Thursday, September 24, 2009

Miscellaneous Sips II

Notes from the past 2 Saturdays:

Saturday, 12 September 2009:

A casual family dinner at my dad's place, he keeps a few hundred bottles at home, but he is a very casual drinker - not semi-geeky into wine like I am. For him, wine is simply something to drink with meals - not a passion - his glasses are still all the old-style cut crystal sets of yore.

During meals at his place, he lets me open whatever I want. I don't abuse though, I leave the expensive ones alone unless it's a special occasion. Dinner that night was a simple one of fresh steamed crabs; shrimp and arugula pasta; and a meat dish that I simply don't recall.

For the crab and pasta, I chose and opened:

2005 Domaine Robert-Denogent Pouilly-Fuissé Vieilles Vignes "Les Reisses" Monopole - I first tasted this at an IWFS Blind Chardonnay Tasting (24th January 2008) where I personally ranked it 3rd Place. I've had it a few times since, but the last time was many months ago - at an IWFS informal lunch at La Chesa (13th December 2008; where the Doc told me he also liked this white) - so I was curious to see how it was coming along.

Les Reisses is a monopole (i.e., wholly-owned) vineyard of the domaine, on clay and chalky soils, the vines of which are old, averaging over 60 years (hence the designation "vieilles vignes"). Initially, the wine is a little tight, but, nonetheless, displays admirable purity and clean lines in its subtly concentrated ripe, sweetish lemon, pear and slight peach flavors with an alluring nuance of almond-nuttiness. Hint of orange blossoms in the nose. There is an underlay of oak that gracefully blends in. Very good structure and adequate acidity allow it to carry its richness well. Very good wine. My brother and dad who don't really favor whites much accepted 3rd pours of this - a good sign indeed.

For whatever it is worth, I just checked and Burghound gave this a rating of "90". Sommelier Selection is the local importer/distributor of this wine though, I believe that the 2005 was sold out a long time ago. What is sold now is the 2007 at P2425/bottle full retail.

2000 Château Lilian Ladouys (St-Estèphe) - A cru bourgeois with 48 hectares under vine (averaging 40 years of age), the château itself just off the route du vin (D2), a little over a kilometer north of Cos d'Estournel. I have no idea where my dad got these, I opened one out of sheer curiosity.There was good concentration in this round, fullish-bodied wine, its general character quite masculine, minerally and earthy. Those who prefer fruit-forward wines will likely not like this at all as the dark fruit, cassis with very minor black cherry ( + cedar, hint of ceps and violets) are almost totally submerged in asphalt, gravel and dark minerality. It comes off quite blocky and somewhat awkward. Decent, but nothing to write home about.

The bottle was left unfinished.

Saturday, 19 September 2009.

The day after our most memorable Una Noche Riojana, I wasn't intending on having dinner out, but my 2nd son asked to go to JSG and my youngest immediately seconded the motion. So off we went last night (Saturday the 19th September 2009), but I brought no wine as I didn't feel like drinking.

After ordering all the appetizers (2 Escargots à la Bourguignonne, 1 Escargots Miguel, 2 Os a Moëlle and 1 Terrine of Foie Gras) for the 5 of us, I ordered a glass of 2008 Château de Roquefort Côtes de Provence Corail Rosé. I've written about this rosé very recently, so I need not repeat.

With my main course of Trio of Lamb Loin, Lamb Chop & Megrez Sausage with Couscous, I figured I'd just get another glass (for those unfamiliar, rosé is the traditional Moroccan pairing for couscous and lamb stew). Eric and Cinthy Recto walked in with Mrs. Doc (Doc was still stuck in the hospital), though, and Eric graciously sent my wife and I glasses (the first one blind) of the following wines to go with our main courses:

Mystery Wine - Initially, there was quite a bit of heat on the nose, but it blew off in around 15 minutes, more or less, displaying intense, sweetly ripe, spicy dark fruit, wild blackberry, bit of cassis, black pepper, moderate (though obvious) oak and a whisper of dried thyme. These were mirrored warmly on the palate in a fullish body, the pepper and oak leading in lacing the dark fruit/berry/cassis. I figured this was slightly above 14% abv. Nice, subtler on the palate than in the nose, with a touch of rusticity.

nb: my two teenagers smelled it and could identify the oak and pepper - I felt so proud.

