St. Louis, MO talent Mike Randolph—who snagged two James Beard noms this year for his Latin-inspired Público—entrusts wine service at his slightly newer Italian number Randolfi’s to Manresa alum Scott McKinney. There, McKinney pairs up porchetta and prosciutto pizza with a list of wines heavy on the Old World. But below, he considers spring's imminent culinary contributions, and which wines to pair with each.
Q: Soon enough spring vegetables will be coming into season. Can you suggest some wines to pair with ramps, peas, fiddlehead ferns, and other ingredients like that?
McKinney: Spring marks the time of year where everything begins to bloom. The change in the weather not only changes the way we eat (enter fresh produce, either grown or foraged), but also how we drink. All winter long we tend to gravitate toward big, bold red wines, hearty whiskeys, and dark, thick beers. With the warmer weather, we get to lighten up—quite literally with lighter dishes that are much more vegetable-forward, as well as light, crisp white wines to pair with them. Toward the middle to end of April, we start to see more coming from our local farms here in St. Louis, and in some cases, our local forests!
Ramps, or "spring leeks," are very sought-after by both chefs and home cooks. Their season is short yet abundant, and they only grow in the wild, as many have tried to farm them, yet to no avail. Their flavor? Think of ramps as a wonderful marriage of garlic and leeks or onions. Earthy, spicy, acidic, and even a bit grassy (if you are eating the top green foliage), so I would suggest something a little different as a pairing.
Jacques Puffeney is a winemaker in a slightly lesser known region of France called Jura. The wines from this region get a little funky, with purposeful oxidation of white wines to achieve a desired effect, with the outcome being earthy, nutty, smokey—high mineral and high acid wines. NV Jacques Puffeney Arbois Blanc Cuvée Sacha ($38) is a blend of a local variety, savagnin, and the well-known chardonnay, with those wine characteristics that pair perfectly with the spicy and acidic bulb end of the ramp!
If you are utilizing the leafy green in a purée, I would suggest another out of the norm pairing. Txakolina is a wine that comes from the Basque country in northern Spain in the Pyrenees mountains. This wine is light, crisp, refreshing, and slightly effervescent. With notes of grass and green pear, 2014 Xarmant Txakolina ($17) is a great pairing to help elevate a purée of the leafy green of a ramp, bringing forward the grassy and green flavors.
Another awesome spring vegetable that comes from the forest is the fiddlehead fern. Its name comes from its curl that resembles the head of a fiddle or violin. These yummy little vegetables have a flavor similar to asparagus, with a slightly more woodsy taste. You won’t see asparagus for a few more weeks when all of these are popping out of the ground, and the season for these is even shorter than the ramp. I tend to look outside of the box to find something that matches the uniqueness of the intriguing fiddlehead fern.
Giampiero Bea, a well-known vintner based in Umbria, has been thoroughly encouraging the Monastero Suore Cistercensi (trappist nuns just north of Rome in Lazio) to produce their phenomenal wines utilizing the local white varieties of trebbiano, verdicchio, and malvasia. What sets their wine apart? It’s a similar style to the arbois blanc mentioned above. Having longer contact with the grape skins, this white wine from Lazio boasts soft aromas of hazelnuts, citrus blossoms, and oxidation for this velvety smooth texture. However, it's not nearly as bold as the aforementioned Puffeney. Monastero Suore Cistercensi Coenobium ($25), with its earthy aromas, high acid, and high mineral, mixed with oxidized yellow apple and pear, would help the fiddlehead soar with its bright earthiness.
Another slightly different pairing for the fiddlehead takes me back to Basque country in northern Spain. Basque country also produces some awesome natural sidra. Bere Aran ($12) is a natural dry cider (not sweet) from the Pyrenees mountains that has these wonderful aromas of apple, wood, and crushed, slightly bruised red apples, with underlying notes of preserved lemon. The dry nature and woodiness of this sidra natural would bring out the earthy and woody nature of the forest dwelling fiddlehead fern. The sour end on the palate would also play well with those asparagus-like flavors that are packed in these little curls.
Another spring vegetable that I look forward to each year is the pea. This simple, yet elegant, veggie can sometimes be underrated and overlooked. The simplest preparation, sautéed in butter, makes my mouth water just thinking about it. Nothing beats fresh peas sautéed in butter! My perfect pairing for that would be Chéreau Carré's 2009 Le Clos du Château L'Oiselinière ($28) from Muscadet Sèvre et Maine. This region of the Loire Valley in France has seen a comeback in the recent years, with more attention to detail and revival of an old school approach. This representation of the grape variety, melon de Bourgogne, is aged for 31 months before being released, and has this soft, almost buttery characteristic from being aged sur lie for six to eight months. With notes of green apple skins, white grapefruit, and its impressive minerality, a slight butteriness knocks it out of the park for the pairing.
Now, what if you were to take those yummy little peas, make a purée, and then fold it into some risotto? Try adding the luscious, fresh green flavor of a pea purée to the creamy, rich texture of Arborio rice cooked perfectly tender, finished with European-style butter and loads of Parmigiano-Reggiano. The end result is a showstopping bright green risotto. That sounds like the job for 2014 Brunn Grüner Veltliner ($14) from Niederösterreich, Austria. Grüner veltliner is like sauvignon blanc's Eastern European cousin. Bright green flavors of green onion, bell pepper, and loads of herbaciousness, mixed with its natural high acidity, would both cut through the risotto's richness, as well as elevate the bright green and rich pea flavors.
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