Today’s post is the second in an occasional series I have about pairing food and wine. A few months ago, I wrote about Fontanafredda Barolo Riserva with dishes from the kitchen of Eataly in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. (see Pairings: Fontanafredda at Eataly).

Now we move to France for an exploration of food pairings with the sweet wine of Barsac’s Chateau Climens. Producers from Sauternes and Barsac, Bordeaux’s two sweet wine appellations, have been on a decades-long mission to show that their wines are compatible and, at times, enhance foods beyond the classic pairings of foie gras and desserts.

Chateau Climens is one of 12 chateaux in the Sauternes-Barsac appellations ranked Premier Cru in Bordeaux’s legendary 1855 Classification. The chateau’s documentation begins in 1547 with its purchase by Guirault Roborel, the prosecutor at Barsac for King Henry II. Multiple ownerships occurred over the next four centuries, until 1971 when Lucien Lurton bought the estate.

The Lurtons are a large family with various branches owning numerous Bordeaux wineries. Lucien Lurton was an agronomist and father to 10 children to whom he left his portfolio of chateaux. The last child, Bérénice, was gifted Chateau Climens.

It was she that I met at Gotham Bar & Grill, one of Manhattan’s civilized dining rooms. The restaurant’s fabric chandeliers were stylish statements on opening day in 1984, and are still as warm and glowing today. Bérénice Lurton and I sat at a rear table in the dining room for our pairing of Climens with Chef Alfred Potale’s melting-pot cuisine–still fresh and relevant after more than 30 years.

Bérénice was 22 years old when she began working at Chateau Climens in 1992. In a centuries-old local dialect, Climens means “poor land”—unsuitable for growing anything but vines. Yet, its limestone bedrock covered with sand and clay, and colored red by iron oxide creates the Barsac soil that nourishes the vines, and contributing to the splendid sweet wines of Chateau Climens. Ironically, it is the poor soil that makes Barsac rich. And, that same bedrock works above ground, too: it’s quarried for vineyard walls and buildings that give a sense of place to this parcel.

Sweet wines are created from a microscopic fungus, Botrytis Cinera, or “noble rot,” in wine parlance. The fungus dances a tango of rain, wind, sunshine and temperature. When healthy grapes are aligned with autumn rain, it creates the moisture needed for the fungus to form on the grape skins. Then, if a dry, warm period follows, the fungus spores pierce the skins and absorb the water. Next the wind and sun shrivel the grape, concentrating the sugar, acidity and flavors. This interplay of weather and grape ripeness produces sweet wines with balanced acidity, and fragrances and flavors ranging from white flowers to tropical fruits to honey and citrus. The combination is mesmerizing.

In vintages where only the rain arrives or the temperature is not warm enough after the rain, the fungus creates “grey rot,” destroying the grape. In 2012, the wine gods rained on Sauternes parade, so to speak, but were kinder to Barsac.

Bérénice Lurton

We began our lunch with the 2010 Chateau Climens and its second-label wine, 2012 Cypres de Climens.

As with all chateaux, Climens makes a second wine from younger grapes, or from barrels of wines deemed good, but not at the level demanded for its estate- labeled wines, or Grand Vin in Bordeaux’s wine lexicon. In 2012, its second-labeled wine, Cypres de Climens, displayed apricot and honey aromas and flavors with a cleansing acidity.

The 2010 Chateau Climens offered a cornucopia of aromas and flavors from orange and pineapple to honey and guava. The medium body carried a line of acidity and minerality that kept the wine from being cloying. Its structure foretold of many more years of pleasure.

But what was on Gotham’s menu to pair with these ambrosia wines? Skipping the Muscovy Duck Foie Gras, I choose Chef Potale’s oldie-but-goodie tuna tartare. Berenice chose two appetizers: Seafood salad of octopus, shrimp, scallop, squid and avocado; and cerviche of red shrimp, pineapple, cucumber, radish, red onion and a chili-spiced passion fruit emulsion.

Passing the plates back-and-forth, we agreed that the shrimp and passion fruit emulsion was a delightful match for 2012 Cypres de Climens and the 2010 Chateau Climens. The aromas and fruit flavors of both wines harmonized with the tropical-inflected food presentation. For me, it recalled the pleasure of dining in Hawaii where many dishes incorporate the islands’ fruits.

