Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Another Great Vintage Port

1977 Dow Vintage Port.
Shane’s Notes

We haven’t purchased our port tongs yet, so I took my best shot with a waiter’s corkscrew. I burrowed in at a slight angle and rocked the cork back and forth. The extraction was nearly over when the cork broke. We poked the rest of the cork back into the bottle and decanted with a funnel and screen. We took a quick sip and discovered that the wine was extremely closed. We let it sit for an hour before tasting it again. It was drinkable but still not fully open. It took another hour before the palate really started to sing.

That palate had the rich texture that you would expect from an aged vintage port. It also had that ineffable elegance that marks Dow’s style. The flavors included black cherry, fennel, and hazel nuts with undertones of vanilla and brown sugar. The brown sugar flavor became more prominent as the decanting time reached the three hour mark. The flavors were so enjoyable that you just wanted to swirl this one in your mouth before swallowing. My only complaint is that the finish was a little hot.

This port should probably be aged for another 5 to 10 years and would probably hold up well beyond that, but it is definitely drinkable now with a few hours of decanting. There really is no substitute for an aged, vintage port.

Las Vegas, Part II

Mandalay Bay

2003 Chateau de Beaucastel
Chateauneuf du Pape
$213 (restaurant price)
Shane & Jen's notes

We decided to have one dinner at a fancy restaurant. We chose Strip Steak at Mandalay Bay. While Jen would have preferred the Aureole at Mandalay Bay, Shane is just fussy enough that he can’t eat at a restaurant with a fixed menu.

They started us off with a complimentary appetizer of French fries deep-fried in duck fat, which we must sadly report were absolutely fabulous. There were three versions, each with a different seasoning and paired with a coordinating dipping sauce. All were good with the truffled version being Jen’s clear favorite.

After the fries were demolished, we were presented with a house-made onion bread. It was focaccia-like, but a little denser and a lot less oily. It was delicious, and the onions were a nice touch -- there, but not too intense.

While we ate our fries and bread, we dithered over the wine list. In the end, we opted for the splurge (relatively speaking, considering that some bottles were in the thousands of dollars). There were few bottles below $100. Once you got to the $100 mark, the prices soared ever northward, with a reasonable collection around $150, and many at higher prices.

While we weren't wedded to a particular price point, there is a point at which both reason and desire must meet. We found that point in southern Rhone with the 2003 Beaucastel, Chateauneuf de Pape for $213.

Though Rhones tend not to be that popular, for reasons we cannot fathom, the Beaucastel is an icon, and in our opinion, on a par with any of the usual suspects from other regions of France.

Jen took the initial sip, and the rest of the bottle was decanted. As expected, the wine was closed, but even so, hints of the wine's magnificence were detectable. The aromas were especially enticing -- intensely floral with woody spices. The palate evolved intriguingly throughout the meal. As it opened, we first tasted kirsch and sensed the wine's power. It was also earthy and spicy with notes of black pepper and herbs de Provence. Later, it gave way to brambly, blackberry fruit mid-palate. When fully open, the wine showed slightly caramelly nuttiness, that was almost sherry-like as it expanded on the palate.

We found this wine to be pretty concentrated though the overall impression was of supreme elegance and complexity. It went beautifully with our meal but was just as lovely on its own.

Jen’s Notes

This might have been the best restaurant meal I have ever had. It is Michael Mina's first steakhouse, and he brings a very elegant touch of haute cuisine to the American classic without being fussy about it. What you will get is a perfectly cooked, glorious piece of meat - completely plain, if that's how you like it, or with impeccably prepared accompaniments.

Shane's prime rib is a perfect example of this balance. The meat was unadorned, and fanned out beautifully on his plate. Accompanying the meat were a demi-glace "au jus," and horseradish crème fraiche. The usual au jus you would get with a prime rib is elevated by the demi-glace, making it a richer and more subtle experience. And why have plain ol' horseradish, when you can have horseradish crème fraiche?
I had a 10 oz filet mignon and ordered one of the separate "accompaniments" to go with it: a veritable slab of foie gras. Not just a wee little slice of foie gras but a piece the size of a toddler's fist. It was grilled just until the inside was gooey and placed neatly atop my steak.

