Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Obscure Delights: Grosjean Freres Torrette, Valle d'Aoste, 2012

Nostrana’s superbly maintained wine list and a late evening dinner with Jake Parrot, omni-connoisseur  of alcoholic beverages, conjoined to re-acquaint me with the wines of the Vallee d’Aoste (or Val d’Aosta, depending upon your language preference) via the Vinirari Balteo 2010.

We all need reminders, from time to time, of wines we like but just don’t get enough of, in part because they are simply not available on most wine lists.

When I came across another good Valle d’Aosta red at Bar Avignon, I didn’t even hesitate.

I’m a sucker for alpine wines and the Grosjean FreresTorrette 2012 is a great example of why: exceptionally clean, precise, bright, high acidity, well developed red fruit aromas and flavors and usually not a lot of either vanilla oak or tannin to fight through.

This small and gorgeous valley has always been a conduit  for merchants and tourists, located as it is in far northwestern Italy, sitting at the northernmost stretch of the Piedmont just underneath the Swiss Alps, and offering a comfortable passageway to France immediately next door. The multilingual and multicultural influences are obvious, combining Swiss-German, French and Italian.

Valle d’Aoste wines profited little from the wine boom of the last fifty years or so. Volume was not high---the valley wine growers are neither numerous nor export-oriented and most quietly make their wines primarily for local consumption; this DOC is the smallest of Italy’s wine regions, both in area and production. Alpine wines seemed to focus on obscure, unknown, and hard to pronounce indigenous varieties and blends (Fumin or Vien de Nus, anyone?), with grapes better known from other regions sprinkled around, as in Nebbiolo, Gamay, Chardonnay, which leaves the Valle d’Aosta with its own style.

During the greatest growth of wine culture, alpine wines, with their lean, often tart and acidic and nervy style, did not seem to resonate with the drinking public that wanted massively tannic reds and opulent vanilla-spiced whites drowned in oak. The Italian Valle d’Aosta and Trentino-Alto Adige, the wines from the Austrian and German Alps, the French wines of the Haut-Savoie and the lean and chiseled Swiss wines continued to languish in relative obscurity, consumed mostly by skiers and tourists.

But times, and tastes, change. And even though many Americans still prefer the big and boisterous attention-grabbing wines, the ones that announce themselves in loud voices and shove everything else aside (often including the food on the table), the Grosjean Torrette impresses with its balance, its restraint, its remarkable flexibility with foods.

Along with the suave silkiness of the French and the angular precision of the Swiss, the Grosjean Torrette also displays a particularly Italian quality:  it is a quiet, polite and utterly charming table companion and speaks, as the Italians say, sotto voce.

Grosjean makes several wines. The Torrette is an indigenous blend of 80% Petit Rouge together with a varying amount of Vien de Nus, Doucet, Fumin and Mayolet.  (Recall that I mentioned the indigenous and obscure nature of the grapes here?) The vineyard sites are at an altitude of 550-650m and trained using the Guyot system, allowing the vines to drape down the terraced hillside.  In a marginal climate where ripeness is paramount and sometimes not easily attainable, this form of trellising gives the growers a slight but noticeable edge in that regard. The wine ages in both stainless steel and oak casks.

Grosjean Torrette is similar to Beaujolais more than anything.  But not just Beaujolais, a stellar Cru Beaujolais from a top producer, and most specifically a Morgon by respected producers Burgaud, Desvignes or Foillard.  Tart and mouth-watering with ripe but not over-ripe red fruits---mingled cherries, strawberries and a bit of blackberry plumpness---and bright with lively acidity, while relatively low in tannins, the Torrette is smooth, light to medium-bodied with a hint of earth and smoke. 

When served with food, the balanced combination of tart fruit and bright acidity is a perfect companion, livening up the tastebuds to bring out the flavors of lighter foods, while providing a pleasant cleansing astringency for heavier, fattier fare. The wine suits the delicious cuisine at Bar Avignon with an easy versatility.

Grosjean Torrette. Because sometimes you don’t want a blockbuster wine.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Portland Bar Scene: Justin Siemer has the Last (Mezcal) Word

 I visited Ración for dinner on the occasion of bar manager Justin Siemer’s last night there (he has gone on to other things, as bartenders often do) and I experienced a salient reminder of why I appreciate good bartenders.

