There's no mistaking Jacques Saleun's French heritage when he talks about the wonders that fresh summer produce and local seafood do for the bistro cuisine at his Kenner restaurant Chateau du Lac. When it comes to the topic of wine, however, Saleun sounds more like a native Louisianan.
"Where I'm from -- Brittany, in the north (of France) -- we don't make wine, but we drink a lot of it," he says.
The same is true of New Orleans, especially during hot summer weather when wine is quaffed as much to revive muggy spirits as to complement a dish. Chefs who respond to the season lighten up their menus in summer, with more seafood and seasonal vegetables, and that calls for a new look at their wine lists for the right bottle or glass to fit the meal and the mood. Not surprisingly, many of the recommendations for summer wines tend toward the crisp and refreshing. But it's not all Sauvignon Blanc, all the time. Chefs and sommeliers also pair their favorite reds and, increasingly, ross with their cuisine this time of year.
Often dismissed as a lightweight in the wine world, ross are getting more respect as local restaurants introduce higher quality versions to their customers. Not to be confused with California's sweet white Zinfandels, ross are crisp, refreshing wines.
Ros is what you'll find Saleun sipping during downtime at Chateau du Lac, especially a ros from Provence from the Walter Gilpin winery. He says it pairs well with his southern French cooking, like his lamb with herbs of Provence and roasted garlic cream sauce or a seared red snapper filet with white truffle oil.
The ros appeal is spreading.
"Ros is great for summer," says Shannon Skarda, sommelier at Bayona. "Last summer we offered flights of three different ross in 2-oz. pours to try. It goes with so many foods. People really liked it."
Ross are made from many different red varietals. The skins are left in briefly to give the wine its rose tint and a bit of flavor. Ross made with Pinot Noir get Pinot Noir flavor. Cotes du Rhone ross reflect Syrah and Grenache from that region. A couple of California ross that she keeps on Bayona's list include Robert Sinsky's ros (made with Pinot Noir) and Hendry Ranch's ros (made with Zinfandel). They have high acid to cleanse the palate so they pair well with food.
"They go with everything. Any kind of seafood, sweetbreads, even picnic foods or tacos and fried chicken," says Skarda. "Some Shiraz ross are really big, too. They could even stand up to bigger meat flavors. I've had them with steak fajitas."
Lake Charles-native Donald Link recently opened Cochon in the Warehouse District to feature his finely crafted version of Cajun cooking. The wine pairings for this distinctive cuisine are not always obvious. But when it comes to the spicy catfish sauce piquant, Link is another advocate for ros, explaining that the tomatoes in the dish go well with drier versions of the blush wine. He particularly likes the ross from Chateau Pradeaux in Provence, though the chef jokes that the name makes it sound like the "Cajun ros."
IN THE RED ZONE
"In Europe, we drink a lot of ros, but Americans aren't crazy about it," says Patrick Van Hoorebeek, the Belgium-born maitre d' and resident wine expert at the Bistro at Maison de Ville in the French Quarter. "Why? I don't know. But when you have bad ros, it's very bad. On the other hand, if you recommend a Pinot Noir, it's a 95 percent chance they'll be happy with it, so I go with the safe bet most of the time."
When he recommends Pinot Noir in the summertime, more often than not he suggests his guests try the bottle after it has been slightly chilled in an ice bath. Like his ros recommendations, the chilled Pinot Noir sometimes requires a little coaxing with doubtful customers, but Van Hoorebeek says most people find it is a refreshing summertime accompaniment to the food.
"It's chilled just slightly, not so much that you lose its aroma," Van Hoorebeek says. Customers "do need convincing sometimes, but I'm on a mission and I like being on a mission," he adds.
A chilled Pinot Noir pairs nicely with the Bistro's very popular mussels, Van Hoorebeek says, which are steamed with white wine, Italian sausage, shaved fennel and saffron.
At Donald Link's other restaurant, Herbsaint, the cuisine tends to be more earthy than spicy. So general manager Joe Briand recommends wines that can stand up to the big flavors of Muscovy duck leg confit with dirty rice, or chili-glazed pork belly, or redfish cooked with mushrooms and bacon, yet are still refreshing enough to satisfy summer thirsts.
"In the summer, I tend to go for wines that are what I call gluggable. If it's going to be red, we don't want it to have all those mouth-drying tannins," says Briand.
One of his favorites is Les Cepages Oublies, a Gamay from the Loire Valley in France produced by Henri Marionnet, of which he scored a few cases in the spring.
During summer at Bayona, Skarda may turn to less heavy wines like good cru Beaujolais, or lighter Italian reds or Cotes du Rhones when guests want to drink red wines.
Some guests simply prefer to drink bigger red wines. And there are menu options for them as well.
