Did I win or lose when one out of two old, treasured bottles from my cellar came through for a special occasion? Let's see.
To celebrate my wife's birthday this past weekend, we decided to dine with our daughter and son-in-law at Quince, which recently opened at its new location in San Francisco's Jackson Square District. Since it started as a small neighborhood restaurant in 2003, it has been among our favorites, and we hadn't tried it since it moved into more spacious digs and hired David Lynch from Babbo in New York to manage the wine program.
I started rummaging through the wine cellar for an appropriate well-aged Italian red to bring from home, knowing that Lynch could fill in wines for the rest of the meal from his expansion of Quince's already very good list.
Back when I could afford them, I stashed away several vintages of Gaja Barbaresco from the 1980s and early 1990s. I drank most of the 1985s and 1986s, although single bottles of the individual vineyards remain for the right occasion. My mixed case of Barbaresco and the single vineyards of 1990 was untouched, and I figured it was time. I pulled out a bottle of the Barbaresco 1990.
To avoid shaking up any sediment, whenever I transport an older wine to dinner I decant it at home and funnel the clear wine back into the rinsed original bottle. I can also taste the wine and know that the bottle is sound.
I couldn't wait to sample this one. After all, any Gaja wine should be something special after it has reached maturity, and a great vintage such as 1990, spectacular. I stuck my nose over the decanter. Nothing. Oh well, it's not unusual for older Nebbiolo to close up in the bottle and require some air to come around. I poured a splash and took a sip. What a disappointment! The wine was bitter, completely lacking in fruit. And what was that I was picking up on the finish? Ah yes, the telltale mildewy taste of TCA.
The bottle was tainted by the cork. I poured it down the drain, choking back tears, and went downstairs to bring up the second of my three bottles. Much better. Fruit aromas rose from the decanter, along with the classic tar and rose petal of Nebbiolo grown in the Langhe. It tasted fine, even if the tannins were fairly prickly. But it was a sound bottle, and it would get about three hours of air to smooth out before we drank it.
At the restaurant, the bottle sat on our table as we toasted Carol with Jean Vesselle Oeil de Perdrix non-vintage, a grower-bottled blanc de noirs Champagne that Lynch recommended and described to a "T." It was creamy and winy, and it hit the spot, making the amuses bouches even classier than they already were. Before the pastas arrived, we started on the Barbaresco.
It had transformed. Gone were the biting tannins. The texture had turned to silk. The weight was just right, neither heavy nor light. The tarry flavor had receded somewhat, replaced by waves of gorgeously complex fruit, including plum, wild blackberry and wild cherry, a swirl of spices rising up on the finish.
The no-brainer match among the main courses we ordered was my daughter's Five Dot Ranch flatiron steak with braised beef cheek and potato fondant, but the wine was not too weighty to cozy up to my relatively delicate suckling pig with chard and browned Kabocha squash. My wife appreciated what the wine did for her roasted duck with apple, cabbage and hazelnut, too.
That's the thing about Barbaresco and Barolo with some age on it. With time, the elements reach a balance, the brawn of youth fades, and it can match with almost any food.
To end the proceedings, I brought along a little something extra—a 375ml bottle of Roberto Anselmi I Capitelli 1989 I found lurking on the edge of the cellar. This sweet wine made from a single vineyard in Soave uses the same grapes as those that make the more familiar dry Soave, dries them halfway to raisins and presses them as if for recioto. I had not tasted the wine since it was released, probably in 1991, and I had no expectations. But it had aged splendidy. It balanced a whiff of walnut against sweet pineapple and dark honey, keeping its sweetness in proper balance. I loved it with my selection of cheeses.
So, did I win or lose on the Gaja, at the cost of a dead bottle? Normally I would segue into my usual rant about how the world would be a better place with twist-offs instead of corks. Let's just say that the corked bottle was a casualty of war, and I am glad it wasn't my only bottle.
Richard Gangel — San Francisco — December 8, 2009 3:14pm ET
Michael Haley — Eugene, OR — December 8, 2009 5:16pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 8, 2009 5:30pm ET
Richard Gangel — San Francisco — December 8, 2009 6:40pm ET
Jeffrey E Paul — Sammamish, WA — December 9, 2009 7:16pm ET
James Yeamen — West Kingston, RI US — December 9, 2009 7:32pm ET
Matt Scott — Honolulu HI — December 10, 2009 7:09pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 10, 2009 7:19pm ET
Matt Scott — Honolulu HI — December 11, 2009 11:44am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 11, 2009 4:46pm ET
Jon Wollenhaupt — San Francisco — December 13, 2009 11:33am ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 13, 2009 12:07pm ET
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