Because of the pepper, cassis and blackberry notes, I thought it was predominantly syrah from the northern Rhône. My wife just said it was a Rhône but couldn't say from where. Because of the intensity and rounded ripeness and drive, I knew it was young, surely from an early 2000 vintage.

Though I got the vintage range and general area (Rhône) right, I was wrong in that it was a southern Rhône and not northern Rhône and it was predominantly grenache (90%) and not syrah (10%). It turned out to be 2003 Château de St Cosme Gigondas Cuvée Hominis Fides.

Not too surprising I slipped up as I don't drink much Rhône at all. I don't buy any and, come to think of it, I only really get to drink Rhônes with/from Jojo, the Doc and Eric.

1999 Châtea de Beaucastel CdP - Not served blind. Initially dominated by cedar, pine (both topnotes) and bretty barnyard scents, specifically of the equine fecal persuasion, that wrapped spicy blackberry, black cherry and thorny, dried underbrush notes. After around 10-15 minutes, the barnyard notes eased down substantially and cassis and iodine stepped forward.

In the mouth, it showed more black berry fruit than black cherry, iodine, bit of dark spice, subtle dark minerality, just a hint of dried herbs (thyme and lavender) and a hint of dark violets. The fecal notes were absent on the palate, the wood very well integrated and totally unobtrusive. Readily less hefty, forward and over-all more refined than the St Cosme Gigondas Cuvée Hominis Fides, with cleaner lines and better focus. Nice and very interesting contrast in the 2 southern Rhônes - entertaining and perked me up from my drowsiness.

As noted by Eric later on, the '99 Beaucastel is maturing at a much faster rate than the '98. From my own experience with the '98 during dinner on the 17th February 2009, his assessment is dead on.

Muchas gracias, Eric.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Wines & Spirits Club Philippines: Concha y Toro Night.

The evening of 22 September 2009 was at Café Ysabel for the Wines & Spirits Club Philippines' (WSCP) Concha y Toro Night. All the wines that evening, as well as some other food products (such as canned mushrooms, corn and other vegetables) used in the menu, were sponsored by importer/distributor Fly Ace Corporation. It turns out, I had previously met Fly Ace president, Jun Cochanco, in late May 2008 at the NAIA departure area as we were waiting for the same flight to HK to attend Vinexpo Asia Pacific 2008 - so it was nice to bump into him again, and, this time, to get to try his wines.

L-R: Gail, J-Lab, Chef Gene, Greg, Arnie with Fly Ace's Jun Cochanco.

I've mentioned around 6 months ago that the WSCP is the first and, as far as I know, the only broad-based Filipino wine-centric web community/bulletin board/club, a brainchild of chef-restaurateur Gene Gonzalez (with the help, as I understand, of Usual Suspects Arnie and J-Lab). I think it's a great idea as it encourages and enables all those new to and/or curious about wine to ask questions and learn from those longer-in-tooth to the vinous world. It is also an excellent resource for getting recommendations on a wide range of locally available wines, where to buy them, their prices, as well as tasting notes thereon.

It's not all just sitting at a computer though - the WSCP holds get-togethers such as the subject dinner/tasting every so often, and Gene makes it a point to charge very affordable prices for such events so as to make them easily accessible to many. I've attended 3 such events thus far, and they have all been a lot of fun. I've met a lot of new friends and re-connected with some long-lost ones as well at these events. It is also a good opportunity to get together with my brother, T, (also a WSCP member) and sis-in-law, C, who live nearby.

Concha y Toro is widely recognized as one of the very top producers of Chile, making several lines and bottlings. From top to bottom, though, they are known to consistently adhere to strict standards and for producing good Quality to Price Ratio (QPR) wines. The fact that Bordeaux 1st growth Château Mouton Rothschild chose Concha y Toro as its Chilean joint venture partner in creating highly acclaimed Almaviva is a testament to the latter's capabilities.

Checking out the food products. Greg is wondering: "Kasya kaya sa jacket ko 'to?"

Cocktails consisted of Fried Green Olives, Almonds, and Garum with Fried Pasta Sheets, with which were poured two wines from Concha y Toro's entry-level Frontera line. These are very inexpensive at only approximately P250-P300/bottle. Over cocktails, introductions of new members, first time attendees and guests were made. I didn't know that we were allowed to bring guests. I will next time.

