With the return of spring, nothing is more enjoyable in Texas than being outdoors. Sunrises are warm and invigorating; sunsets become spectacular theater. Nature is reborn—abounding in the budding trees, soft grasses and the candy-colored palette of our famous Texas Hill Country wildflowers. As we celebrate this lush, vernal time, we look to certain customs and foods as representatives of life’s victory over winter’s cold repose, and of the gentleness, tenderness and innocence that are promised to follow.
Probably the best known of these symbolic foods is lamb—gracing springtime tables in both religious and non-religious contexts for thousands of years and important to many cultures that began in the Mediterranean regions. Roasted lamb shank is traditionally eaten as part of the Jewish Passover Seder, and eating lamb at Pasqua (Easter, in Italian)—considered the most important religious celebration of the year in Italy, if not all Christendom—is deeply rooted in custom.
Traditionally, certain lambs were more desirable for the springtime meal. Often, they were 4- to 6-week-old, milk-fed animals (referred to as angelet in French or agnello da latte in Italian), prized for their tenderness and extremely mild flavor. Today, older animals tend to be more in demand—those about a year old or younger that have foraged on grass in pastures, making the meat more firm with a rich, yet pleasing, flavor.
Our spring lamb dinner starts with an invigorating splash—like cold, early spring water rushing over Pedernales slab limestone that eventually becomes our favorite summer swim spot. Lewis Wines 2013 Swim Spot is made from a blend of East Texas blanc du bois and Central Texas chenin blanc. It embraces the light-bodied, slightly effervescent and low-alcohol vinho verde style of Portugal. The wine is near-white in appearance, bright and clean, with lemon citrus and mineral notes igniting on the palate with each lively bubble. Swim Spot is the perfect wine for a celebratory toast at the beginning of the spring meal.
This is a delicious soup with a delicate but surprisingly complex and gratifying taste. The “green” vegetal elements of the soup—particularly the zucchini and cilantro—beg for a dry white. As with many soups, though, there can be a multiplicity of disparate ingredients making wine pairing more challenging. In this case, there is an underlying spicy zing from the addition of serrano and chipotle chilies. This led us to dry wines that could balance the spice against vibrantly ripe fruit flavors while still being fermented dry. Luckily, in Texas wineries we are seeing more Mediterranean white wine varieties that carry a natural herbal character from their native homeland and a tendency to yield ripe fruit characteristics from our warm and sunny summer days. Pedernales Cellars 2014 Vermentino fits the bill completely with its herbal thyme notes and hints of anise with strong support on the palate from ripe Asian pear and lemon-citrus characteristics. A second very worthy wine pairing was Hye Meadow Winery 2013 Trebbiano, which focuses more on toasted almonds, sage herbs commingled with white flowers and minerals on the nose, followed by silky Meyer lemon cream characteristics on the palate. Trebbiano is the grape oft-overlooked in dry white Italian wines from northeastern Italy, and Vermentino derives from Sardinia. But here in Texas, these grapes are being rediscovered for their enhanced ripeness and hearty nature that will likely make them keepers for Texas and her wine drinkers.
The earthy taste of both the beets and the goat cheese with the vinaigrette makes for a unique combination. The mélange of greens adds yet another dimension of bold flavors, while a scattering of crumbled peppered bacon provides a crunchy touch and adds a meaty dimension to the salad. Our wine pairings focus on the earthy and smoky characteristics of this dish, but also the richly concentrated and fruitlike characteristics of the roasted beets. For the white, we selected Brennan Vineyards 2012 Chardonnay. The late spring freezes of 2013 in Texas have limited our white wine options. However, we’re lucky that 2012 was a magnificent and prolific vintage for wine grapes. While chardonnay in Texas is not an every-year celebration, 2012 was a special vintage that treated Brennan Vineyards’ decade-old chardonnay vines very well. The wine underwent alcoholic fermentation with no subsequent malolactic fermentation, yielding a crisp, pale-amber wine. The exceptional fruit intensity has softened with bottle aging to produce elements of golden delicious apples, toasted nuts and hints of dried stone fruits that complement the golden beets, smoky bacon and creamy goat cheese. For the red, we chose Duchman Family Winery 2012 Estate Nero d’Avola made from a grape originating from southern Italy but grown on a parcel on the Duchman Estate vineyard in the Texas Hill Country. This wine approaches the salad from the red side (as expected) and brings luscious black cherry and red beet characteristics and floral aromatics that end in mineral earthiness matching that of the red beets and greens.
The depth and complexity of the lamb embellished with buttery-savory flavors beg for red wines with equal depth of flavors and firm tannic structures. An appropriate selection coming from the adjoining county is Sandstone Cellars XV 2013. While this is not an estate wine, both the winery and the grapes used are in Mason County. This wine is purple-black and thick in the glass, derived from a blend of inky petit verdot and syrah. It exudes vibrant, dark-red plum and blueberry notes and a mineral aroma of wet river rocks. All of these elements combine and follow through to the palate and the wine’s finish to meld with the intense flavors of the lamb. A second notable match for this dish is Spicewood Vineyards 2012 Estate Tempranillo that first approaches from the herbal aromatic side. It offers bright notes of cloves and parsley in parallel with the spices used in the preparation of the lamb. On the palate, this wine provides notes of wild cherry, blackberry and black olive, and crisp acidity (that cuts right through the buttery braising sauce) with a finish that feels as dry as the limestone-encrusted soil of the vineyard where it was grown.
When I first tasted this handmade ricotta cheese, I fell in love with the creamy, butter-like flavor. The almond pastry forms a pleasant nutty base for the smooth cheesy filling studded with both orange moscato and lemon zest. This is a great dessert for those who are not fans of rich, overly sweet desserts. This recipe calls for the wonderful Texas Hills Vineyard Orange Moscato to be used in the preparation—one of the most amazing “must-taste” Texas wines on its own. Therefore, the wine match in this case is the Hye Meadow Winery 2012 Orange Muscat with its characteristic over-the-top orangey aromatics yet restrained sweetness. A dollop of sémillon was used in the blend, providing an exciting mouthfeel and sugar-to-acid balance. This is a semi-sweet white wine (not sticky-sweet) that has a tangible but modest 4 percent residual sugar. Its fragrant, orange-citrus nose leads to rich tropical fruit flavors of mango, passion fruit, macadamia nuts and a clean, crisp and juicy mouthwatering finish.