So here is this beautiful swordfish fillet, about an inch-and-a-half thick, weighing a bit more than a pound, snowy white with a slight reddish cast around one edge where the skin is. Perfect for two for dinner. What do we do with it?
Salt and pepper each side. Heat some olive oil in a heavy skillet until it's smoking. Sear the swordfish about two minutes on the first side, until it's brown and slightly crusty, and one minute on the other side. Then stick the pan in a 350-degree oven for about five minutes. The result was a moist, tender, almost creamy interior and full-blown flavor under the crust.
You're thinking, "Uh oh, for a big, powerfully flavored fish like that, he's going to have to open one of those big, powerfully flavored chardonnays that he doesn't like."
To finish the dish, we deglazed the pan with regular and white balsamic vinegar and a little white wine and reduced the mixture, creating a sauce that could have taken a chardonnay perhaps but because of the dark piquancy and lush woodsy quality of the balsamic vinegar would be more interesting with a red. I reached for some bottles of pinot noir.
It's a tricky proposition, this red-wine-with-fish business, as tricky as drinking, say, chenin blanc with beef tenderloin or muscadet with a hot dog. Never shall those twains meet in my book!
But fish rich in flavor and oil, depending on the preparation, can be matched with a red wine such as merlot or pinot noir with a little trial and error.
We served the swordfish, by the way, with a risotto filled with tomatoes, sauteed eggplant and fresh-shucked corn.
Let's dispense with a couple of anomalies first.
One sometimes reads that the next paradise for pinot noir will be New Zealand, but if the Mountford Pinot Noir 1999, Waipara Valley, is a fair representation, then those New Zealanders need more practice. To find something in a bottle that smelled more like Robitussin, you'd have to go to a drugstore. Then it tasted like cloves and Red-Hots. Avoid. About $30. And I'm sorry to say that I have never cottoned to Beringer's Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir, Napa Valley-Los Carneros, which for 1998 is as unbalanced and unintegrated and shoved over to the brown-sugar aspect as the previous examples I have tried. Not a success. About $30.
The other three pinot noirs we tried were excellent but very individual wines that, in their own manner, were well-matched with the swordfish.
The Thomas Fogarty Pinot Noir 1999, Santa Cruz Mountains, bursts from the glass in a welter of stewed plums, black cherry, smoke, licorice, beet-root and cola. Rich and warm and a bit toasty with oak, this wine subdues its wheat-meal and caramel qualities to delicious red fruit flavors and a satiny texture. Excellent. About $23.
The previous wine is downright reticent compared to the Hartford Court Dutton Ranch-Sanchietti Vineyard Pinot Noir 1999, Russian River Valley. This voluptuous biker babe of pinots, as Californian as they come, pushes ripe, fleshy, meaty elements as far as they can go and remain sane, allowing them to be tamed somewhat and segue into earthy qualities of beet-root, moss and autumn leaves. It's a very spicy, very dense, thick and satiny pinot, vibrant with currant, plum and cranberry flavors that flow into a dry, forceful, authoritative finish. Give it two or three years. 350 cases made. Exceptional. About $55.
Finally, there's the Logan Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Pinot Noir 1997, Monterey. Logan is the second label of the estimable Talbott Vineyards, and this example epitomizes, as Talbott wines tend to do, the balance between power and elegance. In this case, the three-and-a-half-year-old pinot is beautifully smooth, ripe and mellow, as bright and fresh as the day it was bottled, yet highlighted with stewed and macerated red fruit flavors and subtle touches of dried spice and old leather. Excellent. About $25.
Notes on other recently tasted pinot noir wines, all from California:
I often wonder how Meridian Vineyards can produce wines of such integrity and sell them so cheaply. The Meridian Pinot Noir 2000, Santa Barbara County, is so pure and intense, so fresh and rich, so beautifully delicious in deep red berry fruit, so supple and subtle, that its price, about $11, is a wonder. A Fabulous Bargain!
The Frei Brothers Reserve Pinot Noir 2000, Russian River Valley, lolls across the tongue but falls a bit short on the finish. Nonetheless, it's a dense, vivid and vibrant pinot, filled with earthy, smoky shades and delicious red fruit flavors. Very good. About $19.
Wine doesn't get more wild and winsome than the Hartford Pinot Noir 2000, Sonoma Coast, but, boy, is it ever husky with tannin and oak and dusky with elements of moss, roots and mushrooms. Fortunately, dark chocolate, raspberry-currant-cranberry flavors and potpourri do their best to soften the edges of this introspective and demanding pinot that could age two to four years. Excellent. This is the second label of Hartford Court. About $25.
I was a fan of Robert Stemmler's Cabernet Sauvignon 1998, which made my list of the Best Wines of 2001, but two pinots from 2000 offer too much of everything. The Robert Stemmler Pinot Noir 2000, Sonoma County, is almost too rich, dense and sizable. It's vastly supple, just short of muscularity in its tendency to take everything desirable about the grape and push it beyond the limit, even to its autumn leaf and fruitcake finish. About $28. Even bigger, woodier, earthier is Robert Stemmler's Pinot Noir 2000, Carneros, which overwhelms with 14.4 percent alcohol and muddles perceptions of the grape with its scents of old grass cuttings and taste of furniture stored too long in a basement. Bizarre and a waste of what must have been superb grapes. About $38.
Readers may be getting weary of my championing of Talbott Vineyards, but I think the company is making wines of unimpeachable integrity and authenticity. The Talbott "Case" Pinot Noir 1996, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, Monterey, is completely, utterly exquisite, balanced and integrated. As a great wine should do, it gathers depth, density and complexity in the glass, embodied in deepening currant-plum-cranberry flavors, increasing silkiness and a lovely rose-petal aspect that must be described as "stately." Exceptional. About $43.
Readers sometimes call or send e-mail asking, rather plaintively, if anyone likes sweet wines anymore. "All you write about," they protest, "are dry wines. What about a nice, just off-dry wine for casual sipping?"
Today we redress that wrong with two stress-free quaffers that make no bones about their softness but don't push the sweet qualities either.
Now: The Columbia Winery Cellarmaster's Riesling 2001, Columbia Valley, Washington, opens with a burst of apple, orange zest, almond blossom and pears; snappy acidity and a slight limestone component buoy marvelous pear, melon and white peach flavors, keeping everything crisp, refreshing and tasty. The mildly sweet entry is balanced by a dry, bracing finish. Delectable. About $8, a Bargain of the Decade.
Sparkler: Bonny Doon's Ca' del Solo Moscato del Solo 2000, Monterey, takes as its model the delicate prosecco sparkling wines of northern Italy. This low-alcohol - 6.5 percent - delightfully fruity, slightly sweet wine offers the essence of fresh apples and cider with a beguiling orange blossom and orange zest aspect and peach and pear flavors. This crisp, lively, breezy yet almost voluptuous concoction goes down ever so easily! Perfect for summer drinking on the porch or patio. About $18.
(E-mail Fredric Koeppel at firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o The Commercial Appeal, P.O . Box 334, Memphis, TN 38101.)