The seafood salad with avocado passed muster with the 2012 Cypress de Climens, but the 2010 Chateau Climens overpowered the dish.

Least successful was the tuna tartare. One of Chef Potale’s signature dishes, it boasts an eye-catching presentation of a disk of diced tuna holding two tall surf board-shaped croutons. But the pairing was like two strangers standing on opposite platforms waiting for their respective trains to arrive. A better partner would be a rose’ of pinot noir, a slightly chilled, unoaked Frappato from Sicily, or an unoaked sauvignon blanc from Loire Valley or Sonoma.

The 2005 Chateau Climens is bold. As with Bordeaux’s 2005 red wines, the sweet wines from 2005 are concentrated and lavish. Climens’ amber color, intense honey, orange, apricot, and ginger aromas and flavors are opulent. If it were not for the minerality from the limestone soil, the depth and concentration of the fruit and sweetness would be overwhelming.

As with the appetizers, we passed a trio of main courses of spring risotto, pan- roasted branzino, and miso-marinated black cod.

With its green asparagus, English peas, cremini mushrooms, pancetta, pea tendrils and parmesan cheese the risotto was too delicate for the 2005 Chateau Climens, but ideal with the less muscular 2010 Climens and the 2012 Cypres de Climens.

The branzino’s accompaniment of fennel and a blood-orange emulsion, showed that the chef understood this ubiquitous fish can be more than a culinary plain Jane. But despite the dressing up, the 2005 Chateau Climens’ opulence was like a gorgeous necklace that needed a more elegant dress.

Bérénice with 2005 Chateau Climens & black cod

The best pairing with the 2005 Chateau Climens was the presentation of miso-marinated black cod. Its taste was enhanced by the soy and lemongrass sauce that matched the richness of the 2005 Climens. The sticky rice waltzed with the wine’s sweetness, while the bok choy gave it a palate-pleasing counter point.

Dessert brought a wine pairing surprise in the 1977 Chateau Climens. In Sauternes and Barsac, the 1975 and 1976 vintages are considered among the greatest sweet wines of the 20th century, while 1977 received no consideration. But Bérénice proudly acclaimed its condition and quality as the cork was pulled from the bottle. And right she was.

The wine displayed the mahogany color that comes with age. The very fresh orange, pineapple and lemon aromas held my attention to the point that I continue inhaling the wine instead of tasting it. But when the 1977 Climens crossed my lips its refined texture released ripe, orange and tangerine flavors braced with lively acidity that belied its 40 years. Its lively and luscious fruit made an argument for being its own dessert, but I opted for a dacquoise of diced mango, mango sorbet and passion fruit sauce. It was a perfect pairing.

1977 Chateau Climens & Dacquoise

As lunch concluded I sipped the 1977 Climens while taking a trip down memory lane. In 1988, at lunch with Jean-Eugenie Borie, the owner of Chateau Ducru-Beaucaillou, our appetizer was spring’s white asparagus drizzled with hollandaise sauce. As a glass of Sauternes was poured, Borie challenged the idea that sweet wines could only be served with foie gras.

That memory will be 30 years old next spring, and while it is as true now as then, the lunch with Bérénice Lurton and Gotham’s cuisine showed both the possibilities and fault lines of paring sweet wines.

For me, it is most successful when the pairings are influenced by Asian cuisines. Classic European dishes were codified decades if not centuries ago and were designed for the local and regional wines and beers. Are Sauternes and Barsac producers going to change that mind set?

Wine consumers and gourmets from the New World and Asia are much more receptive to exploring food and wine combinations. It’s here that fertile ground lies for finding consumers willing to adventure with sweet wines.

Try it. Order a 375ml of Chateau Climens the next time you dine at a Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, or Singapore cuisine restaurant. Then, collect your adventurer’s badge.

Wine ratings and prices:

2012 Cypres de Climens 90 points. Retail is approximately $40 375ml.

2010 Chateau Climens 95 points. Retail is $100 to $170 750ml, shop accordingly.

2005 Chateau Climens 95 points. A huge retail span of $95 to $200 750ml, but along with price, ascertain the storage conditions before buying.

1977 Chateau Climens 97 points. At this age, the wines storage is more important than its price. I found only one retailer listing the 1977 Chateau Climens: K&L Wine Merchants in Redwood City, Calif.  And the price was a very mild $160 for this 40-year-old wine.

Photos by John Foy