Monday, January 30, 2012

 Cassoulet 2012, Part 1:  The Readiness Is All

It wasn’t hard for us to get on the plane.  Cold and wet in Portland; dry and sunny in SoNapanoma.  Nope, not difficult at all.  Especially when the short trip was to culminate in BettyLu’s Cassoulet Dinner. Double incentives, as it were.

Yep, another year had passed and the first signal event of the new year was at hand.  This is one dinner we insist on attending---as long as they keep inviting us; we’ll be there!

Roxi was assisting BL this year as scullery maid and sous chef, hoping to give BL just a bit of relief.  That gave me a ringside seat, along with my host Lou, the other supervisor, into the mass of details that goes into preparing a home dinner for ten.

Roxi, Sous Chef du Jour
Of course, BL had been meticulously planning and preparing for this meal for several months, and Roxi and I were seeing only the last couple of days, but busy days they were. The two of them toiled in the kitchen endlessly, making sure every single element of the meal was to BettyLu’s exacting standards.  Best of all, they seemed to be having fun doing it.

Lou and I were exhausted.

But it was finally coming on to the time when the guests would start arriving.  All was in readiness (and as Shakespeare says, the readiness is all.)

To ease us into the evening, Lou had already opened a Fiano di Avellino, Colli di Lapio Romano Clelia, 2009.  Unfortunately it didn’t get the attention it deserved (there was a football game on, and we were doubly counting down minutes), but it was bright and lovely, crisp and lemony-fruity with a little almond flower and a corresponding light lift of minerality to it.  Very pleasant.

As our dinner companions, all familiar from past years, chatted and hugged, we settled in to a night of camaraderie, great food, and great wine. Acerbic Alan Bree was there, with the lovely Katrina.  The good doctor, Mark Anisman, showed up with a smiling Mariko (who we missed last year because of her charity work for the Japanese tsunami).  The legendary Jason Brandt Lewis and his legal adviser, renowned Berkeley Barrister Lynn Gorelick, arrived.  Since it was Jason, he arrived with a bottle in hand (tequila, not wine) and a detailed story on his lips.  With Roxi and me, and our hosts, that made ten.

When the guests arrived, Lou had the wines prepped and in full array.  It was an intriguing line up of whites for our delectation.  A returning champion, fondly remembered, the do Ferreira Albariño Cepas Vellas, Rias Baixas, 2006 was shiveringly good, richer and more taut than a ‘regular’ Albariño ever could be, what with its massive, almost brobdingnagian old vines yielding little of volume but much of flavor.  The best and brightest and deepest Albariño I’ve ever had, for sure.

Another repeat performance, and again applauded for its startling ability to alter as it ages, constantly showing a changing face of Sauvignon Blanc, from crisp intensity to the softness of sage, from gunflint (no, seriously) to plump melons, once again a standout for its profound ability to age, the always appreciated Sancerre Chavignol Clos la Neore, 2008, by Edmond Vatan stood proudly on the bar.

Little Orange
Almost in counterpoint a new Young Turk shows up.  It’s the Cowan Cellars Isa Sauvignon Blanc, Lake County, 2010.  For an upstart from some young whippersnapper named Jim Cowan, it actually holds its own in company with the Neore.  It’s a skin-fermented Sauvignon, what you might call Baby Orange wine as it is young for such and just now peeking out.  It would be interesting to track the development of this infant to see what happens here.  There is much in the way of promise.

A bit softer, but not by much, and certainly rounder and fatter, sort of like a stolid German hausfrau, a little heavy on pounds but packed with power, the Weingut Köfererhof Kerner, 2009, is something of a revelation that could only come, I believe, from that curious combination of Alpine Deutsch-Italien particular to the Trentino-Alto Adige.  Take a grape that hasn’t shown much in another place and make it something special and interesting in this place; that seems to be the beau ideal for the Alto-Adige, doesn’t it?  This Kerner has depth I’ve never been able to attribute to the variety before.

Herb Crackers, pre-baking
Interlude:  Keep in mind that while we were drinking these lovely beverages, there was fascinating conversation---I will remind you that JBL, Bree and Anisman were in residence and in fine form, and Lou got his timely comment in every now and then, and none of the ladies was in the least bit shy to tell any of us we were full of it---and our hostess was plying us with some tasty tidbits while giving the impression that, la di da, she had just whipped them up on the spur of the moment, it was nothing.  I knew better, of course, as I had watched BL and Roxi prepare them.

Passing in constant succession were spicy herb crackers (like me, rolled by Roxi), habit forming little squares that set off the wine perfectly; deep-fried arancini balls, crispy outside and creamy-oozy in; chutney and currant spread on pita bread (yum); prosciutto and melted teleme cheese on sesame rounds, and chile and lime crab on water crackers with chive dressing.

The aperitif WOTN had to be the astonishing and audacious Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Reserva “White”, Rioja, 1992.  If the Cowan Isa was Baby Orange, this is the Big Orange, what all other orange wines should aspire to.  More a brassy brownish yellow than orange, of course.  And most lovers of squeaky-clean-wine-to-look-at wine would be offput by the mere sight of it.  “This is white wine?  This isn’t white wine. Isn’t it spoiled? Probably way over the hill.”

Big Orange
This wine hasn’t even seen a hill to get over yet.  It’s a baby at, what, 19.  Okay, it’s an adolescent; I’ll give you that. Amazing and confounding in its profound complexity, the Tondonia is young and brash and middle-aged and mature, both at the same time.  There’s obvious oxidation, yes, but it melds into the succulence and chewy grip of the wine in such a way as to be an adjunct to the overall quality and complexity rather than a detractor.  It’s oxidative development as a way to deepen the flavors and add new layers of flavors at the same time.  

And the key element is there is still plenty of fruit here.  And heightened minerality.  And sufficient acidity to keep everything bright.  Both mellow and vibrant, if you can imagine that. Perhaps a stretch of analogy, but I liken the Tondonia to old copper: there’s a fascinating patina of strangely metallic green that makes the copper more intriguing, but there’s still the gleam and glisten of young and vibrant copper below that. See how a wine can compel us to wax in poor fumbling poesy to explain it?

How do I describe the taste?  I don’t.  You’ll have to go out and purchase a bottle yourself; this is an experiential wine.   Get over your age preconceptions, because this wine will knock them all askew anyway.  True, you’ll either like it or hate it; but you will definitely learn something from it.  And that’s quite a statement for a bottle of wine, innit.

But enough of the preliminaries, delightful as they were. You’re eager for the Dinner.  And you’ll get that narrative when I post, Cassoulet 2012, Part 2: The Main Event.