The purpose of a wine dinner is above all to celebrate the wine. The food is generally little more than decoration. But as I recently found out at Alto, a chic new restaurant in New York offering modern Italian cuisine and a stellar wine list, shrewd food-and-beverage people can elevate the experience.
The dinner was one in a series of tasting dinners featuring verticals of very fine wines. The first was Pétrus, and coming up are Cheval-Blanc (March 20) and Haut-Brion (this summer). The dinner I attended featured Château Latour, going back to 1928.
The business of the evening was to taste 12 vintages of Latour, served in flights of three in reverse chronological order, with four courses of chef Scott Conant's avant-Italian cuisine adapted to support the tasting.
There were 14 seats, but two guests were foiled by a delayed flight. (Next time you're stuck at the gate, be grateful you didn't reserve for a $2,200 per plate dinner.) A couple of wine importers and brokers, a young sommelier and I joined several people who I'd guess make money for a living. Also present, and de facto host, was Nashville wine lover Tom Black. He is not only a partner in the restaurant, but the wines originally came from his cellar. There was an ease and conviviality to the group; several were already acquainted, but all were clearly excited to sit down with fellow sybarites.
By the time a tuna tartare amuse bouche was served there was a palpable sense that, while the Pol Roger Brut 1990 was perfectly nice, we were ready to get on with it. Then came the first flight: 1990, 1982 and 1978. The '90 was spectacular, even in its brawny youth. If another wine this good were poured, this would be quite an evening. (Guess what? It was.) There was some disagreement about the '82. Was it muted? In a dumb phase? Or just subtle, suffering from its placement? But Black was firm in his assessment: "The '90 and the '82 are going to be like the '61 and the '59." The '78 was more open, but did not approach the quality of the '90.
No one was talking about hedge funds or health-care consolidation. That's work after all. The talk was of favorite restaurants and meals ("The best meal I ever had was when I flew Daniel Boulud down to cook for me."), and most of all wine. These are people who have made fine wine a central part of their lives. There were endless vintage discussions. "Do any of you recork?" one guest asked of the table, referring to the practice of opening, topping off and resealing depleted older wines. After the table unanimously and vigorously replied in the negative, she concluded, "Ah, we have an intelligent group."
The first dish was sweetbreads glazed with veal stock served atop guanciale, porcini, pumpkin seeds and roasted scallions. Earthy, chewy barley pulled it all together and played to the similarly dusky flavors these wines can show. There were a lot of elements on the plate, including enough fat to foil the mighty tannins in the younger wines and open up their fruit on the palate. It was a bold and successful opening salvo from the kitchen.
Next poured were the tight '75, the gorgeous '70 and the '66. The '66 was oxidized or cooked, depending on who you were listening to, but a second bottle, in better condition, was fetched immediately.
A pan containing whole roasted foie gras lobes was presented. These were then sliced and placed on duck confit, the whole covered in delicate slices of black truffle and scattered with tiny cubes of fruit bread. Again the fat worked well with the tannins, and again a seemingly minor element—the bread cubes—bound the dish and bridged it with the wine. A final sprinkling of salt on the food subdued the not unpleasant bitter character that sometimes came out in the wines, tipping them toward the fruit. This favored the '75 and the '66, both of which had some bitterness, over the '70.
In the following group, the '61 was singing. It was big but pretty, with sweet red fruit and bright acidity. The '49 was similar but even more expressive—superb. The '59 seemed to have a light case of whatever ailed the '66. Even 15 minutes after being poured it still had a touch of what one person had called "Band-Aid nose," though it had a freshness on the palate. A chestnut risotto with wild boar and black truffles was delicious, but this was the only case where the wine and food didn't do much for each other. No harm done, however. Trust me.
By the last course the food was countryside simple. Well, almost. Saddle of lamb was stuffed and roasted with winter vegetables. White truffle "dumplings" were delicate creamy pillows that continued the truffle theme and coated the mouth. The food needed to be simple to accompany the '47, which was rich up front but dropped off, the '45 and the death-defying '28, at once both juicy and palate cleansing. They were subtler and more complex wines, more nuanced than those of the preceding flights, though still plenty powerful. Ultimately, the '45 was voted the crowd favorite for the night, and I don't disagree. It's still so vibrant, with jammy raspberry and fantastic length.
The most exciting element of these tastings though is the turning of flavors in the glass. The raspberry and touch of mint give way to duskier cedar and lanolin with cherries. The '90 started with a profusion of roses and finished—for those who had the foresight to save a little through the dinner—smelling like tobacco and cedar.
But there was also excitement on the plate. The menu had style and integrity while showing the wines at their best.
Typically, an ageworthy wine is fairly big and burly in its youth, getting more delicate with age, but most tasting menus tend to progress from relatively light flavors and proteins to richer, fuller dishes. It would seem that the food and wine would operate at cross purposes. In fact, wine lovers sometimes complain that food, regardless of quality, can get in the way of proper appreciation of fine wine—the best they can hope for is that the food just stays out of the way.
But that's myopic. And this dinner at Alto proved it. Sommelier Eric Zillier notes the "crescendo of complexity" that occurs as you taste back through a wine's history, so for these dinners he and Conant, along with managing partner Chris Cannon, devise menus concentrating on flavors friendly to the wines and progressing from complex and rich to simple and clean. It pays off.
Eminent wines command your attention, no matter the surroundings. Dinner was not only better than it needed to be, the whole effect of the tasting was transcendent.