2008 Frontera Chardonnay - To begin with, the Frontera line is a basic bottling that is very inexpensive, so it must be judged as such. Be reassured that I did not come to this tasting/dinner expecting to drink Montrachet or top-growth Bdx for my P800 fee - nor should anyone else have. I mean, c'mon, let's get real here.

That said, this wine presented clean, nicely focused, pleasant and easily drinkable green apple, pear and bit of lemon/citrus that expands mid-mouth and trails in the finish. No oakiness at all did I detect - which, for me, is a good thing as it was served as an apéritif. The last thing I want to drink before dinner proper is a glass of vanilla-wood. More than decent at its price.

I'd recommend this for weddings, large corporate affairs, etc. Just be sure, as my wife accurately noted, to keep this properly chilled at service.

2007 Frontera Carmenere - Gene said a few words about Bordeaux's "forgotten grape". Later on, I mentioned to Jun that I saw a few rows of vines of carmenere along the path towards Mouton Rothschild's winery. Our guide told us they were only for display as Mouton Rothschild neither grows nor uses any carmenere in its wines (as if we needed to be told).

This wine is certainly not shy in showing off its smoky, earthy, spicy, ripe, softish dark fruit, a pronounced herbiness and dark minerality, black coffee, some leather, bit of anise. I'd think this is a wine suited for particular tastes. My past experience with carmenere, not a happy one, was with Viña Mont Gras', the vintage of which I no longer recall, nor do I care to.

This Frontera, though, I found much more drinkable, approachable and, yes, quite pleasant especially after a couple of sips getting used to it. It grew on me, a pleasant surprise. For its price, carmenere fans should surely check this out.

The first course was a Sardine Pizza Bianca and Grape & Anchovy Salad with Mango-Passionfruit Gel. This was paired with...

2005 Marqués de Casa Concha Chardonnay - This was readily heftier, riper in fruit than the Frontera chardonnay, with immediately apparent moderately creamy oak - not really over-bearing, though - little new oak exposure, if any, I'd say (again, a good thing for me). My wife who favors good Napa chards liked this more than the Frontera. Its comparatively riper, softer, rounder fruit had more pronounced citrus notes that dominated a definitive finish.

With the soup course of Chowder of Mixed Shellfish with Leek en Croûte, we enjoyed...

2006 Amelia Chardonnay - This chardonnay seemed to combine the traits of the Frontera and the Marqués de Casa Concha in that, while it was heftier, riper than the Frontera, its fruit was cleaner and better-focused than the Marqués de Casa Concha. The Amelia's oak touches were lighter and less obvious, allowing it's leesy, lemon cream, ripe pear and baked apple notes center stage. Nice wine.

In addition, the chowder was one of my favorite courses of the evening - not at all unduly creamy or heavy like ubiquitous SF wharf area chowders; it was precise, properly showcasing the seafood. Good show.

The reds started to pour beginning with the fish course of Smoked Roasted Lenguado with Brown Butter & Caper Beurre Blanc...

2008 Casillero del Diablo Pinot Noir - There was a bit of a musky/"armpit" miasma hovering over the ripe, dark, slightly raisined/candied cherry, raspberry, plum base aromas that, thankfully, blew off in around 15-20 minutes in the glass. Once that cleared, the fruit had a pronounced herby, somewhat medicinal minerality and dustiness (as accurately pointed out by my sis-in-law) to its pine, fruit and underlying toasty oak (toffee, cinammon) nuances. If I recall correctly, this wine is available at around P450/bottle. For that price, it's good to go.

After a Mandarin Sorbet, the meat course of Grilled Beef Riblets Smothered in Sautéed Mixed Mushrooms with Whole Kernel Corn & Vegetables á la Polignac was served with...

2005 Marqués de Casa Concha Merlot - Somber, very ripe, moderately concentrated black cherries, dark plum, blueberry with minor notes of soft, damp earth, dark chocolate and black coffee. Rather straightforward, but nice, it has a comforting warmth. Soft, lowish acid, quite approachable. Not sure of the price, but I think it's around P1400-P1500/bottle.

2006 Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon - Dense, thick, "jammy" (as well noted by Gene), concentrated raspberry, kirsch, dark fruit, cassis, underlying licorice, pronounced dark minerality, bit of violets, sweet/somewhat creamy and toasty oak. Brighter fruit than the merlot, better focus and healthier acidity as well. This, I imagine, would be a good cross-over wine for those who enjoy concentrated, jammy California cabernet sauvignons and want to get something at approximately P2700/bottle.

