Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Buffalo Soldiers

Is there a more quintessential American food and wine pairing than buffalo and Zinfandel? Whatever your answer, it seemed like a good idea when this Memorial Day weekend presented the perfect opportunity for a long overdue get together with some good friends for a bit of cooking, eating and wine tasting. Besides, what better opportunity would come along to try out my grilling skills on the bison flank steak I’d scored at the inaugural day at the Oakmont Farmers Market? Or to open one of the bottles of Ridge Zin that has been collecting dust in my cellar for the last seven or eight years?

Rod Wieder of Backyard Bison has committed to setting up his trailer at the Oakmont market this season and I was eager to sample the fruit of his labors. Though a bit disappointed on first visit that nothing was available in a never-frozen state, I nonetheless eagerly selected a bison flank steak and a package of ground buffalo. After toying with several preparation options for the flank, including the marinade recipe provided by Rod and a recipe for stuffed bison in the D’Artagnan cookbook, I finally decided on the purist route – grilling with nothing other than salt, pepper and a modest rub of olive oil. The method: a hardwood charcoal fire, direct medium heat and all of about three minutes on each side. The results: perfectly medium-rare, an agreeable workout for the mandible and very flavorful. Bison is not at all gamey, the flavors being more like beef but a touch sweeter and a good deal less rich, probably due to its much lower fat content. All of this spelled good tidings for a well made wine match.

Every time I open the door to my cellar – which includes an entire row of bottles with short, silver capsules – I’m presented with a clear reminder that I cut my teeth on Ridge’s wines. Over the years, what once was unabashed fondness has morphed into more of a passing interest, as my tolerance has waned for high-alcohol, in-your-face wines. The upside of that evolution is that I now have a decent number of Ridge’s bottlings that are approaching or starting into their second decade. Just on the cusp was the bottle selected to accompany the bison: 1998 York Creek (Spring Mountain, Napa Valley) Zinfandel. Winemaker Paul Draper’s label notes suggest that the wine should have passed its prime if not headed downhill by now. My experience, however, has been that Ridge Zinfandels – aside from their simplest bottlings – possess a longevity that far surpasses the norm for a variety not overwhelmingly known for its age-worthiness. This bottle maintained that track record, still showing plenty of red cherry and spicy red berry fruit, softened yet untarnished by age and presenting a persistent backbone of dusty tannins. The 14.9% alcohol level hid well and the wine paired admirably with the lean, flavorful meat.

The concept of marrying things from a place can often work wonders in the wine world. Just think of Roquefort with the sweet whites of Southwest France, a raw bar assortment with a brisk, briny Muscadet, or – why not – buffalo steak with good Zinfandel. Sometimes, though, that practice can be taken too far. Case in point: the wines of Ridge Vineyards. I can’t help but think how much better this wine could have been if not for one major stylistic stroke. Ridge insists on pairing their quintessentially American wines with the use of American oak in the cellar. It’s a match that I feel works to the detriment of their wines, lending them an intense aroma of cedar and giving them edgy, green wood tannins. Even after ten years in bottle, when these tones have mellowed, they’re still unmistakable. I don’t think switching to French oak would render Ridge’s wines any less American; it could simply make them better. One can’t help but admire Paul Draper and the team at Ridge for sticking to their guns. That said, we should never be afraid to question dogma in whatever form it takes.

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