In the Lower Garden District, the restaurant Jackson opened after the storm in the building previously occupied by Antoinette and, before that, Sugar Magnolia. Chef Michael Brewer says the pork chop is the most popular entre and will remain for summer even as he revises the rest of the menu for the season. The pork is brined for 24 hours and paired with a red pepper aioli, so Brewer recommends the Zinfandel from Graziano, a California winery that uses grapes grown in France's Languedoc region.
"You usually see pork paired with Pinot Noir, but this dish has some spicy notes that the Zinfandel picks up really well," he says.
Brewer makes a daily fish special using whatever looks good day to day, and he's been going through grouper, blue fin tuna and cobia. Another recent preparation has been pan-seared halibut with wilted spinach finished with a Shiraz vinaigrette.
"We're already forcing the Shiraz in that vinaigrette, so I recommend it as the wine with this dish too," says Brewer, who likes the Andrew Murray Shiraz in particular. "People say, 'Shiraz and fish?' But it really works well together."
Of course, there are plenty of white wines to pair with summer dishes, and many good options beyond ever-popular Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs. Many relatively sweeter wines pair well with food.
Skarda likes dry Rieslings in summer. They're versatile because they have enough sweetness to handle spicy foods and also enough acid to cut through a creamy element in a fish or crabmeat dish. From Alsace, Josmeyer Dragon Riesling is a good example of a Riesling with balanced acid and sweetness, but it also has mineral characteristics and complexity so more discriminating palates will also enjoy it.
Tuna will be a star of the menu for the first summer at Jackson. As an appetizer, the tuna tartare dish features fresh, raw tuna accompanied by an avocado puree. For this, Brewer recommends starting off with a glass of the Max Ferd. Richter Riesling.
"People think Riesling is too sweet, but this one is really understated," he says.
Sancerres (Sauvignon Blanc) and Pouilly Fums can have profiles similar to dry Rieslings. But because Rieslings are low-alcohol wines, they're easy to quaff outdoors without feeling like they're rushing straight to the head.
Pinot Gris is another white wine that would work with many of the spicier dishes on Cochon's menu, like the grilled pork ribs with pickled watermelon, says Donald Link. At Herbsaint, the Pinot Gris from Luxembourg's Chateau Schengen is a standout that goes well with many non-spicy dishes.
And there's always Chardonnay. For Cochon's "fisherman style" fish -- which is oven-roasted with plenty of garlic and olive oil -- Link likes the unoaked chardonnay from Hendry, which forgoes the woody flavors common in Chardonnay and instead brings more fruit to the palate.
During summer at Lilette, chef John Harris likes to put a chilled sweet corn broth soup with crabmeat and avocado on his menu. Manager Jason Baas matches its creamy texture and natural sweetness with Sauvignon Blanc, like the French Menatou-Salon, available by the glass.
A summertime favorite at the Bistro at Maison de Ville is chef Greg Piccolo's citrus-grilled shrimp and scallops, and for this dish Van Hoorebeek recommends his favorite Sauvignon Blanc from Gary Farrell. The crisp and aromatic wine has won many awards and is treated to an effusive personal endorsement from Van Hoorebeek.
"If you try it, you'll say it's better than sex, and I'll say it's safer!" he says.
One theory of pairing holds that weights should match: heavy foods with heavy-bodied wines, lighter wines with lighter foods. Skarda takes a different approach.
"I think opposites work. It should be about finding balance," she says. "That's why Susan [Spicer] and I work well together. She likes balance in her food."
"Especially in summer, things with bright acid and freshness are good," she says. "Not something that's flabby."
A "flabby" wine has lower acid and tends to coat the mouth, the way milk does. A higher acid wine will cleanse the palate, the way a tart lemonade does.
Sometimes sweetness is desirable. With some of Spicer's Moroccan-inspired dishes, Skarda likes bold, fruity wines.
A simple tack to take is matching food from a particular cuisine or region with the wines from that region.
"They probably go together for an obvious reason," says Baas at Lilette.
To match Harris' many French-style dishes, he's loaded the list with French Burgundies in both white (Chardonnay) and red (Pinot Noir). For their New Orleans Wine & Food Experience Vintner Dinner, they have an intriguing opportunity to pair Harris' food with French Bordeaux and California-made Bordeaux-style blends.
In general, Baas likes white Burgundies with many summer foods because they have high acid and minerally characteristics. California Chardonnays tend to have stronger fruit, higher residual sugars and more oakey and buttery profiles, which means they often stand up to heavier foods.
