December 23, 2005-- Business Week -- Cellar Dweller

What Wine with Your Foie Gras?

If this over-fattened liver appeals to you as much as it does to me, you'll want to pair it with the right drink. Here are some suggestions:

Despite the escalating controversy over whether goose and duck liver can be harvested humanely from fattened fowl, I must confess to enjoying -- even rapturing over -- the autumnal combination of foie gras and figs.

Foie gras is at the center of a culinary culture war these days with a few dashes of political correctness and a sprinkle of anti-French sentiment fueling the battle. Animal-rights activists have long objected to the way ducks and geese are fed, with corn and other rich feed ingredients poured down a funnel into the fowl's throat. The result: over-fattened livers -- and delicious foie gras.

Foodies with a foie gras Jones often dither over about matching wines with the rich delicacy. It's a funny sort of food because you can make it work not only with a rich red or fortified wine like ports, but also with Champagne or sparkling wines from other places.

Nice Match

What better place to indulge in such a treat than in the private dining room of a first-class French chef? During a recent late-afternoon chat and nosh with Tony Esnault, executive chef at Alain Ducasse, one of just three New York City restaurants to be rated three-star by Michelin, my taste buds were privileged to savor what a truly exceptional chef can do with carefully procured organ meats.

Chef Esnault created a Terrine of Hudson duck foie gras, which he preserved for three weeks before preparing. The foie gras was glazed with fig gelee, a compote layered with a marmalade of fig and orange confit. On the side, a seared and poached fig was served. And then a duck and fig jus finish the dish. A homemade brioche and toasted country bread melba was on the side.

Alain Ducasse's sommelier, Andre Compeyre, chose a Palmina Alisos 2004, a blend of 75% merlot and 25% sangiovese (retails at $22 -- a bargain). The California wine produced around Santa Barbara is an homage to the Amarone style of wine making in Italy where grapes from single vineyards are allowed to dry before crushing. The result is a full-bodied, but not sweet, red with an underpinning of bitter that went very nicely with the fat of the liver and fruit of the fig.

Any Old Port? 

Before indulging in what turned out to be a late-afternoon light lunch, though, we wet our palates with a 2003 Le Mute sur Grains du Domaine de La Rectorie, ($34 at retail). This is a dessert wine, and fortified at 16.5% alcohol, but not as sweet as a Port or Sauterne. It was delicious and deep, with cassis notes that were a perfect table-setter and conversation starter.

Since I'm not always lucky enough to eat foie gras prepared by a three-star chef -- let alone accompany it by wines chosen by a sommelier -- I've been doing some mixing and matching on my own. I always like good port, with or without the duck liver. But lately, I have been trying some American-produced Port-style wines that I wouldn't hesitate to serve as a set-up to foie gras or even an accompaniment.

For the uninitiated, Port is a fortified wine that's made by adding brandy to wine to arrest the fermenting grape must. The process results in sweeter wine that is higher in alcohol than wine achieves on its own. There's controversy over usage of the name "Port" on labels if it doesn't come from Portugal.

Bubbly Mix

Graham's Malvedos 1998 Late Bottled Vintage Port, a genuine Portuguese Port, works well with grilled foie gras. The rose scents of the Port played well off the slightly caramelized crust of the liver. Missouri's Stone Hill Winery has a 2003 "Port-style" wine for $20. It wasn't as deep or refined yet as some genuine Ports, but it was a worthwhile experiment.

Whether you like your foie gras uncooked on toast or cooked, just about any Champagne will work fine as a partner as well. The carbonation and yeast of a very nice Champagne cut the fat of the liver without fighting with it. Perrier Jouet Fleur De Champagne 1998 ($95) makes for a festive pairing. I also tried uncooked foie gras on toastpoints with a Charles Heidsieck Blanc De Mil Lenaire 1995 ($80), with equally satisfying results. This Champagne, in fact, with subtle notes of hazelnut, ginger, and mineral, was more of a complement than the Perrier Jouet.

When mixing a raw or poached foie gras with fruit, such as figs or blueberries, a rose Champagne matches up well -- better, in fact, than some blanc de blancs or white bruts. I recently had poached foie gras prepared at a friend's house with cooked blueberries, and I brought along a bottle of Moet & Chandon Brut Rose NV ($37) to the satisfaction of everyone except the animal-rights advocates next door.

Not many foods can invite creative pairings with Champagne, Port, and a lovely deep red table wine. Therein lies the appeal and complexity of good foie gras.

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