A Fall Feast to Remember

When one is asked to recount his greatest experiences with wine, it is seldom a matter of simply denominating the finest wines one has tasted. Instead, the response usually begins with an effusive description of the setting, tasting companions, and the culinary fare.

Some might be surprised that a quintessential wine moment is so integrated into the full tapestry of a dining experience, rather than being isolated to enable the taster to focus singularly on the wine. But, for a sophisticated diner, the apex of a culinary event, like a great wine itself, is its harmony, its balance of several superb components elevating the senses to a state of great satisfaction. Certainly, the wines require focused attention when poured, and periodically thereafter, to assess their attributes - the aromas, body, texture, depth and concentration of flavors, the finish, and complexity. But, thereafter, when served in the context of a great meal, the pleasure of the wine becomes somewhat diffused into the blissful circle of sensory influences surrounding us.

And then at some point, there is a quiet interlude returning your attention to the brilliant stemware with its golden- or ruby-colored wine. The wine refreshes and seems suspended on the palate, exuding an exotic and satisfying array of flavors. It is meditative in the sense that it briefly, but fully, engages the mind, providing one of those gastronomic epiphanies of pleasure, stimulation, and understanding. The allure of great wine reveals itself clearly.

Such was the experience recently at a dinner conducted by Viking at its inaugural New York Dinner Series, held at the James Beard House in Greenwich Village. The success of the evening was assured by the presence of Chef Cat Cora, one of the Food Network’s reigning Iron Chefs of America, who prepared a spectacular sequence of courses that had the 13 guests smiling and casually looking over their shoulders in anticipation of the next dish.

Chef Cora created a menu that offered a broad opportunity for the inclusion of great wines that would not overwhelm the delicacy of her food’s flavors, while standing up to some of the stronger elements of the preparations. We began the evening in the warm glow of the courtyard with a round of Champagne, the ’96 Deutz, William Deutz Cuvee, accompanied by some of Martha Foose’s (Executive Chef of the Viking Cooking School) glorious hors d’oeuvres. The luxury cuvee from such a great vintage lived up to its billing with its deep aromas of toast, citrus, and minerals, at once rich and precise.

In the legendary dark-paneled dining room, surrounded by Mr. Beard’s portraits and books, the true dining began with the Curried Kabocha Squash Soup. The richness of the velvety soup, accented by the curry and crisped ginger, called for a German riesling. The splendid 2004 Donnhoff Norheimer Dellchen Spätlese possessed a core of pear, stone fruit, and gardenias that complemented the soup’s creaminess, while its light acid and minerality offered balance to the spice and richness of the dish. This is a very fine wine from one of the world’s greatest producers of white wine.

On to the diver scallops and a bit more of a dilemma regarding which wine would best handle the succulent nature of these large, plump mollusks. Reinforce the richness with a chardonnay, or counter it with a sauvignon blanc. The latter was selected, with the added criterion of a wine with some body weight, so as not to be rendered austere in combination with the scallops. We located a wine that, not surprisingly, was both a stunning wine and a perfect companion for Cat’s luxuriously complex preparation. It was Didier Dagueneau’s 2004 Silex Pouilly Fumé. More than a few connoisseurs consider this to be the finest example of sauvignon blanc on earth. Minerals, citrus, herbs, and stone fruit unfolded from the glass in a persistent stream of complex aromas and flavors, while the mouth feel was both crisp and concentrated, with laser-like layers of flavor that changed and expanded with time in the glass. For most, this was the wine of the night.

I would like to think that it was the magnificence of the Dagueneau that diminished the next wine, but that was not the case. It was a weak soldier ambushed by a dominant food component. Cat’s butternut squash lasagna with a porcini mushroom crema, suggested that an elegant red Burgundy with its earthy notes of mushrooms and leather would be a worthy partner. The selection was a 2000 Frederic Magnien Nuits St. George Les St. Georges Premier Cru. This is a highly reputed wine from a mediocre vintage, chosen in part for its current drinkability. However, the nose opened only slightly and the wine was lean and lacking in charm. The death knell was the porcini puree atop the fabulous lasagna (maybe the best dish of the night), which, rather than earthy, was quite sweet, further suppressing the perception of fruit in the wine and leaving it severe and simple. In retrospect, the Donnhoff riesling would have been a far superior pairing.

Fortunately, there was no concern about the next course, matching Copain’s 2003 Hawkes Butte Syrah with Cat’s sumptuous rack of lamb. The rich, spicy aromas of the Copain pervaded the air even as it was being poured, and the introduction of the lamb to the table created a luscious aromatic atmosphere of game and slowly-cooked vegetables. The full-bodied black/purple wine, with its dark fruit and prominent mineral streak, both complemented the lamb’s rich meat and herbal flavors, and provided enough edge to cut through the textured fattiness. Delectable and comforting, a milestone in any extensive dining sequence.

Amidst a cornucopia of Chef Foose’s desserts, we opened bottles of the 2004 Inniskillin Cabernet Franc Ice Wine. This intensely sweet wine with its clean purity of flavors was delicious and interesting to taste alongside the myriad of Martha’s sweets, particularly the chocolate truffles. (It should be noted that the table also loved the chocolates with the Copain syrah).

The group with whom the evening was shared was indeed a collection of culinary aficionados, who understood the depth and nuances of the food and wine, but who also knew the value and joy of the conviviality of the occasion and its part in establishing the grandness of a culinary experience in one’s memory.

We extend our gratitude to everyone present at the James Beard House on that very lovely evening.