I took another break for a quick smoke outside and chatted with fellow member/lawyer, Bodjie, about visiting his Decanter Wine Bar sometime next week. It turns out he has an event this coming Thursday featuring the wines of Penfolds and that our common friend, James du Vivier, of Futuretrade (Penfolds' local importer/distributor) will attend, but I'll, unfortunately, have to give that a miss.

When I got back to the table, my wife was preoccupied with an, admittedly, really cute Jack Russell Terrier pup. Oh, no, for sure she'll want one now.

Dessert was a Crumpy Ice Cream Terrine with Cherry Sauce (Crumpy chocolate also distributed by Fly Ace Corporation).

Arnie and J-Lab then started pulling out their bottles of a bit older Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignons. Johnny R then traipses in, just in time for the mini-vertical - and, what timing, since he is an avid fan of this top bottling of Concha y Toro. Everyone welcomed him warmly though. Everybody likes Johnny. Really, this guy should run for public office one day.

As is usually the case at these gatherings, after dinner proper is served, tables start to meld as people wander around to chat with others and, naturally, get a sip or two of more wine. That's when things start to get a little noisier - but in a good way.

Meanwhile, Gene called out and introduced the night's cooks to allow everyone to thank them properly.

My table indulged in a couple of glasses each of a comfortingly warm, smooth, pine-needle, wood and hazelnut nuanced, moderately dry (notably drier than J-Lab's favorite Cardenal Mendoza or Miguel's Gran Duque de Alba) Conde de Osborne Brandy Solera Gran Reserva de Jerez bottling of the centuries-old Groupo Osborne. This was sent/donated by Aaron, though he wasn't able to make it due to work. What a guy. Thanks, Aaron, we certainly enjoyed it!

People trickled out eventually, my brother and sis-in-law included, so my wife and I sat with J-Lab to help him finish the last couple of pours of...

2005 Don Melchor Cabernet Sauvignon - This is notably more self-possessed than the sweeter, young, jammy 2006. Similar to the above-described 2006, definitely ripe and rounder in fruit, but not quite jammy (again, a good thing for me) and not so extracted or syrupy. This was much more approachable and easier to drink for me. I think my wife agreed.

Our glasses drained, J-Lab, my wife and I thanked Gene and congratulated him for yet another successful WSCP event (and many thanks, too, of course, to Jun and Fly Ace Corporation for sponsoring the wines and food products). It seemed like an unusually short drive home southward that night....

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Una Noche Riojana at Terry's 2º Piso.

Last night, 18th September 2009, was an extra-special night featuring the wines of Rioja. It all started over a month ago when Aaron suggested that the Usual Suspects hold a Rioja themed event. In a most fortunate confluence of events, I happened to mention Aaron's idea to Juan Carlos "JC" de Terry who graciously agreed to create and execute our pairing menu. Naturally, we all jumped at the chance since, with JC's unparalleled mastery and depth in Spanish wines and cuisine, combined with his innate artistry, intellect and sensitivity, there would be nobody better to create the dishes for this momentous tasting.

As regards the evening's reds, well, the Stockbroker set the bar high at the outset, declaring that he would be bringing a phenomenal aged one. Again, fortunately, Miguel was to be in Spain for a week so I ordered a special bottle from him (and he got some for himself as well). All told, the line-up of the reds reached ten bottles (including a bottle donated by JC):

1985 Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Gran Reserva (Miguel)
1985 Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial (the Stockbroker)
1989 Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 890 (Me)
1995 CVNE Imperial Gran Reserva (J-Lab)
1995 Campillo Gran Reserva (Aaron)
1997 Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 (Aaron)
1998 Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial (J-Lab)
1999 Cerro Añon Gran Reserva (Johnny R)
2001 Mayor de Ondarre Reserva (JC)
2001 Marqués de Riscal Barón de Chirel (Keiichi)

Because, however, we were also to have some white wine, rosado and sweet wine as well, JC prudently advised that we may have too many reds that night, so we elected to keep the 1998 Ygay GRE and 1995 Campillo GR as back-up bottles, to be opened only in case of "emergency" - so that left us with a more manageable number of 8 different reds (broken up into 2 flights of older and younger wines) with the meat course. It was a huge job, but we were up to the task. After all, someone's got to do it, so it may as well be us.