We also ordered a side of English Pea Pancakes with Lemon Crème Fraiche, another example of Michael Mina's ingenuity. Even as a blini-sized pancake, the peas had a pleasant al dente quality and tasted wonderful with the crème fraiche.

I was trying to decide between a dessert and a digestif. I got both. The dessert made me do it. Since it was a caramel custard infused with the 18 year old Macallan, I figured I might as well have a wee nip, too so I ordered the Macallan 18 year old Single Malt, Speyside, Scotland. My anticipated wee nip was actually a substantial pour - quite a bit more generous than usual. Speysides are noted for their elegance, and I suspect Macallan might be the most elegant and gorgeous of all. It was perfumey, and the palate was overwhelmingly rich with hazelnut and sherry-like flavors.

StripSteak has an encyclopedic list of single malt scotches. It is literally a book, listing the malts by region, with tasting notes and descriptions of the regional characteristics.

1983 Vintage Port

Shane's notes

Port is one of my favorite types of wine. I primarily drink LBV’s because I can afford them. Also, without a cellar, it is very difficult to have that perfect bottle of vintage port. You have to buy an aged bottle from a wine shop and hope for the best. After all, if that 1985 port you just bought was stored improperly for just one day of its over 8,000 day life, it may be ruined. Even if it has been stored properly for the last 200,000 hours, it still might need more bottle age or it might be over the hill, but of course, you won’t know that until you open it.

If you are lucky enough to have a wine cellar, then you can buy a case or more of the current vintage from your favorite port house and try your first bottle after about fifteen years. You assess the ageability of your port and then continue opening bottles every three to five years until you think the port is peaking. If you are fortunate, you will be able to enjoy three or four bottles at the peak, and you will probably save one or two to enjoy at the slightly past the peak phase.

So, cellar-less and less than a millionaire, I have simply been hoping that I would drink some fantastic vintage port once or twice in my lifetime. When I saw the Dow 1983 by the glass on the menu, I figured I would roll the dice. Dow is definitely my favorite port house and if the wine were flawed in any way, I could simply send it back. As for the aging, I tend to prefer my wines young, so I thought that 24 years of bottle age should be just about right.

I swirled the wine and buried my nose in the glass – the aroma was so intense and complex that I just set the pen down and enjoyed it. I took a sip and knew that I was in Port Nirvana. The palate was richly textured and had good complexity. The main flavors included brown sugar, vanilla, caramel and a hint of dark chocolate on the finish. The flavors were seamless and the heat that can characterize ports was completely absent. The finish lasted at least a minute. This was truly an epic port experience, and I was very sorry to drink the last of it. It is one of the best wines I’ve tasted.

So, we really enjoyed StripSteak. The restaurant is very modern, sophisticated, and yet welcoming. The service was nicely paced and friendly. We had a lovely meal and wouldn't hesitate to go back.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Revisiting an Old Friend

2005 Cotes de Tablas, Tablas Creek
Shane’s Notes

When Jen and I first started dating, we went to the Shakespeare Festival in Orinda and drank a Cotes de Tablas and a Nickel and Nickel Zinfandel. I remember thinking that those were two spectacular bottles of wine. So, I was looking forward to revisiting the Cotes de Tablas and it didn’t disappoint. The texture is a touch syrupy and the palate includes flavors of red berry, herbs, cedar, anise and rose water. The finish is medium length. It is nicely fruity and amazingly well crafted. I think the alcohol percentage was listed at 14.8 but you would never know it: there wasn’t even a hint of heat on the palate. We had forgotten the price, and we both agreed that it was worth about $25. As wine club members (or Vinsiders to those in the know), we had purchased it for $17.60 so it was definitely a great deal. After many years of drinking wine, Tablas Creek is still one of my favorite California wineries.