We had a great dinner courtesy of Chef Anthony Cafiero. Ración’s concept is not so much the typical idea of tapas, but more an extended dinner of several complex and enticing plates.  You really should try the sous vide egg dish here. It would have been a revelation for me, had I not had it previously, but it was a pure delight to watch my wife enjoy it for the first time. (Yes; I like to watch.) It is a well-conceived and beautifully plated dish; one of the finest egg dishes I have ever enjoyed.

I played around with the cocktail list, musing over the fact that little bursts of creative energy like this were virtually unknown ten years ago but are now as common as can be in bars and restaurant all over Portland.  I also noticed a quirky oddity that perhaps gave a bit of insight to the cocktail designer: the main spirits were almost always generically cited….”Rye Whiskey” or “Old Tom Gin”…but the adjuncts, especially the amari, were identified carefully and precisely. Flip to the list of spirits for the establishment and the Amari portion is larger than any other segment of major spirits.  There is mixability at work here.

As a final nightcap at the end of a particularly fine evening, I was in the mood for one of my favorite drinks. At the MultnomahWhiskey Library I had been felicitously introduced to a Last Word, a classic gin and Chartreuse and maraschino sour, but this one had the gin switched out for del Maguey Vida Mezcal with its enticing smoky aromatics. I asked Justin if he could do one of those.

He mixed a drink and delivered it, with what seemed like a tiny bit of…trepidation?, concern?...and watched intently as I took my first sip.  It was great, and I told him so.  His shoulders relaxed a bit; he smiled and moved away.

A bit later, Justin returned and confessed he had been concerned because he had just run out of Luxardo Maraschino liqueur and had to use a different brand, Maraska, which had a slightly different flavor profile. He subbed in the Maraska according to standard portions, but felt it wasn’t.quite.right: the balance was off somehow. So he added  a touch more Maraska, less than a teaspoonful, to bring the cocktail back to harmony.

And that is a perfect example of why I appreciate good bartenders!  They pay attention to detail. They are conscientious. They strive for perfection, or as close as they can get, for that moment and that cocktail experience.  In short, they care: they take pride, personal pride, in doing things “the right way.”

We’re lucky here in Portland. Some would say spoiled (but not me). We have an abundance of this pride in craft throughout our bartending community.   Here’s to them. And here’s to you, Justin: your Mezcal Last Word was perfect.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Wine With Jake: Vinirari Balteo 2010, Val d'Aosta, Italy at Nostrana

I really love convergences. Even more so when there is wine involved.

Old friend Jake Parrott is in town.  Jake is a guy who works hard and plays hard, the kind of guy that energizes you by being in the vicinity.  After a rather long day for him we managed to rendezvous at Nostrana, reminisce, laugh a lot, and nosh.

With a Funghi Verde pizza shared, tagliata for him and pasta for me, we agreed a lighter wine was in order.  Jake quite liked the Nostrana list with some perceptive Italian selections from all around the 20 regions, a few choice nuggets from neighboring Slovenia, and some local stuff from the Willamette.

It’s always difficult to quickly pick a wine from the Nostrana list. There’s so much there, and from so many directions, if you choose one you almost always regret not selecting another.

But Jake picked the Vinirari Balteo Val d’Aosta, 2010.  And holy schnikies (a technical expletive popular with wine professionals) was he right!

I’ll be honest here: I thought the Balteo was Petite Rouge.  They did have a Petite Rouge on the list, by the way, but it wasn’t the Balteo.  Although, in a way, the Balteo was at least partly Petite Rouge.  Allow me to use the Louis/Dressner website info to…um…clarify things:

85% fumin and 15% cornalin. Little known fact, cornalin in Aosta is not the same as cornalin in the Valais of Switzerland. It's what would be called humagne rouge in Switzerland, a descendent of Swiss cornalin. However, Swiss cornalin is descended from petit rouge and vien de nus from Aosta.

Now THAT, my friends is inherent winegeekery of the highest order! Bravo!! I particularly like the “little known fact” touch.  Dude, Cornalin, Petite Rouge, the Swiss Valais (see what I did there?), humagne rouge and vien du nus---hell, for that matter, even Aosta as a region---are all and sundry little known facts to all but the very, very few.

