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Bringing Gaja wines together with food prepared at Blue by Eric Ripert produced a captivating evening

Most people familiar with the wines of Piedmont, Italy, know that Gaja produces some of the best wines in the region. Most people familiar with the dining scene on Grand Cayman, know that Blue by Eric Ripert is one of the best restaurants in the Cayman Islands. When the two of these food and wine powerhouses came together for an evening billed ‘Captivate Your Senses” on 24 February, most people expected something extraordinary: they weren’t disappointed. The evening had the added benefit of supporting the charity organisation Facing Africa, which works toward the treatment and prevention of noma, a disfiguring and usually fatal disease that affects mostly children in certain parts of Africa. The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman donated a percentage of the purchase price to Facing Africa and Jacques Scott donated wine that was auctioned off for the cause.

On hand for the event, thanks to the efforts of Jacques Scott, was Gaia Gaja, daughter of master winemaker Angelo Gaja, who is also owner and president of the winery. With a first name pronounced the same as her last name (guy-ah) she is as unforgettable as her family’s wines are remarkable.

Following a Champagne reception on the terrace of Blue, guests took their seats for a six-course meal – with an added amuse-bouche.

Gaja is known for its modern approach to wines steeped in long tradition. It was therefore fitting that the food/wine pairings for the dinner strayed consistently from the traditional white-with-fish/red-with-meat philosophy.

Venison carpaccio with crispy rock shrimp was served with 2008 Gaia & Rey Chardonnay, an outstanding white wine that seems to have the international palate in mind. Gaja was one of the first wineries in Piedmont to grow Chardonnay grapes. Planted in a single vineyard, the wine is named after Gaia and Angelo’s grandmother, Clotilde Rey. At least when young, as this one was, the wine is New World-like in its flavours and texture, but Old World in its finesse and complexity. Aided by the lemon emulsion that topped the venison carpaccio, the wine pairing worked surprisingly well.

With the second course – lobster bisque with spiny lobster – guests got a chance to try 2004 Ca’Marcanda Magari, Gaja’s Merlot-driven blend that’s not really a Super Tuscan and not really a Bordeaux blend. A seafood-based soup might not seem a likely pairing with a big red blend, but the creaminess of the soup, coupled with the lively fruitiness and mellowing tannins of the wine, kept it from being overpowered.

The pairings became even more interesting with the third course, a pan-seared scallop with foie gras cromequis, which were small balls of foie gras lightly breaded and quickly deep fried. This course was served with one of the star wines of the evening, 1999 Gaja Barbaresco. Ultimately it was the foie gras that made the pairing, helping to tame the still firm tannins of the wine.

Like its close relative Barolo, Barbaresco is produced using 100 per cent Nebbiolo grapes – known for being very tannic – but the two wines have distinct differences. Gaja said because the soil in Barbaresco has more sand content, it’s a softer soil.

“Softer soil gives you softer wine,” she said, adding that Barbaresco is approachable at a younger age than Barolo.

Gaja said all of her family’s Barbarescos from the ’90s were drinking very well now, but explained that there is usually a dead period with Barbaresco when it is somewhere between five and 10 years old.

“If you drink it in the wrong moment, it’s not as expressive as it can be,” she said, noting that the 1999 vintage served at the dinner “just opened up in 2010”.

For the next course, guests were served 2005 Barbaresco with pan roasted John Dory fish, another nontraditional pairing that was a little more difficult because of the youth of the wine’s tannins.

The biggest wine of the night was 1998 Sperrs, which is basically Gaja’s Barolo. The wine shows Angelo Gaja’s determination to make wines that express themselves best, rather than relying on the tried and true. Instead of just producing Barolo, which would have given the wine instant worldwide recognition, Gaja mixed it with six per cent Barbera – thus losing its Barolo designation – because he felt the wine needed some balancing acidity.

Served with the Sperrs was a braised short rib that would have been a tough pairing with a lighter wine, but the strong tannins of even this 13-year-old wine were able to cut through the natural fattiness of the meat.

Gaja said Sperrs was not a wine to drink on its own.

“It is absolutely a wine to be drunk with food,” she said. “The tannins make you want to have a piece of cheese at least.”

Speaking about Nebbiolo wines, Gaja said they didn’t easily express their fruit like Pinot Noir and were therefore more difficult to understand.

“Nebbiolo requires your attention,” she said, noting also that the wine changes in taste significantly the longer it stays in the glass.

Finishing off the evening was guava-strawberry panna cotta served with grappa, two Italian after-dinner mainstays.

Gaja said she enjoyed trying the imaginative wine pairings, and admitted that Barbaresco wasn’t a wine she normally has paired with fish.

Regardless, when dining on spectacular foods while drinking spectacular wines, pairings ultimately take a back seat to pure enjoyment of aroma and taste. The event called ‘Captivate your Senses’ did just that for the guests; and raised some money for a good cause as well.

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Braised short rib with truffled parsnip puree, organic vegetables and natural jus was served with 1998 Sperrs, a Nebbiolo wine with a little Barbera.

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