We gathered on the appointed date and venue, several a bit late due to Friday night traffic, so we took the opportunity to catch up with each other over some 2007 Marqués de Cáceres Rioja Blanco and toasted almonds until we were complete. Though incredibly busy, JC took the time to come out of the kitchen (2º Piso was jam-packed that night) to meet and greet everyone. I told him everyone was so excited for this dinner ever since he agreed to make our menu. I, personally, barely slept the night before from all the excitement.

When Johnny R arrived, we got down to business.

Pavia de Ventresca en Remoulade de Anchoas
Deep-fried Tuna Belly with Anchovy Remoulade

2007 Marqués de Cáceres Blanco - a 100% viura from Rioja keeping in line with the evening's theme. Very fresh, light, dry with a touch of white florality and bright, moderate acidity and an appetizing bitterish almond finish (which is why it is usually taken as an apéritif with toasted almonds in northern Spain). That it was an excellent match was not surprising as the blanco brightened the tuna belly, which, itself, had been marinated in the very same wine. An interesting aside was that this spin on tempura still held to a general Spanish theme because, though widely thought of as a Japanese dish, as JC astutely pointed out during our planning session, tempura was actually introduced into Japan by Spanish and Portugese missionaries and explorers (See: The History and Culture of Japanese Food, Naomichi Ishige [Kegan Paul: London] 2001; p. 246).

With this typical, refreshing and very easy to drink white, we continued with the next dish.

Gratin de Ostras en Crema de Manchego y Espinacas
Oysters Baked in a Manchego and Spinach Cream

This was probably the biggest and fattest local oyster I have ever eaten. This was also the most complex yet delicate rendition of oysters baked in cream and cheese as well. The dish's title belies the many steps in its preparation and doesn't even mention the parmesan, etc. used in making the bechamel base. JC did tell us exactly how it was made, but, with due respect, I could not divulge the recipe. Take it from me, though, it was exquisite and all in perfect balance - the cream and cheeses subtle and never over-powering the shellfish. In addition, the wine's brightness and crisp acidity gave lift to the delicately creamy oyster.

The progression then eased gently into slightly heavier and spicy fare - towards the final transition to the meat and featured reds.

Suprema de Piquillo Relleno a la Vinagreta de Chistorra
Stuffed Piquillo peppers topped with Chistorra Vinaigrette

This was one of my favorite dishes (though all were excellent). I love roasted peppers, and piquillos are one of my favorite kinds. They were stuffed cabrales cream and jabugito crisps, bathed in a chistorra balsamic Pedro Xímenez vinaigrette - all of the solid ingredients I love eating individually. This dish clearly displayed JC's prodigious skill in orchestrating flavors in that not a single one of the robustly flavored ingredients dominated (not even the inherently pungent cabrales) - rather, the result was a cohesive and deeply complex symphony of Spanish tastes and textures. While some continued with the viura, I switched to the rosado, the 2007 Protos Rosé - I first tried this just slightly over a year ago at a Bodegas Protos Dinner at Terry's in honor of visiting Protos Head of Exports, Carlos Villar Bada. Just to show how a rosado can change with age, my old notes are as follows:

2007 Protos Rosado - Fresh, well-balanced, straightforward, honest, fruity rosé - a bit high in alcohol content for a rosé, but only apparent on the label and the nice rounded heft mid-palate. Good extraction (I never thought of a rosé as well-extracted, but there you go). Fun to drink - strawberry/cherry/raspberry (in descending order) with a faint red beet nuance underneath. Its magic, though, was in the pairing with the richly and complexly flavored crab/shrimp/grouper bisque. Absolutely wonderful match - difficult to describe - the freshness of the fruit cut the richness where needed and cleansed at the finish, while the rounded middle fruitiness added nice weight and "meatiness" to it mid-palate. Bravo! My and my wife's favorite pairing of the evening.

Now, as J-Lab also noted, the rosado showed off surprising depth, plus, I may add, a more savory than fruity character and firmer, more serious structure compared to over a year ago. There was also a faint blackcurrant nuance underpinning the red berry/fruit that I did not detect before. This is a tempranillo rosado from the Ribera del Duero, not the Rioja. I recall there was no Riojan rosado available, but I could be mistaken. In any event, I cannot imagine another rosado that could have paired better than this and with the following two dishes.

