Pairing Off Pecan Pie Chardonnay

In this column we ask experts to help us pair wine with ordinary food.

The turkey has been whittled down to scraps. Only a few crumbs remain in the dish that was piled with stuffing just an hour earlier. Cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes—all gone. On TV the Cowboys are coasting on a double-digit lead (could happen). And yet the Thanksgiving meal goes on.

Yep. Pie.

Now, one can debate the merits of pumpkin, sweet potato or pecan. Many families avoid the pie-shaming rancor and bring a selection to the table. But appeasement is not the Pairing Off way. Only one can prevail in this matter.

Pecan pie from The Perfect Crumb in Monterey can send you into a fugue state. It is rich and hefty, with hints of vanilla, scorched caramel and coffee, along with an earthy, bittersweet hue and a wealth of pecans that snap with a mellow savor. This gorgeous ebony filling rests in a crust that flakes away leaving traces of butter on the senses.

Pitting a wine against such an opulent dessert could be a challenge. But Claire Sutton, the owner and sommelier at Sovino Wine Bar & Merchant in downtown Monterey, doesn’t even flinch before offering her opinion.

“I feel like Chardonnay—an oaked Chardonnay,” she says, pinpointing the 2019 edition from Samuel Louis Smith.

The winemaker devoted himself to just 120 cases, fermenting in barrels before allowing the wine to relax for nine months. His use of oak reads like a recipe, with 70 percent neutral French staves, a 20 percent dollop of new and a 10 percent dash of wood used for two cycles.

In other words, the Salinas winemaker treated the Chardonnay with care.

The wine offers aromas of pineapple, lemon zest and green apples, with a floral trill and notions that drift between vanilla, buttered bread, Bartlett pear, peppercorns and softer spices. This continues on the palate, with the fruit developing a quality not unlike pie—toasty, buttery—with a glint of citrus closing out the finish.

So it’s a pie immodest of its flavors against an intricate wine that is equally assured. It could be a battle.

“Honestly, that’s what I’d do,” Sutton insists. “I’m hoping you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

Indeed, the wine holds up well. The fruits and supporting cast of flavors remain, now escorted by a twirl of honey and a more pronounced bite of pepper. Yet the pie also holds its own, basking in its flakey, buttery crust, boasting of its opulence.

But it’s better. The Samuel Louis Smith Chardonnay cleaves some of the sweetness, masks just enough of the weighty richness of the pie, putting a second slice in the realm of possibility.

Pleasantly surprised, indeed.

“You want to match that buttery element,” Sutton explains. “That’s why you go with an oaked Chardonnay.”

Of course, all of the above comes with a caveat. I go into a wine tasting with a palate as neutral as possible. That means hours of blandness and water. No scents. No Chapstick. Wine held close to proper temperatures.

Yes, perception is also subject to choice of stemware. That’s not the issue in this case, however. Let’s face it, such rigors are unlikely to reflect the true turkey day pairing no matter how one prepares. In real life, the 2019 Chardonnay must contend with a palate battered by trips to the kitchen for seconds and thirds before dessert.

Sutton just shrugs.

“You could go with a red,” she says. “But I wouldn’t.”

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