Sweet Bordeaux Challenge #5: Cacio e Pepe

Last year, around this time, I was sent a case of sweet wines from the Bordeaux region of France for a series of online tastings. The focus of the fine folks at Sweet Bordeaux has been to resituate the wines from the region, which have long been heralded as wines to be enjoyed after dinner or with dessert.

Given their high levels of acidity, the producers of Sweet Bordeaux argue that the wines should be considered excellent options as an accompaniment for appetizers, entrées, and even as an apéritif. I became familiar with the approach when I visited Bordeaux a few years ago, coming away convinced of the validity of the contention.

Last month, while trying to make some sense of my pile of samples, I came across those twelve bottles of golden Bordeaux wines and decided the time was now. My idea? Make some of the recipes I have been ‘perfecting’ over the past few years and pair them with what I would normally consider a good option as well as one of the Sweet Bordeaux wines.

(This is now the fifth week of this “Challenge” with links to the first four weeks at the bottom of the page.)

I have to be honest. I had never considered making Cacio e Pepe, the classic Italian dish that combines cheese and pepper until I saw Stanley Tucci rave about it on CNN’s Searching for Italy (I believe it was episode 2: Rome). Since seeing that program, I have tried to make the “simple” dish at least half a dozen times as it slots right into the “Meatless Monday” theme to which we try to adhere.

For a dish that has so few ingredients, there sure are a multitude of interpretations as to how to make it. The most debated element, it seems, is not only how much cheese one should add but also which cheese is “authentic.” Most of the interpretations I have seen include at least some Pecorino Romano, with some saying that should be the only cheese in the dish.

Others, including the dish prepared for Stanley Tucci, incorporate at least some Parmesan Reggiano into the fold, which is what I have done as well.

To me, though, the key is not so much the cheeses selected, but the method by which you incorporate them into the pasta. The first few times I made the dish, I added the grated cheese gradually to the pasta, stirring as I went, and also adding in some of the retained pasta water.

For some reason or another (the most likely culprit is that I did not have an Italian grandmother), the cheese would eventually begin to clump back together, which while still tasty, was rather unsightly. After a bit of searching, I came across the following YouTube video which contained the secret I had been missing (and no doubt my Italian grandmother would have told me): melt the cheese first, before adding a little of the starchy pasta water. Genius.

The video also stresses that you should undercook the pasta (by about three minutes) and then finish cooking it in the pan with the pepper and a bit of the retained pasta water. Vincenzo (the guy in the video) calls this the Risottare technique, which involves the constant stirring of the, in this case, pasta.

He also stresses that the melted cheese should be added without heat so that the cheese cooks again and clumps together again.


The Recipe

From beginning to end, this should take no more than 30 minutes, less if you are somewhat at ease in the kitchen.

List of ingredients:

  • Spaghetti. 1 pound or 500 grams. I always use higher quality pasta, usually spending about five-six bucks a pound. I think that the extra $2-3 spent is well worth it.
  • Grated Pecorino and Parmesan. I use a micro plane and generally try to get about a cup of grated cheese per pound of pasta. I use about 2/3 Pecorino to 1/3 Parmesan (which was the “secret” in the Stanley Tucci episode).

  • Pepper. Around a tablespoon of whole peppercorns. Similar to the pasta, I splurge a little here and buy Tellicherry black peppercorns, which are a little larger than the standard black peppercorns and have a more pungent, intense flavor.

  • A bit of butter and/or olive oil.

  1. Boil some water in a large pasta pot. Add the pasta and cook for the lower recommended time on the package minus three minutes.
  2. As the water is boiling/pasta is cooking, heat up a skillet over medium-high heat and toast the peppercorns until they start to darken a bit. Remove from the heat and grind up using a mortar and pestle.
  3. Reheat the pan with a tablespoon or so of olive oil and another of butter. Once the butter melts, add the ground pepper and sauté until the pasta is done cooking (medium heat).

    Ground pepper with olive oil and butter.

  4. Add the pasta to the ground pepper and retain all or most of the pasta water. Add in a bit of pasta water, stirring the pasta constantly in the pan for three minutes. Add more water as needed (there should always be a bit of water in the pan).

    Spaghetti with the peppercorns but before adding the cheese.

  5. Turn off the heat and add the melted cheese mixture, stirring and tossing until incorporated.
  6. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

This week, I actually tried three wines with the dish: a 2017 Sokol-Blosser Sparkling Rosé of Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley, a 2021 Pisoni Family Vineyards “Lucy” Pico Blanco, and a 2014 Château Biac Secret de Chateau Biac, Cadillac Sweet Bordeaux.

2017 Sokol Blosser Pinot Noir Sparkling Rosé Blossom Ridge, Eola – Amity Hills, Willamette Valley, OR: Retail $45. 100% Pinot Noir. The Sokol-Blosser family has been making wine in the Willamette Valley since the 1970s but this Blossom Ridge sparkling rosé is a relatively new addition to the winery’s portfolio. Quite light in color with just a hint of orange. The nose is mostly tree fruit (peach) and floral while the palate is quite tart, almost sour, with good fruit and more than ample acidity. Very Good. 88 Points.

2021 Pisoni Family Vineyards “Lucy” Pico Blanco, Monterey County, CA: Retail $22. Under DIAM5. 70% Pinot Gris, 30% Pinot Blanc. The Pisoni family is California wine family royalty and while this is a second wine for the family, it by no means takes second fiddle. This Pico Blanco is a case in point. Close to colorless in the glass with tropical notes of guava and banana on the nose. The palate is fruity, round, rich, and fantastic. Close to a whoa. The tartness, which is just right, comes in on the midpalate and carries the wine to, and through, the finish. I think this may be the first Pinot Gris/Pinot Blanc blend I have tried and this is a delicious representation. Excellent. 92 Points.

2014 Château Biac Secret de Chateau Biac, Cadillac, Bordeaux, France: Retail $12 (375ml). From 375ml. 85% Sémillon,15% Sauvignon Blanc. Part of my Sweet Bordeaux Challenge, this wine is certainly sweet. But the golden elixir has a fantastic nose of peach, white flowers, and honey. Oh my goodness the honey. Holy cow (and close to a whoa). The palate is unctuous, enveloping, and scrumptious. Fruity, tart, and oh-so-ever sweet, this is delicious, yes, but not cloying in any way. Think of a summer fruit salad with a drizzle of honeyed goodness. Oh yeah. Excellent. 92 Points.

It was almost immediately apparent that the tartness of the Sokol-Blosser was not going to work well with the spiciness of the pepper and the richness of the cheese. The other two wines? Fantastic. While the Lucy Pico Blanco was far from “sweet” there was a richness and roundness that really welcomes the spiciness of the pepper. The same can be said of the Château Biac Cadillac, which was quite sweet. This was perhaps the toughest of the challenges thus far to declare a “winner” but I opted for the Château Biac by a hair in the end.

The Standings (thus far):

Sweet Bordeaux: 3

The Drunken Cyclist: 2

Sweet Bordeaux Challenge #1: Gochujang Crème Fraiche Poached Shrimp Linguini

Sweet Bordeaux Challenge #2: Hachis Parmentier

Sweet Bordeaux Challenge #3: Beef and Chorizo Enchiladas

Sweet Bordeaux Challenge #4: Trofie con Fungi



About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
This entry was posted in #MWWC23, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Wine. Bookmark the permalink.

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