Every year, Archie McLaren, chairman of the Central Coast Wine Classic and a longtime wine collector, and I donate a dinner to a charity wine auction. We pick a San Francisco restaurant, raid our cellars for some interesting wines and ask the chef to make a menu for them. It pleasantly surprises us how generous folks can be to support the arts and enjoy food and wine in a city known for it.
This year, we focused on Pinot Noir. Archie brought out the big guns with a couple of great Burgundies. I supplied the rest, including some quirky choices that turned out to be immensely satisfying. Chef Jan Birnbaum let his New Orleans roots conjure up some wine-and-food matches as gorgeous as the view from the private dining room at his Epic Roasthouse overlooking San Francisco Bay on a cool, clear and sunny Sunday evening.
The idea was to show as many different kinds of wines made from Pinot Noir as we could fit into a dinner for 10 guests. We had traditional reds from Burgundy, Oregon and California, along with a Pinot Noir-based sparkling wine with some age on it, a special white wine made from Pinot Noir and even a Port-style dessert wine from a bygone era in California.
We started off with my favorite American-made sparkling wine, Argyle Brut Extended Tirage. The 1997 vintage, bottled in 2007, was 80 percent Pinot Noir. It has a richness and a earthiness to go along with the delicacy of its structure and effervescence. It made a lovely foil for Jan’s passed appetizers. My pick: deviled quail egg topped with paddlefish caviar.
To start, I brought my last bottle of Domaine Serene Coeur Blanc 2005, a white wine made entirely from Pinot Noir. Still fresh five years after the vintage, the silkiness of it played nicely with the creamy texture of the grilled Louisiana head-on shrimp with spicy papaya salsa.
Archie’s first wine, Domaine Leroy Savigny-Lès-Beaune Les Narbantons 1996, was a stunner. It had reached that perfect stage of development where the extra nuances and complexities of age had set in but the youthfulness and fruit flavors were still singing. Unlike most Savigny, which tends to be crisp and lively, this was lush and expansive. It was my favorite wine of the dinner.
Served alongside it, my Beaux-Frères Pinot Noir The Beaux Frères Vineyard Estate 2002 was just beginning to show those aspects of age, but its impeccable balance and grace allowed it to stand up nicely to the Leroy. Both wines danced easily with the monkfish paella spiked with Spanish chorizo.
We scheduled a pair of Oregon 1998s but ended up with only one when the Ponzi Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Reserve suffered from cork taint. (You knew there had to be at least one in a dinner like this.) But the Chehalem Pinot Noir Willamette Valley Rion Reserve had the elegance and distinctive dark fruit, mineral and earth flavors to shine with the rabbit confit salad served with it.
The final pair of Pinots pitted Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée St.-Vivant Marey-Monge 1985 against Williams Selyem Pinot Noir Russian River Valley 2002. Although it was 11 years older than the Savigny, the RSV showed more youthful character and a wonderfully elusive chorus of flavors. By contrast, the suppleness and seductive charm of the Williams Selyem underlined just how good California Pinots can be from the right place with the right touch. Both the Burgundy and the California wines were fabulous. Archie mentioned how the Williams Selyem was his favorite wine of the dinner.
Birnbaum outdid himself on the dishes for these wines. Not only did the fennel- and lavender-crusted duck make great music with the local chantrelles and early-season Bing cherries cooked with it, those elements brought out all kinds of extras in the wines. They honed in on the hidden cherry flavors in the RSV and boosted the silky texture of the California wine. Sensational pairings.
For dessert, I found a long-forgotten bottle of Woodbury Port de Pinot Noir Alexander Valley 1979 languishing in a corner of my cellar awaiting an appropriate occasion. In my experience, fortified wines hardly ever die, and this one was very much alive. Pinot Noir grapes invested it with a lighter texture than what derives from the Portuguese varieties that usually make Port—or, as was often the case in California at that time, Zinfandel. The flavors were pure, and the texture was velvety. The wine had tremendous stature and complexity by itself and didn’t lose much against the blueberry-cornmeal pancakes with caramelized bananas for dessert.
When Birnbaum came up to receive his applause, he raised a glass of the Port and said, “We did 160 dinners tonight, but I had more fun with this than anything we’ve done in weeks.”
Next year we’re thinking about a world tour of Syrah. So many options.
Michael Bonanno — CT — May 12, 2010 5:09am ET
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