Earlier that afternoon, just outside Jon Wipfli’s patio door, an entire boneless leg of lamb had twirled slowly on a string suspended above a hardwood fire for six hours or so, dripping occasional runnels of fat into the coals, and wrapping itself gradually in a cloak of char.
Now, on the cutting board in front of us, through the loose netting that held the roast together, the dark-sheened, coarse-textured crust made promises about smoke, and salt, and rose-colored, fat-rimmed slices of lamb, and because Jon Wipfli may know as much about roasting meat as anyone in the Twin Cities, when his first slice fell sideways onto the board, all of those promises came true.
We were faced with one of those food moments near enough to perfection that you start to examine your own character. “Here I am,” says the food moment, eyeing you up and down. “Looks to me like you’ve got some living up to do.” I felt an impulse to tuck in my shirt, and check my fly.
It was also one of those moments when liking wine, if you do, becomes something you are just so damn grateful for. A slice of perfect leg of lamb, just on the rare side of medium rare, is for the most part an unenhanceable thing. There is nothing you can really add or subtract that will make it, or the experience of eating it, any better than itself—with the possible exception of a glass of wine.
We were here to experiment with wine pairing, and that is the simple premise behind it—that what you drink can interact with what you eat, and actually change the experience of eating it, whether by complementing the food, or contrasting instructively with it, or fending off boredom with it, or clearing the sensations in your mouth to taste more of it. At its best, the right pairing can take something merely perfectly crafted, and turn it into a kind of ephemeral art.
But there’s a problem, and the problem is precisely that we’re talking art, not science. There are a few pairing principles, and a handful of rules, but just as you and I can’t paint a Rembrandt, or improvise a jazz riff, we mostly lack the combination of knowledge, practice, and intuition to pair a wine to a particular dish, much less pair an evening of wines to a coursed meal.
Fortunately, tonight, we count Jill Mott among our delicately salivating crew, and Jill is just the wine artist we need.
In fact, she is sort of a wine Renaissance woman—scouting and advocating for natural wines around the world, importing some of her favorites to the Twin Cities, curating and serving the wine selection at GYST Fermentation Bar, and teaching classes to laypeople, restaurant staff, and aspiring sommeliers.
She has paired three wines with our otherworldly lamb.
If there are classic pairings with lamb, they might include a red wine from the southern Rhône valley, or maybe a Provençal rosé. The former to sort of join hands with the lamb in mutual ovine funkiness. The latter to do the opposite—to apply acid and a little dry fruit, as a way of refreshing a mouth coated with salty lamb fat.
The three bottles Jill has set in front of us are a white wine from the country of Georgia, a red wine from an obscure terraced hillside west of Bilbao, Spain, and a sparkling red from coastal Slovenia. Wines that, combined, would be the consensus choice of perhaps zero other sommeliers in the country.
So what is Jill doing? Can we minor leaguers even get a bat on these sophisticated knuckleballs, or is she just toying with us? Well, let me take a few swings.
For one thing, she is introducing us to natural wines, because she believes in them, and they make her happy. “Natural wine,” meaning as little intervention by the winemaker as possible—little or no added yeast, sulfur, temperature control, or acidification. It’s a little like organic farming—a seemingly recent development that is actually a way of reclaiming very old, pre-industrial methods of growing and making food.
So there’s pairing rule number one. Does the wine you’re going to serve make you happy? Do you love its story? Did you spend a California afternoon tasting it in a cool cellar beside a vineyard? Did you drink it on your first date with your wife? Serve it. Tell its story. Everyone at the table will love that wine.
What else is Jill doing? Well, despite the rule-bending nature of her choices, she is actually following some basic and reliable guidelines.
There is a red-with-red-meat, white-with-white rule, and if it is simplistic and occasionally sniffed at by sophisticates, it’s actually not a bad rule.
She’s also following a rule that says if it grows together it goes together. Lamb is particularly popular in Southern Europe, and odds are, a wine from a place where they eat a lot of lamb will probably go with lamb. Jill’s Spanish red, for instance. Or her Slovenian sparkler from close to the Italian border. In fact, matching regional food with that region’s wine is not just relatively foolproof—hint: Coq au Vin comes from Burgundy—it can lead to a love for certain places on earth that can’t be accessed as fully any other way.
She’s also matching strong flavor to tannin. All of her wines have a tannic backbone that can stand up to the strong lamb flavor. And she’s matching fat to acid. European wines in general are higher in acid because they are meant to be served with food, unlike American wines, which are often made to be drunk, in the American style, as cocktails.
And finally, she is playing with some rules, knowingly. White wine with lamb?
“Yes,” she says, and pours the Georgian white—probably the strangest wine any of us has ever tasted. Georgia? Fermented underground in clay qvevri? Colored orange? What?
But bear with her. The orange color comes from extended contact with the skins and stems, and it makes the wine more like a rosé than a white. And rosé happens to be the most forgiving wine to pair with anything. The extended skin contact gives it a huge amount of tannin, to meet the lamb in the middle of the ring and not fold. But because it’s a white wine there’s still plenty of acid too.
And then she instructs us all to take a mouthful of lamb, and, without swallowing it yet, hold the Georgian wine up to our noses. Natural wines are often described as giving off “barnyard” smells, which its adherents treat as a virtue and its detractors as a vice. In this case, there is very noticeably something animal going on inside my glass. A primal and not unpleasant zoo smell of pelts and hide. It is a lot like the taste of wild game. An intestinal, liverish, guttiness that becomes what you love about eating game if you ever do learn to love it. I do. And the faintly goaty flavor of the lamb in my mouth gets brought out by the smell of the wild and alive wine kicking around in my glass, and I have to say it is a moment worthy of the perfection of Jon Wipfli’s work with meat and open fire, and Jill has gotten this one just right for an uncalled for number of reasons.
And see. Now that’s just genius.