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A Feast for the Fall + Californian Autumn Wines


With autumn here, it’s time to make some richer, more substantial dishes that work so well with California’s full-bodied whites and voluptuous reds, says Natasha Hughes 

In association with the Wine Institute of California

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The clocks are about to go back and the days have already shortened. When you step outside in the morning, you can see your breath, while dried leaves crunch underfoot. Yes, autumn is upon us. But don’t despair, the colder days come with their own perks: cosy evenings in front of the fire, the chance to indulge in richly flavoured foods and to enjoy different styles of wine from those that appeal during the summer months. Autumn is the ideal season to turn your attention to California’s full-bodied white wines and its voluptuous reds. Oaked Chardonnays, with their rich vanilla and toast aromas, and leaner, citrusy versions come into their own now. If you favour Sauvignon Blanc, this is the time of year to experiment with California’s rich fumé styles. You might also explore the state’s take on white Rhône grapes: indulgent, apricot-scented Viogniers, heady Marsannes, bold white Grenaches and exotic Roussannes. Flavourful rosés made from red grapes such as Syrah, red Grenache, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon can give as much pleasure at this time of year as in summer, especially when paired with spicy dishes. Pinot Noirs provide a frisson of sensual pleasure with each sip, while Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, alone or in combination, drape rich fruit over a framework of structured tannins. And don’t forget red wines made from Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre – although their origins lie in the Rhône, their Californian incarnations have real character and style.

Clams with pancettacalif1 - clams.jpg

calif - clams_roundel.jpgChop a 250g piece of pancetta into lardons, then sauté until golden brown. Stir in 1-2 cloves minced garlic and 1 chilli, finely sliced. Sauté for 30 seconds before pouring in 250ml white wine and 250ml fish stock (if you don’t have stock, use water). Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for a minute or two while you rinse 800g-1kg clams under a running cold tap to clean them. Tip the clams into the hot liquid, bring to a rolling boil and cover with a lid. Cook for a further 3-5 mins, until the clams open (don’t overcook – it makes them tough). Stir in a generous handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley and serve with a dollop of aioli and some bread to mop up the juices. (Serves 4 as a starter)

Now that the months have an ‘r’ in them, it’s time to bring shellfish back to the dinner table. This easy-to-prepare starter contrasts the sweet taste of fresh clams with the saltiness of pancetta, a garlicky aioli and a gentle kick of chilli. It’s a lot for any one wine to take on, so you need a white that can handle the task. The default option for potent whites from across California has to be Chardonnay, especially those from Napa Valley and Sonoma. These wines work perfectly with the dish, matching its depth of flavour nicely, while providing a streak of citrusy acidity to cut through the richness. Another option would be to look for a Marsanne or Roussane from Santa Barbara: both grapes can match the weight of the dish while cleansing the palate between spoonfuls.  

We matched this dish to Beringer’s Founder’s Estate Chardonnay 2008 (£13.42, www. everywine.co.uk), Sonoma-Cutrer’s Russian River Ranches Chardonnay 2007 (£16.95, Lea & Sandeman) and Qupé’s Marsanne, Santa Ynez Valley 2007 (£16.30, Berry Bros & Rudd). 

Spice-rubbed quailscalif4 - quail.jpg

calif5 - quails_roundel.jpgMix together 3 tbsp ras-el-hanout, 1 tbsp sumac, 1 tbsp ground cumin, 1 tsp salt and 3-4 tbsp olive oil (if you can’t find sumac add 1 extra tbsp ras-el-hanout and the zest of 1 lemon). Rub the paste into 8 quails and leave to marinate for up to 24 hours (the longer the better). Cook for 35-40 mins at 200ºC. Meanwhile, prepare a salad of green leaves, pomegranate seeds and roughly chopped walnuts. If you can find fresh curd cheese, add it to the salad in hazelnut-sized dollops, but soft, creamy goats’ cheese is a good alternative. Dress with a vinaigrette made from walnut oil and white wine vinegar. (Serves 4)

Easy to prepare and sure to impress, this simple dish is bound to become one of your dinner party staples. Ras-el-hanout, a North African blend of spices, forms the basis of a spice rub/marinade for the quails. A green salad spiked with sweet/sharp pomegranate seeds, walnuts and tangy goats’ cheese contrasts perfectly with these deep spices. It’s a complex blend of flavours and you need a wine that can deal with an array of spices, the sharpness of the fruit and the salad dressing, and the creamy cheese. It’s the kind of dish where a dry rosé from the Central Coast really comes into its own. An alternative would be a supple, juicy red – one without too much tannin for preference – and Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley or Carneros fits the bill perfectly.  

We matched this dish to Bonny Doon’s Vin Gris de Cigare 2009 (£13.75, AG Wines) and Cambria’s Julia’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley 2006 (£15.99-£21.13, Sandhams Wine, everywine.co.uk).

Steak with sweet and aour aubergines

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calif6 - steak_roundel.jpg Cut 1kg aubergines into 2.5cm cubes, salt and set aside for 15 mins. Finely chop 1 thumb-sized piece of ginger,  6 garlic cloves, 6 shallots and 1 chilli. Roughly chop the roots and stems of 1 large bunch of coriander, reserving the leaves, then pound in a pestle and mortar. Rinse the aubergines, pat dry, then brown in vegetable oil in batches in a wok. Drain on paper towels. Stir-fry the ginger, garlic, shallots, chilli, and coriander roots and stems in a little oil, then pour in 4 tbsp dark soy, 4 tbsp light soy, 8 tbsp rice wine vinegar, 8 tbsp Shaoxing wine and 6 tbsp caster sugar. Bubble through for 5 mins, and start cooking 4 steaks on a griddle. Season the steaks generously. Return the aubergines to the wok to heat through. Just before serving, stir in the roughly chopped coriander leaves. (Serves 4)

There are times when only a steak can satisfy those carnivorous cravings. While the default option might be to match your red meat with a baked spud, sometimes it pays to pick a more adventurous accompaniment. This sweet and sour aubergine dish is adapted from a recipe in Skye Gyngell’s A Year in My Kitchen, and is very versatile: it can be eaten hot or cold and works brilliantly with beef, lamb and even firm-fleshed white fish. While the steak cries out for red wine, the interplay of sweet and sour flavours means you need to pick your bottle carefully. The brisk acidity of a Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon deals well with the challenge, while the velvety texture and plush fruit of a Napa Valley Merlot provides a counterpoint to the complex flavours. Both grapes – or a blend – often have a streak of herbaceousness that harmonises perfectly with the coriander underpinning the dish.  

We matched this dish to Hahn Estates’ Cabernet Sauvignon, Central Coast 2007 (£14.75, www.everywine.co.uk) and Duckhorn’s Napa Valley Merlot 2006 (£35, Majestic Wines). 

calif2 - New_California_Wines_Logo.jpgPhotographs ROB LAWSON
Originally published in Square Meal Lifestyle Autumn 2010

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