OFF THE MAP
Some cuisines don't come with natural pairing choices. Though not on the menu at Lilette, Baas points to a good summer dish like ceviche, the Peruvian dish of fish or shellfish prepared in a citrus marinade. There isn't an obvious match but Baas likes Txakolina, a light, crisp Spanish white wine. It also pairs well with summer seafood dishes, crabmeat or chilled shrimp in remoulades. Italian trebbiano grapes can also produce similar light, crisp white wines.
With the grilled beet salad, he'll reach for a Pinot Noir or a Cotes du Rhone, because those wines have a little bit of spiciness to match some of the Creole seasoning on the beets.
The choices are sometimes wide open.
"There are so many little nuances in food that it can mess with the rules," he says.
Lilette has a red snapper dish served with a Thai-style puree of herbs including basil, mint and ginger.
"It's a difficult dish because it has ginger in it," Baas says. "I would go with something minerally and light; not a lot of fruit. Muscadet would be good. Or Txakolina, or the Pierre Boniface Apremont Vin de Savoie. It's not contrasting. It's light and palate cleansing."
At Stella!, general manager Greg Knaps has the challenge of matching wines with the inventive and often exotically spiced food of chef Scott Boswell.
"The more you get into it, the less clearly the rules seem to apply," he says. "My starting point is the weight of the food and wine. I am not going to pair something that's fat and rich with something that's delicate on the plate."
So what does he do with a dish like Boswell's signature oysters on the half shell served with roe, vodka and flavored granitas, which may be spicy or sweet? Or with a dish like his Duck Five Ways, which offers five duck presentations stretching from the hot spice of Szechwan-seared duck breast to rich foie gras won tons?
"With a lot of flavors on the plate, sometimes that just gives you a lot of directions to go," he says.
He's recommended a big Burgundy, or even Bordeaux or Cabernet Sauvignon with the duck ensemble simply because it can stand up to all the flavors in the dish, even though he wouldn't normally pair Cabernet with duck. With all the flavors surrounding the oysters, he's turned to Viognier, a white French grape increasingly grown in California, because it can handle the spiciness in the dish. With other odd components, like kimchi, a Korean category of highly spiced cabbage or vegetables, he's turned to varietals like Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc or Riesling, which have some weight to absorb the spiciness, but enough acid to cleanse the palate.
At Jackson, a tuna entree with Asian accents opens up other possiblities. The tuna is crusted in sesame seeds and served with a lime wasabi mayonnaise. Brewer says the lime and cilantro flavors in this dish go well with the Gazela vinho verde, a Portuguese white with a hint of effervescence.
Ultimately, a restaurant needs a full wine list to complement whatever is on the menu. At One Restaurant and Lounge in the Riverbend, chef Scott Snodgrass will be using plenty of crabmeat, shrimp and even root vegetables on his yet-to-be-announced summer menu. Root vegetables might sound more like autumn-oriented ingredients, but Snodgrass finds they hit a nice stride with his cuisine in summertime, too. One particular favorite is his sweet potato gnocchi, flavored with fresh sage.
Snodgrass cooks in a small kitchen open to a food bar where a few guests can sit and watch their dishes come together. While at the saut station, he often fields requests for wine picks, but on the dining room floor the wine recommendations are the specialty of his business partner Lee McCullough. Some of McCullough's top picks this summer for One's menu are the wine importer Kermit Lynch's Cotes du Rhone, Zeppelin Riesling from Germany's Max Ferd. Richter vineyard and ros from Malbec by Crios from Argentina.
HALF FULL OR HALF EMPTY
For those who are curious about a wine pairing but still have their doubts, ordering by the glass may be the way to go. Back in the French Quarter, the Bistro at Maison de Ville makes the option even more enticing with the very rare policy that any bottle on its list is available by the glass.
"What we do is divide the price by five, so a $250 bottle could be $50 a glass," explains maitre d' Van Hoorebeek. "That's a lot, but it's common for us to have $100 bottles at $20 a glass."
An avid wine drinker might be good for two such glasses, he says, but because the dining room is quite small, other guests often catch on that a very fine wine has been made available by the glass, or the staff might advise them of the opportunity. Either way, the bottles are usually finished quickly.
"But if there's any left, guess who gets to drink the rest? Patrick!," says Van Hoorebeek, who is always willing to help clean up. "It's a win-win situation!"
- Cheryl Gerber
- One way to find the perfect match, says Lilette's manager, Jason Baas, is to use a geographical approach in combining the food from a particular cuisine or region with the wines from that region. "They probably go together for an obvious reason," says Baas.
- Cheryl Gerber
- At Herbsaint, the cuisine tends to be more earthy than spicy, so General Manager Joe Briand recommends wines that can stand up to the big flavors of Muscovy duck leg confit with dirty rice, or chili-glazed pork belly, or redfish cooked with mushrooms and bacon, yet are still refreshing enough to satisfy summer thirsts.