For image alone fondue has Valentine’s Day written all over it. And choosing wine would seem to be easy. Can any wine be a failure with melted cheese? Tell the truth. When I say fondue, don’t you immediately think Alpine chalet, big sweaters, fireplace, and some wonderful, but completely unspecified wine?
Okay. I’m on the case!
As it happens there’s a restaurant with a long fondue tradition in Nevada City near where I live in the Sierra Foothills. It is downstairs from the County Probation Dept, and I admit to a little concern about why the sous chef would choose to wear a knit ski cap and shades in the kitchen, but then fondue really isn’t all that tricky. Fondue is simply a huge profit opportunity for any restaurant. It started snowing a few weeks ago, and I gave Friar Tuck’s a try in the company of a woman who was Homecoming Queen when we went to high school together. No way around it ~ the social mechanism of fondue in a restaurant is a lot more impressive than the food experience. Restaurants seem to feel Chardonnay is the obvious wine answer. I don’t agree. If fondue’s secret is the intimacy of sharing food, I’d recommend ordering several different specialty dishes, and eating off of each other’s plate in the restaurant. Save fondue for dinners at home with friends.
The wines will be diverse, because the concept of fondue has become so diverse. There’s melted cheese and wine, of course. There’s also cooking meats and vegetables in hot oil, and cooking in broth (shabu shabu). There’s the hot Italian cooking medium (garlic, oil, and anchovies) called bagna calde, and there are unlimited versions of dessert fondue, most involving molten chocolate. Clearly your whole cellar will have a chance to play if you host at home, and what you put on the forks will be as important as what is in the cooking pot. Think about roasted potatoes (microwave them first to make sure they’re cooked through), or a salame could add interest value to crusty bread. I love to use thin-sliced Serrano ham. Incidentally, if you don’t own a fondue pot, you can always feature an electric skillet in the center of your dinner table, or a double boiler and a hot plate.
Let’s break down the traditional cheese concept. It has broadened considerably since last we visited that little mountain cabin in Switzerland. Our starting point is Emmental (Swiss) and Gruyere cheese melted with white wine. Most recipes call for a touch of cornstarch, a clove of garlic, and a homeopathic dose of Kirsch (cherry liqueur). The Gruyere confers a slight nutty smell, and the Kirsch gives a faint impression of rose petals. I like Albarino as a grape variety with traditional fondue much more than Chardonnay. Albarino has a lot of minerality, and very restrained fruit. Try Longoria’s Clover Creek Vyd (www.LongoriaWines.com). Or, from the home of Albarino in Galicia, Spain, try Lagar de Cervera (Rias Baixas). I feel California Chardonnays especially are much too fruity for Swiss fondue. If you’re dipping apple slices, they may be okay, but Chardonnays don’t really work all that well with cubes of sourdough French bread. You want something considerably more earthy. Lighter-bodied reds with a little complexity, good acidity, and bit of cherry in the nose can be nice as well. Lesser Sangioveses are a fine recommendation. Try Antinori’s IGT called Santa Cristina. It’s mostly Sangiovese fermented in stainless. Just what the doctor ordered for around $10.
Another historic dish in the fondue genre is Welsh Rarebit. That’s a sharp cheddar melted with ale, sometimes a little mustard and cayenne. Purists think of rarebit as tavern food served on toast, but it’s such a good match for ultra-ripe CA Cabernets, we shouldn’t overlook it here. Get yourself a hunk of 2-year-old Raw Milk Cheddar from Ig Vella’s Cheese Company on Second Street in the town of Sonoma (www.vellacheese.com, 800-848-0505). Use it to make a fondue with Anchor Christmas Ale (the one with the tree label ~ www.anchorbrewing.com, 415-863-8350). You’ll never again wonder what food writers mean by ‘piquancy.’ The wine you want should be cassis-driven, with smooth tannins, and a big mouth-feel. There are a lot of them around, and you can easily spend three figures. But you don’t have to. Think Merryvale (www.Merryvale.com) or Ferrari-Carano (www.Ferrari-Carano.com) Cabs from the 2007 or 2009 vintages for examples under $40. Even Silver Oak Alexander Valley, almost a cliché for this style, can be had for $60 (www.JJBuckley.com)
Then there was spicy! In downtown Saratoga lies an extremely eclectic restaurant called La Fondue ~ light fixtures made out of guns, and zebra seat cushions. For cooking in the hot oil they offer alligator, wild boar, elk, buffalo. You get the picture. They have a fondue made with parmesan, cream cheese, chicken broth, and whatever you think you can handle in terms of chile peppers. Very Californio! Expensive, but like the rest of the place, you want to be able to say you’ve done it at least once. Saratoga is the high-end shopping district for Silicon Valley’s most successful entrepreneurs! This spicy fondue could be one of the toughest dishes for a wine match I’ve ever encountered. Salty, spicy, lights you up and keeps you going. An Amontillado Sherry was my first idea, but you couldn’t drink enough of it to keep up with the capsaicin burn. And some of the most interesting dipping items were mango and pineapple ~ wonderful taste sensations with the fondue, but not particularly good pairs for Sherry.
It’s entertaining research ~ all about the journey; not about the destination. Communal dining, obviously, is nothing new. It evokes primitive pleasures, among which I count shared bottles of wine. We can call it a nod to Chaucer’s romantic notion of St. Valentine, or we can just revert to the Roman (read pagan) feast of Lupercalia (February 13-15) with its overtones of fertility ritual. You choose. Either way, enjoy yourself. Next year we’ll take a cut at wines for cooking in your fireplace at home.