Salmis de Caracoles a la Andaluza
Escargots Bathed in a Rich Andalucian Sauce
(photo from Miguel's blog with his permission, as I forgot to take my own photo of this dish)

This was another particularly memorable dish - not only because of its rustically elegant presentation, but because of its graceful power as well. Though the body of the dish was robust, the escargot flavors were delicately balanced with the earthiness of lard-enriched (as Johnny immediately noted) mashed potatoes, accented with a bit of crisped ham. With the sturdy, masculine rosado, I felt like a cazador tucking into a hearty meal, my trusty hunting dogs and emptied escopeta at my feet (a flawed image at best, since my dogs are, in real life, a lazy, overweight labrador and a quirky, terribly spoiled dachshund, and one hardly needs a shotgun to hunt down snails).

Be it as it may, this dish was obviously a hit with the group - just look at Miguel below inhaling those hot snails as Keiichi wonders "...and where are mine?"

Another resounding success that immediately drew a slew of compliments was...

Sinfonia de Crustáceos al Rosado de Peñafiel
Symphony of Crustaceans and Rosé from Peñafiel, or, "The Quintessential Mediterranean Seafood Soup"

Each shellfish was perfectly cooked - not a single one saw a second more heat than needed. The soup itself was created entirely separately, obviating the need for the main ingredients to remain long therein to flavor it. I loved that JC used the now nicely fat mantis shrimp (a.k.a., squilla mantis, galera and, locally, alupihan dagat) that were thoughtfully already shelled when plated. Heavenly. That the same rosado as the pairing wine was used in making the soup is a typical touch that one expects from JC.

I noted that the Stockbroker, Keiichi and Johnny, among others, gladly had an extra serving of the soup when offered. Johnny (who is an accomplished cook when not taping for a tele-novela) noted that the saffron notes just whispered. Aaron asked JC if this dish was on the menu so he could have it again soon. Much to his and everyone else's sadness, this (as well as all our other dishes that night) is not on the menu - being specially created for our dinner. JC, artist that he is, does not normally re-execute such special dishes...but we can always hope.

In the meantime, during the brief breaks before main courses, the Stockbroker and Johnny had opened the older bottles of red to breathe as JC was way too busy and the waitstaff was too nervous to open them themselves for fear of crumbling old corks.

Thankfully, only one of the older wines, the 1985 Lopez de Heredia La Tondonia Gran Reserva, needed the Stockbroker's Wine-911 rescue skills as the cork broke in half, and then broke again, leaving barely a fifth still in the bottle. The Stockbroker, however, was able to finesse that last fifth out without anything falling into the wine. That's a real talent, he has, I tell you.

Bien-Me-Sabe de Caballa
The Famous Seared Adobo Mackerel from Cadiz

This was accompanied by a greens and arugula salad dressed with 40-year old balsamic vinegar. Though initial tasting portions of the 1st flight of reds had already been poured (more was, of course, available for us to pick and choose more proper pours of), I followed Johnny's quick lead in holding off tasting them until after this lightly piquant fish and salad course. I did think of continuing with the rosado, but felt I'd better slow down as more reds were on the way plus the dessert wine. I was also hoping to be sober enough to have a glass or two of pacharán after dinner as well.

With the meat course of...

Rabo de Toro en Chilindrón de Tempranillo
Ox Tail in Chilindrón Sauce Enhanced with Tempranillo
(this photo also from Miguel's blog)

...I had the reds. This was an ideal dish to have with all the reds as it was a typical Spanish dish the original house sauce of which JC changed as the latter was, per he, "more Andalucian than Riojan". Miguel elaborated to the group that chilindrón is "a tomato based sauce, different kids of peppers, wine and a lot of tiny bits of Jamon Serrano that eventually melt into the sauce which is typical from the Rioja/Aragon/Navarra (regions)." JC also tweaked the sauce by using, I believe, some of Alvaro Palacios' Rioja tinto joven, Remondo La Vendimia (I don't recall the vintage). I've not tried it yet, but J-Lab has and told me that he considers it a great value Rioja at around P750-P800/bottle from Terry Selection.

