by robert haynes-peterson | October 6, 2011 | Food & Drink
|Michael Mina’s Joseph Phillips, one of Bellagio’s three master sommeliers|
Sure, fall weather in Las Vegas may be considered summer temperatures by other parts of the country, but cooler weather and seasonal menus are, in fact, here. For some, that means exchanging summer whites (wines) for Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. But many of us aren’t yet ready to pop open those spicy reds. Instead, consider autumn the perfect opportunity to move away from crisp, fruit-driven poolside Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs to more aromatic, heavier-bodied whites from around the world.
“Our menus change seasonally, and so do the wines we use,” says Ivo Angelov, general manager at Le Cirque in Bellagio, who works closely with the restaurant’s sommeliers, William Moss and Frederic Montandon. “We usually have about 25 different wines offered by the glass and more than 1,000 selections by the bottle, so we have a lot of room to play.”
Fall brings truffles to Le Cirque’s French-influenced menu, including a multicourse Truffle Degustation menu with sommelier-selected wine pairings. So expect to see more traditional, medium-bodied Chardonnays, like white Burgundies, on the menu. Other likely candidates at Le Cirque this fall: Puligny Montrachet by Jean Chartron and Napa Valley’s Husic Chardonnay, which invoke the classic California Chardonnays: nicely oaked and creamy, with notes of ripe peach and vanilla.
The Autumn Transition
As fall brings richer dishes, creamier sauces and stronger flavors, a move toward wines exhibiting more acid (to cut fatty dishes) or more aromatics (to harmonize with complex spices) is almost inevitable. The sommeliers at Las Vegas’ finest restaurants adjust their wine lists to complement their chefs’ menus, which are constructed with the freshest seasonal ingredients.
“Normally, we continue to work with high-acid wines,” says Robert Smith, master sommelier at the two-Michelin-starred restaurant Picasso at Bellagio. “However, carrying the wines a customer likes is most important.” If the cooler but still balmy autumn weather has you craving whites but seeking a little more heft than Pinot Grigio can provide, Smith suggests a Spanish Albariño or a Grüner Veltliner from Austria (a wine that’s been seeing renewed interest in recent years). Both are aromatic, and the ripe stone fruit and cinnamon notes in the Albariño in particular ought to pair nicely with the foie gras-andpeaches dish offered on chef Julian Serrano’s four-course Degustation menu (or opt for the additional sommelier-recommended wine pairings, which let you sample limited-edition bottlings of rare wines). “Certain Grüner Veltliners and Rieslings can attract richer, fuller fish and shellfish courses,” Smith says.
Joseph Phillips, master sommelier at the seafood-driven Michael Mina at Bellagio, notes that his wine selections and recommendations “are chosen solely by the cuisine they will be matched with.” Thus, while fall might see the placement of heartier dishes on the menu that demand more robust wines, “if the chef has a sashimi dish accompanied by apples and ginger, I would recommend a Riesling over an oak-aged Chardonnay [regardless of the season].” That said, the season’s menu and personal taste do provide the opportunity to “consider white wines with full, complex texture and a balanced structure.” Phillips particularly likes the white Burgundies from Meursault, Puligny- Montrachet and Chassagne-Montrachet. “These harmonize well with fish stews, chowders, grilled meats and cream sauces.” He also encourages customers to branch out and try Petite Arvine from Switzerland’s Valais district. “The grape can make a wellstructured and balanced wine with enough acid, fruit and minerals to accompany a wide range of fall and winter recipes. It also has an herbal, vegetal component that is a perfect accompaniment to cheese fondue and raclette.”
Off the Beaten Path
If what you seek this time of year are challenging whites that stand on their own without food, it’s time to look even further afield. The wines of Jura, a cool-climate French region bordering Switzerland, are known for their distinctive, earthy presentation. Slightly sweet-yet-funky vin de paille (“straw wine”) crafted from Chardonnay and the nutty, yeasty vin jaune—a sherry-like white made from Savagnin grapes—aren’t for everyone, but if you gravitate towards truffles and strongsmelling cheese, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by this ancient wine region.
For additional adventurous drinking, consider a sensuous, aromatic Viognier from California, a perfumy Malvasia Bianca from Southern Italy’s Basilicata region, or the concentrated Gewürtztraminers and deliciously green, dry Rieslings of Alsace.
Riesling is a wine that fell out of favor among Americans in the 1980s and ’90s but is coming back into vogue as drier and higher-quality variants hit our shores. Don’t discount the slightly sweeter options (Austrian and German wine classifications are based on the perceived sugar and acid ratios), which may still be acidic enough to cut fatty dishes while providing a hint of autumn spices and brown sugar.
“Try a Spätlese-quality Riesling, with a tad of residual sugar,” says Smith. “Pair it with braised beef short ribs. You will be amazed.”
photograph by beverly poppe