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.


Miguel said...

" 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"

Jojo is really a master - Johnny did a great job removing 3/4 of cork left and passed it on to Jojo,but before that I heard their conversation: Jojo said "you have to screw it slower and deeper" and Johnny said..."I am I am"...

Great notes as usual.Your wine and the CVNE for me were the ones that paired the best with the Rabo de Toro...well if I had any Rabo left, I think it would have also paired well with the 2nd flight of wines, specially the Chirel but I inhaled the rabo..haha

Anonymous said...

this commentary is one for the books. i shall refer to it over and over to relive such wonderful memories of fine wine, superb cuisine and, above all, great company. excellent, Noel. -jojo

Noel said...

Hey, Miguel.

Yes, I also think the '89 Rioja Alta GR 890 is more of a food-friendly style. The '95 CVNE Imperial GR, for me, once it opened up, leaned more toward the traditional style of the '85 Ygay GRE, though the latter is really a more stylish/showier type by nature. I agree with J-Lab's assessment in the '01 Barón Chirel having the best upside potential.

Funny that brief exchange between Jojo and Johnny when they were opening the older bottles. I didn't catch that at the time.


Thanks, buddy, for the kind words! I really enjoyed writing this - and I also find myself re-reading it every so often to relive this wonderful event. As JC always says at dinners like these, "life is too short, so we should enjoy".

Best to you both, and, until the next!


Aaron said...

Really a great night! It's cool you were able to video JC's piano performance. That dinner was really one for the uhm....blogs(?)!

Noel said...

Yes, I'm glad I was able to record him playing. Unfortunately, the memory of my camera couldn't take the whole performance.


Anonymous said...

Noel, This is a great write-up that captures all the excitement and joy. Well done.

The little exchange between Johnny and Jojo caught by Miguel is so funny. I can almost visualise the scene reminding the excitement before the grand dinner. Keiichi

Noel said...

Hi, Keiichi, and thanks. That was, indeed, a most memorable night...Jojo and Johnny's short exchange is a testament to the high level of excitement!!! Ha ha ha!!