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2012 Pairsine Challenge: The ultimate food and wine throwdown

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Wine never tastes better than when matched with its perfect food-based soulmate. So when the annual Pairsine -The Taste of Elegance Chefs' Food & Wine Pairing Competition rolls into town, we clear our calendars and start fasting -- because we know that it's about to go down. See also: - Chef and Tell with Lon Symensma of ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro - Chef and Tell with Tom Coohill of Coohills

Pairsine may look and sound like a typo, but in reality it couldn't make more sense -- or be more fun. Possibly the most-anticipated event of this weekend's Denver International Wine Festival, which kicked off on Wednesday with a Grand Vintners' dinner at Le Grand Bistro & Oyster House and wraps with a tour of Front Range wineries tomorrow after this evening's Grand Tasting, Pairsine features eleven of Colorado's finest chefs facing a challenge that lesser competitors would run from, screaming: pairing their cuisine with wines they've likely never heard of, let alone sampled until days before the event.

This year's setup differed dramatically from 2011's shindig, which was held at the cavernous Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum; this year guests gathered and gawked at the panoramic 38th floor views afforded by the Grand Hyatt's swank Pinnacle Club. The tighter accommodations made for quite the intimate gathering -- and by intimate, we mean peeps were on the verge of shanking each other to get to all the good eats. Thankfully, everyone decided they could all just get along -- and there was so much food, no one needed to worry that they'd go hungry.

Front Range chefs from restaurants both beloved (ChoLon Modern Asian Bistro, The Fort, Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar) and still-making-a-name-for-themselves (Kachina Southwestern Grill, Pub 17 on Welton) were given two Denver International Wine Festival medal-winning wines -- a white and a red -- and challenged to come up with two stellar small bites to pair perfectly with each. Judges and festival-goers had the heartbreakingly difficult task of gorging their way through eleven tables, searching for the chef who would serve up the winning trifecta of creativity, presentation and -- most important -- mad food and wine pairing skills. Who took home top prize? Lon Symensma of ChoLon, a previous Pairsine champ, was crowned Best Overall Chef for his masterfully silken rendition of fall: a rich, decadent-tasting roasted parsnip and quince soup that was so satisfyingly hearty, we could have sworn there was meat involved. Topped with a cleverly crisped kale chip, the explosion of umami flavors lined up unexpectedly well with its assigned wine partner, the spicy, jammy Klinker Brick Old Vine Zinfandel 2010 ($19). Symensma's second food and wine mash -up was just as stunning as the first: A luxurious spoonful of ginger-scented salmon tartare got along like a house on fire with the tropical, citrus-kissed Cameron Hughes Lot 346 Sauvignon Blanc 2011 ($11). Most Creative Chef honors went to a relative newcomer on the Denver restaurant block: Tom Coohill, chef and owner of his namesake LoDo restaurant, Coohills. Coohill blew us away with two perfectly executed dishes. The first was a pistachio pesto-crusted jumbo diver scallop, accented by a precision-cut grapefruit suprème; the accompanying wine selection rocked, too -- the zesty

We swooned for Coohill's follow-up dish -- a kind of sous vide pheasant roulade, stuffed with black truffle mousse and resting atop a butternut squash and parsnip purée and drizzled with a berry gastrique. The key component on the plate that brought the wine pairing home was precisely that gastrique, which harmonized beautifully with the rich, extracted berry and spicy oak flavors present in the Peju Province Merlot 2009 ($35).

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