And for all of you who don’t know what the terms mean, the Aosta, or Val d’Aosta (your ear may hear it as “Valdosta”) refers to a tiny, tiny, tiny valley that is the entirety of the DOC.  I believe it is the smallest designated region in Italy, although I could be wrong, because who the heck ever knows in Italy. 

The Aosta has its own little idiosyncrasies that make it distinctive.  As a remainder of the once large and powerful House of Savoy, the valley was strategically situated near France and south of Switzerland and including the Piedmont. Eventually, of course, the valley was incorporated into the newly born state of unified Italy---with the first King of all Italy being the reigning King of the House of Savoy!  Hence, the valley is dual in its languages, and you’ll see road signs in both French and Italian.

Whether French or Italian accented, the wines of the Aosta, in their sequestered little valley, have always remained largely local and authochthonous; many appear nowhere else than in this particular area of the Alps.  Hence the references to Fumin and Petite Rouge and others.

But let’s speak to this particular wine, rather than to its varietal makeup. It is light-bodied, smooth, and elegant, without any forceful braggadocio of over-ripe fruit or fresh oak.  It is a berry-focused fruit---for me, raspberry---but much, much more. Its lightness and delicacy---well, apparent delicacy---belies its complexity. Tasty and quaffable, sure.  But the Balteo has some depths to explore.  First the raspberry, in a clean, bright, fresh fruit way. Then there’s the unexpected  but pleasant bite of white pepper that enlivens the fruit and draws you further into the wine. Texturally, it begins silky-soft, then manages to fill out a bit in the middle before letting its ghost of aroma and flavor linger around for a while.

Jake ordered the Vinirari Balteo because he wanted a wine that would match with the food on the table…and because he can’t resist the more obscure and exotic wines when he (rarely) sees them on a list. The wine was delightful with the multi-mushroom and arugula pizza on a charred crust, the slightly bloody tagliata and more arugula, and my paglia e fieno pasta with smoked white trout and English peas.

(Side note here: I hesitated on the paglia e fieno because I didn’t want the usual culinary aberration of a badly made paglia e fieno, the kind where they drown the damn thing in cream and butter so much you’re left with oily soup at the end. Blah.  But Nostrana, as always, did it right: delicate, fresh egg pasta, al dente English peas, delicious house-smoked trout, and a respectable restraint with the cream pitcher so it was sauce, not gravy.)

Pizza gone. Steak and pasta gone. Wine remained. Our dessert was the rest of the wine with one small wedge of absolutely delicious cheese, a Briar Ridge Waterloo Sunset soft cow cheese from Dundee, OR, selected by the wine steward.

If you haven’t tried a Val d’Aosta wine as yet, hie thee to Nostrana; they have several well-chosen ones on the list. (Suggestion: try a white Petite Arvine from Aosta. Word.) You’ll be experiencing something you’ve literally never had before, with varieties you probably never knew about before, in the best possible culinary environment for the wines.

Now, that's a convergence!

Monday, April 13, 2015

50 year old Laubade Armagnac in a cocktail? Cue the outrage!

Would you put a 50 year old single estate Armagnac in a cocktail?

Many people would call you crazy, or at the very least a perpetrator of high crimes and misdemeanors, for desecrating such a venerable brandy by mixing it in a ***shudder*** cocktail. Your parentage would be questioned; teeth would be gnashed; veins would throb; and heads would explode.

But when Kevin Tuan, reputed to be one of the top bartenders in Hanoi, created two delicious cocktails based on Chateau de Laubade 1965 Single Estate Armagnac, the owners of Chateau de Laubade were delighted, and couldn’t wait to post it on their Facebook feed.

Kevin Tuan crafts his cocktail creations at the Bar Pharaoh in the Lotte Hoteld’Hanoi.  When he discovered the remarkable single estate/single vineyard/vintage dated Armagnacs of Chateau de Laubade, he immediately created two new cocktails. 

The Laubade de Pharaoh was a classic take on a brandy sour, laced with orange and lemon juice and emboldened with a dash of Angostura bitters.  Wild Mint in 1965 was a whimsical variation on the minty mojito, or you might call it “thyme on time” in reference to Kevin’s inspired use of selfsame herb, whether pun intended or not.

Bar Pharaoh,, Lotte Hotel Hanoi

These two cocktails were so intriguing, with the heretical idea of using such a superlative base as the vintage dated Armagnac, I had to try them both---or at least, my home-styled variation of both, since I could not hop a plane to Hanoi.

