This weekend, one of our main tasting groups had the 15th iteration of its Valentine Dinner. It was the annual opportunity for us guys to plan and execute a special evening in honor of our ladies.
The menu was driven by the wines. It was so cold (wind chills in the -20 range) that we began with hot spiced wine. Not an easy pairing--but figs baked in phyllo dough worked well. Then it was to the table for seared scallops in brown butter and lemon sauce. Delicious. Speaking of delicious--the scallops were paired with two champagnes. The first was Jacques Lassaigne Le Cotet--a vibrant, minerally young champagne made from a single vineyard of old chardonnay vines in Montgueux. Fresh, penetrating, precise and long. With it, my last bottle of 1996 Dom Perignon. Mature, complex, round...and even longer. 1996 was such a great vintage. Both really, really good.
Next up, a 2007 Aubert Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay. With big chardonnays, I tend to prefer them mature--maybe even a little on the back side of their life cycle--as the fruit softens and the wine settles down a bit. I'm not a fan of rocket fuel. I might have waited a year beyond optimum for this Aubert--but it was still excellent. Since mushrooms, corn and cream are among the things that pair well with chardonnay, I made a cream of mushroom and corn soup. Entertainingly, the recipe came from a site called Healthy Living. Of course, there were lots of mushrooms and vegetables in it...so I guess that's healthy. Oh...and a quart of heavy cream. Now that's healthy! The soup and the wine worked well together.
Then on to the "main course"--a ribeye roast with Joël Robuchon's mashed potatoes (think butter, butter and more butter). With them were two Napa reds. And there's a backstory for those two wines. When the group was formed years ago, we were all novices on the wine road. One of the early questions we faced--one of the early questions every novice wine drinker faces--is whether expensive wines are really better than medium-priced wines. We set out to try to answer that question.
Our approach: one weekend, we bought the five best cab-based California wines we could get for $30-$50 (in 2000). Sure enough, all were good (we'd done research) but one stood out. It was the 1997 St. Francis Reserve. Really good. RIch and deep. It was the unanimous favorite.
The following weekend, we brought back the 1997 St. Francis Reserve as wine number one. It was followed by four wines in the above-$100 range. We tasted the St. Francis again, smiled and nodded. It was good. First comparison, a Caymus Special Selection (a 1995, I think). It was really good...but in our view, not dramatically better. A Far Niente. Same result. We gave each other knowing looks. No need to spend the outrageous bucks. Then the 1994 Joseph Phelps Insignia. A sniff and then a sip. As I savored it, the world slowed down. I was totally captivated. It was just me and the glass. I fell to my knees (figuratively) and said: "Thank you, Lord! Now I understand." Of course, while I was in my own little world with the wine, my friend loudly said: "This is great!" So my wife gave him her glass of Insignia. I woke up from my trance just in time to see the glass slide out of my reach! I have forgiven her. But not forgotten. The Insignia was followed by the 1996 Opus One. After this first wine epiphany, I'm not sure anything could have measured up, but the Opus was really, really good...also in a different class than the St. Francis Reserve. And so for us, the question was answered. Are expensive bottles better? Sometimes. Far from always. But the bottles that bring a truly transcendental experience can be fairly costly--and are worth it! Of course, the key is to know which wines really are that good.
So for this Valentine Dinner, we reprised the 1994 Insignia and the 1996 Opus that had so captivated us in our original experiment. And they were again memorable. The Insignia seemed a bit fresher (but at ~20 years old, bottle variation can be significant--so it could have just been our bottles) but both were elegant and complex. And of course my wife gave some of her Insignia to Jay again. Tradition is important. And we toasted the ladies.
Dessert (after salad, no wine) was a lovely dark chocolate mousse. For that pairing, I went for help. My default would have been port. But Eric Asimov had a better idea. His recent piece in the New York Times about chocolate pairings recommended good Malmsey Madeira. The Rare Wine Company collaborates with one of Madeira's top producers on what they call the Historic Series. Asimov suggested that their New York Malmsey Special Reserve was memorable with chocolate. And he was right. Rich, sweet--but not cloying--and complex...it was wonderful.
A lovely night. Hopefully, a fitting tribute to those we love. But whether we succeeded in that or not, we tried hard. And that, more than anything, is what matters.