Wine, Winter, Cassoulet and Napa’s Chill
The days are becoming quite short here in Napa Valley, again. We’ve also had unusually chilly weather. It’s nothing like what our friends in the Upper Midwest and eastward are confronting. There they get industrial grade cold. No, it’s merely unusually chilly here. Low 30s. High 20s.
Still, the cold and the short nights, along with the barren vines, remind us we do in fact live through seasons and winter is one of them.
For me, the physical onset of the Napa winter has been occasion for colder morning golf outings, more bourbon than normal and, this year, an investigation into the theory Cassoulet.
There are many.
But what I found most interesting in delving into the 1000s of dissertations on the dish found in books, magazines, online and in dialogues with diehards is the question of what to drink with the savory winter dish. The conclusion is near universal and thoroughly sentimental.
It’s always the same. One must serve one of the hearty reds from France’s southwest, preferably from the Languedoc region. The area from which Cassoulet originates…supposedly (the origins of Cassoulet is not a topic worth exploring here as it would only lead to back and forth comments from professional and amateur Cassoulet theorists alike).
However, the command that Southwestern Frenvh red wine be served with the dish is dictated by every professional and non professional wine source I consulted. Interestingly, in so many cases the dictate came without the explanation that the dish and the wine emerge from the same region. Almost always the case was made that the wines of the region happen to match the dish. But this isn’t the real reason these wines were suggested. Instead, it was a sympathy toward matching the food of a region with the wines of the same region, whether it went unsaid or not.
I appreciate the symmetry of recommending for pairing with Cassoulet a wine from in and about Carcassonne or Toulouse or in between. But it’s just too easy and comes with so little thought. What I was hoping to find, instead, was a source that could explain exactly why it was best to recommend this match of a region’s specialty dish with the region’s wine. I didn’t find it, I think, because there is no good explanation beyond, “well, it’s a pretty nod to a region.”
For me, I think I’ll be taking a cross cultural approach with my next Cassoulet foray and serve up something from America. Something bold, earthy, with firm tannin and with a tad of age.
It’s the little rebellions that are most useless and most fun.
Love this topic. It, of course, has no correct answer, as I discovered when we vacationed in the area between Toulouse and Carcassonne, and pursued not just the perfect cassoulet but also the perfect vessel in which to cook it.
So, after several encounters with what seemed overdone, fatty, dishes, we ventured into the town of Castelnaudary. No accident there. Some 30 years earlier when we took our then teenaged children to France, including two nights in Carcassonne, from which we ventured out to Castelnaudary to taste what had been described as the best Cassoulet. If it was neither the best, nor perfect, it was close. And so, after several near misses, and towards the end of our week in that part of the world, we went back to Castelnaudary.
It should be said that both Toulouse and Cassoulet claim Cassoulet as their own, and they are so insistent in those claims that each town has its own “Cassoulet” fraternity, and they do not speak to each other.
When we got to our destination in Castelnaudary, Le Tirou, we all ordered cassoulet and then came the wine choice. I spoke with the host and talked about several wines, most of which I considered too light for the dish. Then, came the recommendation I was looking for. A wine not from the immediate area but one that was further inland and riper and warmer.
When I professed that it was probably my CA palate that pushed me in that direction, the host explained that she and her chef husband, the owners, also preferred a richer wine with their cassoulet, but that they felt duty bound to recommend a local wine first.
A similar CA blend would be some form of Grenache, Mourvedre based blend, although my best recollection is that the one we had consisted of Gamay and Cabernet Sauvignon. It was full-bodied, rich and balanced, and not overly fruity.
Cassoulet is not a very refined dish. It is mostly beans and sausage with smattering of almost any meat at hand. Long cooking is the key. There is no perfect wine for the dish, and almost any rustic, not too tannic or acidy red will likely do nicely. It is winter here, and we are going to make a big pot of cassoulet and serve a variety of ripe, but not to heavy Syrahs with it, as well as some Rhone-type blends.
Oh, and if one reads far enough on the Internet, one discovers that the appropriate vessels for this long cooking is a inverted, cutfoff cone of an earthenware vessel manufactured by the Not Freres pottery outside Castelnaudary. Ours cost $22 there, which made carrying it back worthwhile because we saw it here for $85.
I discovered the following recently, when booking a ticket to the Vinisud trade fair. I was devastated, and hate to be the breaker of bad news here, but Languedoc and Roussillon and several other French wine regions are n’est plus.
On Jan 1, 2016 the number of metropolitan regions was reduced from 22 to 13 by merging under new names. Midi-Pyrenees, Languedoc, and Roussion, are now known collectively as Occitanie, with Toulouse as the prefecture. Worse, Champagne-Ardennes, Alsace, and Lorraine are now known by the uber prosaic Grand Est.
The departments such as Herault etc. remain unchanged, and cities such as Montpellier still exist (I think),
I love to make a cassoulet or two over the winter months 9or during what passes for winter here in Texas), and I’ve tried several recipes over the years, I keep returning to the duck confit version, as I have a terriffic friend who loves to make it, and will age it for a month or more in the back of his fridge in anticipation of our January cassoulet fest. As to wine, for me, cassoulet is not haut cuisine in a classical sense, just superb eating, more gourmand than gourmet, and i like wines that fit that category to pair it as well. Older Ridge Zins have done beautiful work in the past, as have better quality Bierzo Mencias, bigger Ripassos. Bedrock’s Shebang! has worked, as have better quality Austrian Zweigelts, and any number of Cali Rhone / SW France style blends. It’s not a difficult dish to pair, IMO, it just needs a certain weight minimum with moderate acidity, not too much tannin, and no perceptible RS, though a small amount actually is pleasing, just so long as I don’t taste it as sweetness.
Chorey-les Beaune, ie Joseph Drouhin.