I also, alack and alas, did not possess any 1965 Armagnac from Chateau de Laubade.  Fresh out, darn it! So I “made do” with a Chateau de Laubade XO. That was okay, I figured, because I would get the essential element of a well-aged Laubade while still causing sweats and heart palpitations among the purists. Desecration of sacred objects is a terrible thing, innit? So I laboriously climbed up my trophy wall, took the XO Armagnac off its pedestal, dusted it off, polished it up a bit so it would reflect the lights of the crystal chandelier (details are important) and proceeded to mix and mingle my cocktails. (Mind you, I'm somewhat cheap. If you're not miserly you can easily find the Chateau de Laubade around the country---see Wine-Searcher.com,---ranging from $300 to $349 a bottle.  Which, come to think of it, is actually a startling price for a 50 year old single-vintage Armagnac.)

The results?  Pretty damned tasty.

The Laubade de Pharaoh worked beautifully with the XO.  This was a sour with substance!  That characteristic earthy tang of Armagnac was there, with the lacy fringes of fruit and flower peeking through. The nose was particularly charming---bright and citrusy, of course; nicely balanced between the sweet orange and the tart lemon; with the responsive dried orange peel and spice of the Armagnac---and the flavor was compelling enough that the cocktail disappeared in amazingly short order.  This could easily be a standard of the house.

The Wild Mint in 1965 was an even more whimsical twist on a now-familiar modern classic, the mojito. But here, the addition of Chateau de Laubade XO made a seismic difference. A basic, simple quaffing Collins/Highball drink, primarily designed so one could hydrate while dancing wildly to Cubano music in the sweltering streets while getting enough alcohol to sustain the frenzy but not enough to put you face down on the cobblestones, had amazingly transformed itself into a fresh, lively, but sleek and sophisticated tall drink. The contrast of bright, fresh, green mint (I used spearmint) on top, with the entirely different bass tones of the thyme underneath, were perfectly balanced by the robust body and earthy appeal of the Armagnac, making for a surprisingly complex and satisfying drink.I altered my version to eliminate the mojito/mint syrup, preferring natural aromas of
 the crushed spearmint instead

Not wishing to deprive you of the experience, courtesy of Chateau de Laubade here are the two recipes from Kevin.  Make them up today…or better yet, stop off at the Bar Pharaoh in Hanoi and ask Kevin to whip them right up for you.

Laubade de Pharaoh :- 1965 Chateau de Laubade Bas Armagnac: 60 mL- Orange : 20 mL- Fresh Lemon Juice : 10 mL- Syrup Sugar Cane : 10 mL- Angostura bitters : 3 dash 

Wild Mint in 1965 :- 1965 Chateau de Laubade : 80 mL- Mint Syrup (Dolin): 10 mL- Mojito Syrup: 10mL- Fresh Lime Juice: 10 mL- Thyme : 2 sprigs- Mint: 2 sprigs

And, sorry, but if you make these at home, you’ll have to supply your own Chateau de Laubade Armagnac.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Time In A Bottle: A Revery on 1942 Chateau de Laubade Armagnac

This past summer I ventured to Armagnac to explore the region and brandy for which Gascony was so famous. My intent was to focus on identifying the three necessary elements that define wine, and by extension, wine-based spirits: terroir, varietal composition and maker.

But at the end of my trip I faced a new question I needed to answer.

I visited several distilleries and took every occasion during my stay to sample a range of Armagnacs, from the young, obviously commercial and as obviously adulterated to the sublime expressions of long maturation from dedicated single estate producers.

At my final distillery visit I had the great fortune of having my mind and palate prepared by Francois Lasportes, Maitre de Chai at Chateau de Laubade, through tasting the separate varieties as clear eaux-de-vie, then various aged iterations of the different varieties, and finally well-aged versions of the blends and vintage releases. In all I tasted 2013, 2005, 2001, 1999, 1995, 1994, 1983, Laubade XO and Laubade l’Intemporel XO, with an average age of 50 years.

