The lessons of years of restaurant experience turned out to be more valuable than youthful exuberance when two talented wine professionals faced off in the final of Agua Restaurant & Lounge’s Sommelier Standoff Series on June 7.
The final of the series, which began last July, pitted Agua’s in-house sommelier Fabio Sordinelli against Jacques Scott Wines & Spirits’ Ross Chernin, after each competitor had won his previous two standoffs.
The format of the unique, interactive series involved a multi-course meal with two wines paired with the dishes, one by each sommelier. After each course, guests voted for the wine they thought paired best with the dish, which was not necessarily the wine they preferred just drinking it by itself. The winner of each round was announced before the next dish was served.
The first course was scallop “tiradito,” a Peruvian raw-fish dish. For the first time in the series, sparkling wine was chosen for a pairing, and as it turned out, both sommeliers chose to go that way, although with different colors and brands from different countries.
Sordinelli chose Ferrari Brut, a sparkling wine made from 100 percent Chardonnay in the Trentino region of northeastern Italy. Opting for a rosé, Chernin chose Roederer Estate Brut Rosé – a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – from Anderson Valley in California. Both sparkling wines were enjoyed by the 92 guests, but in the end, they felt the fruitiness of the Pinot Noir in the Roederer Estate Rosé paired better with the sauce on the scallop and Chernin coasted to a 60-32 first-course win and a good start for the evening.
However, things went downhill for young Ross after that.
The second course was salt roasted shrimp with crispy avocado, orange mayonnaise, and fresh local tomato and mango. Sordinelli chose Pouilly Fumé, a wine made from 100 percent Sauvignon Blanc in France’s Loire Valley, while Chernin opted for Ramey Wine Cellars Chardonnay from California’s Sonoma Coast.
Because of the variety of flavors of the accompaniments to the shrimp, neither wine paired perfectly, but the buttery mouth feel and oakiness of the Chardonnay overpowered the flavors of the food. Sauvignon Blanc is one of the most popular white wines in Cayman, which Sordinelli is abundantly aware of, and although Pouilly Fumé is not the New World expression of the wine that is most popular here, it’s still Sauvignon Blanc.
Chernin, on the other hand, chose oaky California Chardonnay, a style of wine that has generally fallen out of favor in Cayman, partially because its characteristics do not go well with Cayman’s subtropical climate. In a situation where neither wine paired particularly well with the dish, the more popular wine won the round, although it was fairly close, with Sordinelli edging Chernin 50-42.
The third course was called “Quadrucci di Terra,” which consisted of potato- and leek-filled raviolis served on a bed of porcini mushroom sauce and topped with shaved black truffles. Both sommeliers chose Pinot Noir to pair with the dish, with Sordinelli selecting a Burgundy from Beaune and Chernin choosing an obscure wine from Germany.
Both wines actually paired well with the earthiness of the dish, and the result could have gone either way if left solely on the pairing. But the Vincent Girardin Savigny-lès-Beaune “Les Marconnets” is a Premier Cru from one of the most famous and well-regarded wine regions in the world, while even many wine aficionados might not know the Rudolf Fürst Spätburgunder Tradition, or even that Germany makes some good Pinot Noirs. Adding to the issue, the Les Marconnets was a younger 2010 vintage compared to a 2006 vintage of the Tradition, and while the older wine was still drinking marvelously, it had some of the typical characteristics that are expected of older Pinot Noirs, traits that wouldn’t necessarily appeal to the uninitiated masses.
In the end, Sordinelli’s choice to play it safe won over Chernin’s obscure risk, though the close 48-44 result showed that there were many guests who thought the German wine paired better with the dish.
The round was a costly loss for Chernin because the Tradition was the most expensive wine he chose – it retails for $44.95 – using up a good chunk of his overall wine budget for the event, while Sordinelli was able conserve money for other wines, with the Les Marconnets retailing for about $9 less.
Going into the final course, Chernin needed to win in order to force a tie-breaking blind tasting. The centerpiece of the dish was a roasted pork tenderloin, which was served with fontina cheese, apple chutney, crispy polenta and rosemary pork jus.
Chernin once again opted to go obscure, selecting Clos Ouvert “Otoño” from Chilean producer Louis-Antoine Luyt. This is a biodynamic blended wine made mostly from Carménère, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pais, with some added Syrah, Cinsault and Malbec. There was nothing really wrong with the wine or how it paired with the dish, but Sordinelli chose the full-bodied Marqués de Riscal Reserva, a Tempranillo from Rioja, Spain, that is one of the best value-for-quality wines on the market. It has crowd-pleasing red fruit flavors and just the right amount of tannins and oakiness. For the guests, it was no contest, with the Marqués de Riscal easily besting the Clos Ouvert by a score of 61-31.
Although guests were given explicit instructions to choose the wine they thought paired best with the dish – not the wine they liked best – Sordinelli’s decision to select easily understandable wines that he knew from experience were popular with diners was a deciding factor. There was nothing wrong with Chernin’s wines, and – except for the Ramey Chardonnay – paired well with the dishes. But many of the guests were unfamiliar with the wines and regions he chose, making it hard for them to get beyond the taste or style of wines they were having for the first time.
Still, the wines for the final were the best served in the seven-dinner series, and the food was excellent as well.
The Sommelier Standoff series offered a novel approach to typical wine dinners in that, in addition to good food and wine, the dinners were fun and interactive and provided the opportunity for guests to really learn something about wines and how they pair with food.