Every bottle has a story

I am not a wine expert, but with each bottle I try and share with friends, I learn more. Wine is an exceptional social drink; it is the marijuana of alcoholic beverages because it must be shared. I seek to share with you my thoughts and experiences as I drink the wine in my closet, as well as my enthusiasm for the finds that come my way and the excellent values that I find. I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences too, so please share!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Two powerhouse picks

Last night I played host again for a dinner party to present two wines from my closet that I thought were ready for drinking. Dionysus must have been smiling upon my humble selections.

The first was a 2002 Malbec from Altos Las Hormigas, the Reserva Vina Hormigas. In 2005 this wine was rated in the top 50 of the top 100 best wines of the year (it was ranked 42) by Wine Spectator. WS scored it 92, and when it was reviewed, the suggested price of $25 didn’t seem that bad for such a highly regarded wine. It was released in 2005, so I’m guessing that is when I purchased it (I can’t remember if I bought more than one bottle at the time). The drink window, as suggested by WS, closed in 2010. To say the least, I was a bit nervous, given the fact my wine cellar is a closet.

The second wine was a 2000 Chateauneuf du Pape cuvee reserve from Domaine du Pegau. Chateauneuf du Pape is my favorite wine, and I had drank this particular bottling before. I believe I purchased two bottles in 2003 when it was released. I got it for $39, which seemed like a reasonable price. When I brought it home and looked it up, I saw that WS scored it at 89, describing it with praise. It had a much longer drink window, all the way to 2020. But again, I’d been holding on to this one for at least seven years. And when I pulled it out from my closet, I saw the wine level in the bottle had dropped to about a half-inch below the foil at the top. Also, the foil at the top was slightly bulged. The signs made me nervous.

Friends Curt, Nate and Steve came over. It was the night before Nate and Steve were to fly to Puerto Vallarta for a vacation. I still had two, quite large, bison top sirloins that I wanted to cook because they had already been in the freezer since the Oscars and I didn’t want them to get freezer burned. I prepared almost the same meal as the one served on Oscar night, with just two modifications: no portabella mushrooms this time, and instead of parsnips, I had parsley roots.

That turned out to be a rather serendipitous error. I thought I was buying parsnips, but when I got them home, I realized my error. Not sure how to prepare them, I did some quick research on the Web and determined I could cook them pretty much the same way as I did the parsnips. I washed them, cut the top and greens off, sliced them down the middle, and put them into a glass baking dish that I had heavily smeared with butter. Then I sprinkled raw sugar on them before roasting. Because I needed a much lower temperature for roasting the bison, I put the parsley root in the oven at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes, then turned the oven down to 275, the roasting temperature for the bison.

The beet greens were such a hit the last time (I really liked them too), I repeated the dish. The beets were easy and I boiled them well ahead of time. Raw beets take a long time to boil. The key to it is you leave about two inches of green stems on the beet when you boil them. After they are done, put them in cold water until their cool enough to handle and you just rub the skin off the beet. I set them aside in the refrigerator, my intent to microwave them just before serving. At this time also, I complete all the prep work for the greens; my years working as a restaurant cook taught me some very helpful tricks.

For the greens, I washed them thoroughly, using a large pan filled with cold water. I’d let the greens soak for a while each time as well when I’d change the water to ensure they’d stay crisp. I soaked and rinsed them at least three times. Cut off the stems, then chop the greens, after which I placed in a colander to drain. For the other ingredients, I used half a red onion finely chopped, as well as four medium carrots, also finely chopped. I set aside the chopped items, as well as three garlic cloves, and then I chopped two thick slabs of bacon.

Another trick I learned was preparing the wine. The night before I brought the bottles out and set them upright to let whatever sediment was there drift to the bottom. Then, about three hours before the intended dinner hour, I put both bottles in the refrigerator for about 90 minutes. After this, I take the bottles out so the wine will gradually warm to a proper serving temperature. I have found this works really well, particularly if the wine has been stored at a room temperature in the mid to high 70s. This trick seems to temper the wine’s character and subdue the alcohol so the wine doesn’t come out too hot. If you try this, be sure that it’s done well ahead of serving time, because you don’t want a red wine to be served too cold; it should have 90 minutes to two hours outside of the fridge to re-warm.

The first item to start cooking was the parsley root. Once that was in the oven, I opened the Malbec first. The cork came out intact, and a sniff revealed no taint. So far so good. I then sniffed from the bottle and a beautiful bouquet of fruit and something else that smelled delicious let me know that this one was still good. I poured a small taste, looked at its deep color of currant, took another heady sniff, then tasted. I was shocked! Instead of a firm and jammy Malbec as I had anticipated, I tasted rich mineral and soft tannin that I knew would soon firm up. Curt later told me when he tasted it, it also reminded him of something other than an Argentine Malbec. In fact, he said it reminded him of a French Rhone, in particular a Gigondas. I agreed that this also reminded me of a Rhone, the delicious mineral and the firming tannins releasing the fruit elegantly. And paired with the bison – outstanding.

As I was finishing the food for serving, Steve opened the Chateauneuf du Pape. When the foil was removed, it was evident that some seepage had occurred, a rusty and crusty film on the cork. But the cork removed intact, and again, there was no scent of taint. And the first whiff from the bottle was sublime. This wine went through some dramatic changes, as well, during the meal. An early taste gave me a strong acid flavor around the edge of my tongue, almost effervescent in quality. The tannins were quite weak as well at the start. But soon this wine bloomed, the tannins getting quite firm giving the wine a strong finish that suited the bison and root vegetables beautifully. My favorite Rhone comes through again!

I’ll rate the Malbec a 9.5: the mineral quality was a delightful surprise, giving this wine some real terroir. While the Domaine du Pegau was delicious, I will rate this with a 9 because I know what this appellation is capable of.

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