Le Paradis
At this point it was fairly easy to recognize terroir, to distinguish the differences between Cognac and Armagnac as well as the differences among Armagnacs. I was becoming adept at identifying the contribution of the different varieties---of Ugni Blanc for its lean acidic structure; Baco and it’s rich, deep earthiness; the spicy tang of herbs in Colombard; and the soft floral fruitiness of Folle Blanche. These had become apparent from Francois’s careful tutelage. And Château de Laubade’s style was readily evident.

Then, as my final Armagnac of the visit, I was offered the opportunity to taste the Chateau de Laubade 1942.  And the question suddenly arose:  How do you taste time?

Or maybe we should ask that a different way:  Can you taste time?

2013 Eaux-de-vie by variety
Certainly you can taste maturation, that time the spirit rested in an oak barrel, daily and incrementally leaching out the flavors of the wood, slowly, slowly turning with the change of the days and the seasons and the years, digesting, metabolizing, becoming ever more dense and concentrated, as the spirit transpires through the barrel staves in molecular amounts and the oxygen creeps in to fill the space and interact with the spirit as it concentrates.

Maturation is easy to discern. When a spirit goes into the barrel crystal clear, its deceptive fruitiness masking a fiery core of alcohol, to emerge years later a lovely golden brown in color, caramel tawny, and yielding up abundances of spice and leather and tobacco and chocolate that were not there before, it is obvious that something remarkable has happened, something natural yet nonetheless cloaked in the mysteries.

It’s what we used to call magic. And in the case of spirits, we still do. We know very well how it works, and with our technology and experience we can influence it, but we can’t control it. So It’s magic.

Same single-variety/single estate
over 15 years old
But that’s maturation. And maturation is the effects of time (and other things). How do you taste time?

If terroir exists; if there is indeed a direct connection, unbroken, from the soil and the water and the air and into the fruit, the wine, and the spirit, should it not be maintained through the years, even if attenuated?  In a great spirit, a profound spirit, handled with proper attention, knowledge and experience, one should be able to identify and appreciate the three necessary elements: the terroir, the fruit composition, and the hand of the maker. I could discern all of those to some degree, but I had elevated the 1942 to more than simply “brandy”; I had placed it on a high pedestal with the burden of representing, in my mind, a specific year in an epochal time. And it is difficult to analyze reverence.

The final tasting
1942 was a significant year, a year of turmoil and death and destruction, of upheaval on a massive scale, a truly global scale.  America had abruptly entered the war full force a few months prior with the shock of Pearl Harbor, but Europe and China/Japan had been embroiled in vicious wars for some years. The conflagration had finally engulfed the world in 1942.

In Europe, Austria and Czechoslovakia fell quickly and without war. Poland fell quickly and violently. Then Germany launched the war into France. France, stunned and depressed, still weary from the last war, with little aid available from Britain, succumbed with anguish, yielding up sovereignty and territory, crouching feebly back into the bitter survival of “Vichy France.” The Scandinavian countries succumbed. And Hitler began to launch Operation Barbarossa into Russia.

But Gascony was largely untouched by the violence of war.  The people were affected, yes, but the land and the crops remained as they were, even if the harvest was hampered by lack of workers. The grapes came in; the wine was made; and the distillation happened as it always did, a reminder that some things persist as they always have despite what humans do to each other.

So here was the momentous year, trapped in a bottle.  The people of the time were long gone, but this lived on, that last liquid remnant of a time that meant so much but was no more. 1942.

Can you taste time?  No. Not I. Not in that sense. I could taste the mellow, soft, silky texture on my tongue and savor the remaining fruit, still present but wrapped with delicious, subtle hints of old hand-rubbed leather and cinnamon spice and dark, scuffed up forest floor on a cool day, meaty preserved plum and a whiff of tobacco smoke lingering in the air. The Armagnac was dazzling in a quiet and wonderful way.

I could taste age, but not time. 1942---the Armagnac--- was a gentle creature, warming, like the banked embers of a fire, glowing with soft comfort and beguiling the palate and slowing down the soul to revery.  1942---the year---was turmoil and rupture, a tearing apart of the civilized fabric of life. The two co-existed, but had little overlap, and that only in fading memory of a time familiar to me but before I was conceived.

Can you taste time? Not really, no.  You can taste the effects of time, but when the sensory impressions travel through the olfactory bulb and into the brain, they cease being taste and become thought, conjecture, imagination and fancy. What you taste stimulates the brain in all its synaptic wonder of metaphor, analogy, and memory, so that what you are tasting is associated with a particular time, yet not really connected to it. But it remains associative; not physical but metaphysical.

