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Wine pairing with Jacob’s Creek winemaker & Australian celebrity chefs

"Gorgeous mansion!" a woman says, accepting a tall flute of Jacob's Creek Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir from a server in a starched white jacket. We are standing in the hallway of the Honorable John Olsen, Australian Consul General, New York, and his wife Julie, where several foodies and wine connoisseurs have gathered to experience Jacob Creek winery offerings, and to also taste the creations of flamboyant celebrity chefs Luke Mangan and Peter Evans.

Both chefs — young, movie star handsome, and enormously talented — are major celebrities in Australia with television shows, cookbooks, and several restaurants in the trendiest areas. Luke Mangan has a restaurant in San Francisco and is opening one in Los Angeles this year. Pete Evans has restaurants in Australia, starred in a television show called FISH, and has just come out with his second cookbook, My Table.

"One goal tonight is for you all to decide which of the two Jacob Creek's wines served with each course is the best pairing," said celebrity winemaker Philip Laffer, recipient of many distinguished accolades, as our intimate group took seats at the gorgeously set table, with its sparkling glasses and gleaming silver cutlery. Laffer was named Australia's Winemaker of the Year in 2002, and many credit him with bringing Australian wine to the export markets.

Sitting here at the table, I can see why. In creating this food and wine pairing dinner, he proves himself an expert communicator, not simply telling us about the wine, but encouraging us on many levels to share our own personal thoughts about the wine through between-course discussions.

For example, consider the first course of steamed Australis Barramundi with lime and coconut sauce. If you are familiar with Barramundi, think about the sauce for a moment and decide two possible white varietal pairings. If one of your choices was Riesling, you are right. In one of my wine classes at the Wine & Spirits Educational Trust, I still remember our instructor reminding us that one key way to blind taste a Riesling is to look for hints of lime, lime, and more lime. This described the Jacob's Creek Steingarten Riesling quite well.

"I already know this wine will pair nicely," I say to the woman next to me, lifting my glass to sip the Australian Riesling 2006. Dry and balanced, it complimented rather than contrasted with the fish. It was quite delicious, bone dry, and as light and delicate as lace. If you drink Rieslings infrequently, you probably have not had a Riesling like this so you are encouraged to try it.

The Jacob's Creek Reeves Point Chardonnay 2004 had a tempting vanilla nose and buttery, pure clean flavor. I thought it paired nicely with the fish, yet not as brilliant a pairing as the Riesling.

For the next course, we enjoyed olive oil poached Greg Norman signature wagyu beef, fragrant pumpkin puree, and asparagus. Now close your eyes, turn on your taste buds, and try to imagine which of the two following wines you would find best with this dish. Would it be the St. Hugo Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, or the Centenary Hill Shiraz 2004?

Our table was nearly divided into two on this. I could not predict as well as I did with the fish, but I liked the cab much better. The meat was delicate, and the pumpkin softened it further, making the arrangement just right for a soft cab. The Shiraz, with its sharp spicy notes, though delicious, might have been a better match for a less delicate meat like grilled steak.

What is a meal without cheese - especially now that I have a diploma in fromage from Artisinal cheese in New York. Looking good on our plates were a selection of King Island cheeses such as seal Bay triple cream brie, Roaring Forties blue, Stokes Point smoked cheddar with Maggie beer quince paste, and Pastilla Nash Sugar Plum & Walnut log.

I enjoyed the Johann Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 paired with this dish, yet thought this Shiraz would have been wonderful paired with the wagyu. Dessert was quite a production - an elaborate mini lamington with coconut anglaise and chocolate opera.

I really enjoyed meeting Jacob's Creek winemaker, Philip Laffer, meeting the two creative chefs Mangan and Evans, and came away with the following take-away points.

1. Australian wines are a great value. Too many Americans associate them with inexpensive, mass market, fruit-forward wines without finesse, but Jacob's Creek proves wines can be affordable and have quality.

2. It will be fun to offer two wines with each course of your next dinner party, as it focuses attention on both the food and the wine, and provides lively discussion.

3. The Jacob's Creek Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir NV served during appetizers impressed me. Though this under $15 sparkler is not made in the traditional method used in champagne, it was delicious and quite balanced.

Happy sipping!

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