notes of honey, apricots, citrus and spices emerge; there is a slight hint of jasmine on the finish. There is crispness to this wine as one would expect with a wine that was fermented and aged in stainless steel.  

Taking the first bite of the grilled skirt steak, the spiciness of the chili peppers in the marinade are very notable. The spiciness and heat are toned down once the wine is sipped. The jasmine and tea rose notes of the wine are now really noticeable and the honey overtones mix nicely with soy sauce and chili paste that are part of the backbone of the marinade. The Barrel Oak Winery 2009 Traminette also pulls out the sweetness of the spicy pepper vinaigrette. The woodiness of toasted almonds ramen noodles and sesame that would have been muted pop with the wine. 

This pairing is a wonderful marriage of complexity, spiciness, sweetness and textures all complimenting one another.  The Barrel Oak Winery 2009 Traminette, due to the right amount of acidity has a strong backbone to hold up well to the complexity of the marinade and the texture of the Skirt Steak but also it compliments and brings forward the slight sweetness of the Napa lettuce. The paring also demonstrates how an off-dry white wine like this Gewürztraminer hybrid with a little bit of residual sugar can temper the spiciness, bring forward the flavors hidden is the dish without the wine’s own flavor profile getting lost.

For lovers of spicy food, I really encourage you to explore the off-dry white wines like the  Barrel Oak Winery 2009 Traminette . Not only will it tame the heat it will add a pleasurable dimension to your meal. Here’s to the beautiful days of late spring and early summer and to the wonderful culinary adventures ahead!