I noted that the accompanying pilaf was particularly fluffy with a nice, earthy nuttiness from scattered fried chickpeas. I asked JC what kind of rice he used (all I could tell was it was a short-grained rice) and he replied that it was Bomba rice, a special kind grown in Valencia - I believe this was from the town of Calasparra.

Special mention must be made that the need of 72 identical proper red wine glasses for our comparative tasting (8 glasses for 9 people, not counting our glasses for the blanco and rosado) did not at all faze JC. We were all provided the required number of Schott Zwiesel Diva glasses so we could compare each wine head-to-head without having to surrender any glasses for the second flight. We only split the reds into two flights so that the older reds could be tasted together as a group, not because there was any lack of fine stemware - on the contrary, there was plenty to go around.

My notes shall be abbreviated as the wines are all Riojan and primarily tempranillo-based; thus, they share dominant scent/flavor profiles such as, among others, strawberry, cherry, raspberry, violets, cedar, leather (especially the older ones), licorice, oak/vanilla (many use a mix of American and French oak, but more American, of various cycles and levels of toast), etc. Rather than repeat myself over and over, I noted the marked differences between the wines.

First Flight:

1985 Lopez de Heredia La Tondonia Gran Reserva - Miguel's bottle, one he brought in from Spain specifically for this dinner. Comparatively the leanest and lightest in body of the line-up. Very pure and clean, sweetish, sherry-like nuance to its cherry and strawberry, cedar, mild underlying dark berries, hint of dried plum, whispers of leather and old, pressed violets. Admirable complexity, though without much of a middle; no real crescendo, though the flavors are definitive. I would sip this wine rather than pairing it with the rabo de toro.

1985 Marqués de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial - the Stockbroker's bottle. Lush, a notch or two under full-bodied, comfortingly warm with concentrated, softly ripe fruit laced with slight leather, sweetish pipe tobacco, licorice, cinammon and clove whispers and mildly toasty/creamy oak. Acidity is a bit low. Long sweetish cherry/raspberry and violet finish. Notably old school in use of American oak (I suspect there was more new oak exposure than all the others, but I could be wrong). Very old-style Rioja with, as noted by JC, good typicity, elegance and harmony. No need to to worry about this lasting several more years.

1989 Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 890 - My bottle (many thanks to Spanish wine journalist and winemaker, Victor de la Serna, for his service advice on this wine and to Miguel who brought it in for me from Spain). This needed some time in the glass to blossom. When it did, it displayed sweeter cedar and violets in its bouquet and more consistency. Firm structure, notably neat and well-focused flavors. Smooth, light-silken on the palate with more violets and cedar, slight underlying leather and tobacco. Medium finish with tartish cherry, cedar, leather and violets lagging behind. I'd say fully mature at this point, judging from this bottle. J-Lab opined that it paired best with the rabo de toro.

1995 C.V.N.E. Imperial Gran Reserva - J-Lab's bottle. This, like the 890, needed time in the glass to show its true charms. Richer, broader, more pronounced middle than the rest of the first flight wines. Full-bodied, a bit chunky in mouthfeel especially after the Rioja Alta 890. Soft, ripe fruit, slightly less oak than the '85 Ygay GRE, hint of dense balsamico. This has many years under its belt.

Second Flight:

1997 Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904 - Aaron's bottle. Healthy, rich, ripe, dense fruit with cherry and sweetish raspberry leading the way. There is a notable dark minerality as well. Good push/drive and heft on the palate but puts on the brakes at medium point on the finish. J-Lab commented to me that he also found the finish a bit abrupt.

1999 Olarra Cerro Anon Gran Reserva - Johnny's bottle. I had this on the 2nd July 2009 during another dinner by JC. My notes at the time, which I find pretty consistent, are as follows:

Pure and clean, showing off its sturdy structure and well focused, mildly spicy, dominant cherry and strawberry notes with style and panache. Underneath, there is some dark fruit and the wine is highlighted by nuances of violets and a bit of cedar. This is much brighter in character than the 2001 Reserva and lighter as well, but with much nimbler feet, much better in purity and infinitely better integrated wood. It dances on the palate. Very nice indeed, with comforting typicity to boot. Though with undoubtedly firm structure, the wine's light touch did not overpower the scallops, the fricasée of spring vegetables lending a bit of earthiness and body to the shellfish which helped the pairing work as well with the next, slightly heftier seafood dish of Olive Oil Poached Bacalao with Vierge Sauce.