I could not taste time. But even so, I had been privileged to taste a superb, gentle, refined Armagnac, the product of a single vineyard estate from a single year, and that would stay with me forever. So I suppose  you could call it timeless.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Due Diligence: Vasse Felix Chardonnay Estate, Margaret River, 2012

I don’t consume nearly as much Australian wine as I used to. Mostly, that’s okay, because I long ago left behind the over-the-top exuberance and hot-climate jam fruit many of them embody and I no longer drink the volumatic plonk that tastes of not much in particular regardless of what it says on the label. But I miss the good ones.  The Taylor/Wakefield from Clare Valley, for instance That’s my kind of wine. *snif* Wish it were still around in the U.S.

Still and all, have to pay homage where homage is due, and I recently found an Aussie---and a Chardonnay, at that---which was really impressive. 

Thing is, it had all the elements of chardonnay that I almost always do not care for.  Obvious sweet vanilla oak? Check.  Noticeable malolactic diacetyl “I can’t believe it’s not butter”?  Check.  Big body and slickery/creamy mouthfeel?  Oh yeah, check.

So why did I like it so much?  First, because it was a remarkably balanced and harmonious wine, with all the parts neatly joined and fitted together so it was seamless. Second, because it reminded me---just a bit---of what could be its big brother, Leeuwin Artist Series Chardonnay.

I’m not sure whether I can chalk the family resemblance up to both being Margaret River, that mild and temperate clime in far western Australia, or simply a stylistic similarity working on a slightly less concentrated frame than the Leeuwin.  You know what; it’s probably both.

The difference is in the price. Where Leeuwin Artist Series goes for a princely sum, the Vasse Felix Estate Chardonnay is surprisingly modest in price. For something in the range of $15—20 a bottle, this is exceptionally good wine.  (Please note there are other special designate chardonnays from Vasse Felix, such as the Heytesbury and Adams Road Vineyard; these are more expensive, probably more akin to the Leeuwin Artist Series, and may not be as readily available.)

Vasse Felix Estate Chardonnay, Margaret River, 2012 is tightly structured but delicate with a chardonnay signature of mixed citrus and tart apple. Sweet vanilla and buttercream are there---but they never drown out the essential core of the wine. All the elements are distinct, but none are overdone; everything is held in perfect balance, with nothing ‘sticking out’.  The Vasse Felix is simply a pleasure to drink, and it remains bright and lively and vibrant until the last sip. Declaratively new world in style, yes; but undeniably a fine crafted wine.

And please notice that this lovely and balanced bottle was preserved in all its fresh glory by a screwcap.  Thank you, Vasse Felix.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Cassoulet at the Kesslers 2015: The Main Event

BettyLu called us to table.

We obediently filed into the dining room, peering at the names on the cards, looking for our seats, pleasantly relaxed by the lovely aperitif wines Lou had provided and eager for the meal to begin.

From his marvelous cellar….wait…what?...what? Ah ha, Lou has decided to depart from whatever we thought the traditions might be for cassoulet by offering up a Vermentinu  That’s right, a Vermentinu. Or Vermentino. Or Rolle, as in let the good times. It is the Antoine Arena Haut de Carco Patrimonio White, 2012, from the southerly part of Corsica.  That makes it French (unless you ask a Corsican), therefore not that great a departure perhaps.

Antoine Arena, now working with his two sons, produces fine Niellucciu reds and Vermentinu whites from several small plots of vineyards in the Patrimonio AOC.  The Haut de Carco is the newest, an escarpment of almost solid limestone looming over the Carco vineyard.  No vines had previously grown here, and the neighbors were intrigued and amused to watch the Arenas dig laboriously and dynamite extensively to prepare the ground. They were skeptical. To the surprise of everyone except the Arenas, the vines held, rooted in the cracks and crevices of the limestone.

Haut de Carco Blanc is enticing in the nose, with white flowers, sweet, fresh green hay, and luscious pear.  On the palate it’s firm and structured, lavish with its limestone mineral base and balanced with lively citrus tartness, with a piercing minerality and a tangy almost-bitterness asserting itself at the very end.