Comparatively leaner, edgier, more vibrant fruit and with good focus. I, personally, like this style. This projects itself very youthfully, but already very enjoyable. Available at Terry Selection at around P1800/bottle, more or less.

2001 Mayor de Ondarre Reserva - Donated by JC, available at Terry Selection. I first tasted this from Keiichi during a Spanish dinner on 14th March 2009. My notes from that dinner are consistent:

This seemed quite ready to drink at this point, and, if I were asked to sum up this wine in a single word, I would have to say that it is a "correct" wine: good typicity, precise balance of fruit, wood and acidity. The base flavor is dark berry/fruit, with topnotes of strawberry, Spanish cedar and a hint of mint. There is also a discreet, underlying tobacco leaf nuance to the dark fruit base and a general, but well-integrated, spicy woodiness to this as a whole. There are no fireworks or parade to see here; rather, a readily pleasing, competent and correct Rioja reserva.

Keiichi favored this wine as a pairing with the rabo de toro.

2001 Marqués de Riscal Barón de Chirel - Keiichi's bottle. I learned about this top-end bottling of Marqués de Riscal from a list of Victor de la Serna's recommendations in one of the three US wine bulletin boards I participate in. Youthful, full-bodied, broad, commanding presence on the palate - it certainly made me sit up and take notice. I concur with J-Lab's observations of fig and plum notes, as well as Aaron's of leather and cigar (I would specify Cuban, particularly like some of the dried fruit and chocolate noted Romeo y Julieta Exhibicion No. 4, a nice hermoso I used to smoke a lot of in the late '90s). I add to those blackcurrant and cherry with a dose of underlying black coffee.

This, like the '89 Rioja Alta GR 890 and '95 CVNE Imperial GR, needed time in the glass to show its considerable charms. I woulde certainly like to re-try this, say, 5 years from now (to see how it comes along) and every year thereafter.

The main courses and most of the glasses of reds done, we moved onto dessert.

"Recuerdos de Mi Infancia": Pera Confitada en Vino Dulce de Jumilla Sobre Espuma de Anis Avainillado
"My Childhood Memories": Pear Confit on a Fluffy Foam of Anise Seed and Vanilla

Another stunning dessert from JC. I've written before that he has the heart of a chef and the soul of a pâtissier* as his special desserts are always so complex, intellectual, yet so sinfully delicious and indulgent. What the description above fails to mention is that the espuma has in it essence of orange blossoms. The spare confit liquid he used was hit with a bit of vodka and appears in a glass in the picture immediately above. I sipped a bit and dribbled a little into the foam.

*nb., Gordon Ramsey was initially a patissier in his cooking career.

This recollection of JC's tender years was paired with the same wine that the pears were "confited" in:

2006 Casa de la Ermita Late Harvest Viognier - I first had this paired with foie gras early this at the same dinner of JC above-mentioned; then paired with seared foie gras. Again, my past notes are consistent:

From an increasingly appreciated (Jancis Robinson notes them for making bright, new alternatives to Sauternes) ten year old winery, this wine is made up of viognier grapes from the Jumilla D.O., late harvested, and, per JC, sunned on mats to concentrate the sugars. This brightly sweet, but not cloying, wine presented dominant floral, super-ripe, honeyed cling peach and a slight undertone of sweet kumquat. Well concentrated but fresh and light on its feet, it cut the foie's richness nicely and cleansed the palate between bites - the melba toast added needed textural contrast. Tastes like some of those sweet viogniers I tried in France last June 2007, but more concentrated and rounder on the palate.

This brought an end to the meal proper, leaving us to finish off what little reds were left and discuss the wines. No voting was done as the reds were not served blind. Addendum: I must note though that at least 3 people openly declared the '85 Ygay GRE to be their favorite wine over-all (i.e., J-Lab, Aaron, Johnny) while 3 chose the '89 Rioja Alta GR 890 as theirs (my wife, JC and myself).

It was in the back of my mind to find a way to get JC to honor us with some of his magic on the antique piano, but Johnny beat me to the punch. He told JC that, after such a glorious meal and fine wines, all that was missing was a piece from him. Thus, instead of leaving you with my usual group toast shot (which I forgot to take anyway), here is a short sample of JC's own arrangement of an Andalucian piece.