Scallop with Tangerine Sauce
The wine was quite delicious, and even more so as a fitting companion with the first course. BettyLu had prepared a delicious appetizer:  one perfect pan-sautéed scallop, seared outside and slightly caramelized but soft and sweet within, and accompanied by a resonant sauce of tangerine. Exquisite, and perfectly suiting the evening, preparing us for the main plate.

Prior to the cassoulet’s arrival, Lou introduced the accompanying red wine, another (slight) departure from the traditional Rhone wines usually served. I say slight because some years ago guest Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John had suggested that the wines of the Piedmont would do well matched with cassoulet.  Steve was right; the Piemontese nebbioli were remarkably good. So here we were again, this time with Luigi Scavino’s Azelia Barolo “Bricco Fiasco” 1996.

This wine…  This wine was so complex and sophisticated, so utterly satisfying and challenging, that I’ll give over my poor powers of description and let the good folks at K & L in San Francisco give their report, citing Tanzer and Parker, because I can’t better it.

93(+?) points Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar, Nov/Dec '00: "Very good deep red. Complex aromas of plum, black cherry, menthol, leather, game and smoked nuts. Sweet, rich and chewy; conveys an almost saline impression of extract. Lush and sweet but with powerful underlying spine. Finishes with substantial but harmonious tannins and superb persistence. Two years ago, this wine appeared to be more accessible than the San Rocco; today it the other way around." 91-93 points Robert Parker's Wine Advocate: "The 1996 Barolo Bricco Fiasco explodes with tobacco, balsam wood, cedar, tar, and the tell-tale cherry fruit. In the mouth, toasty oak makes an appearance. Full-bodied, tannic, deep, and powerful, with a huge impact and density, this modern-styled wine has the body and force of a more traditionally made Barolo. Anticipated maturity: 2004-2020." (08/99)

All I can add is that Tanzer’s description is spot on.

With such magnificent wine, a kind of wine that could easily mesmerize you into cradling and sipping all night attempting to penetrate its mysteries and plumb its depths, the accompanying food had to step up.  It did.

We all marveled at how BettyLu’s cassoulet gets better and better each year.  This year it was a feast for Gargantua and Pantagruel, positively packed with duck confit and plump sausages. The beans retained their integrity, neither hard nor mushy and the rich spicing and carnivorous flavors met and married the Azelia Barolo.

Cassoulet and Barolo
BettyLu lavishes a great deal of time and meticulous attention to all the details of her cassoulet dinners; Lou brilliantly supports her labors by enhancing the meal with perfect wine selections.  Add a lively, intelligent, and talkative crowd around the table and you have a dining event in the old style.

Now stuffed but obeying the propinquities of fine dining, we sipped on a port from Lou’s cellar, an amusing little Taylor Fladgate Vintage Oporto 1985. 

I have been a fan of the Taylor Fladgate style for many years; it is a bit more restrained, not quite as opulent as others, with great intensity rather than body. This one was in keeping with the house: rich but not over the top, solid berry fruits, inky purple-red color, and what seems to me to be a quintessentially English style.

(A moment of reminiscence here: some years ago when I was a retailer I had an elderly English couple come into the store, all tweedy and proper.We had a sale going, and the old gentleman wished to make a purchase. "Ten cases of the Taylor Fladgate 1966," he said. I hesitated a bit, not wishing to intrude on a customer's personal business, then remarked that was the largest single sale of port I'd ever made and I wondered if it were for entertaining or gifts?. He said, "No, not at all. We are getting on in years, and who knows what will happen. I am insuring that we have an adequate supply of our favorite Oporto to drink, so I am stocking the larder now."  I began drinking the Taylor Fladgate shortly afterwards, and have loved it every since.)

Dessert was a sweet-tooth extravaganza, a brobdingnagian slice of glorious excess in cake-pie form. We, all of us, marveled at it, and we, all of us, thought we’d never be able to finish the slice.  We, all of us, were wrong; we had underestimated how good it would be. For once a visual dessert also delivered in the eating of.  More kudos to BL.

Finally, the late hour, the over-indulgence in superb food and extensive consumption of remarkable wine began to take their toll, so we bid our farewells. Wanting for nothing but sleep, we each found our beds for the evening.

From all of us who have had the pleasure of cassoulet with Lou and BettyLu as hosts, here’s to them for putting on a memorable dinner.  We appreciate it deeply.