The Wine Exchange
Allen R. Balik
Kicking-off ’23 with a fond look back
It seems like every year, as January 1st approaches, I resolve to dig deep in the cellar and pull some treasured “oldies” to enjoy and share with others in the New Year. However, as with so many “resolutions” that doesn’t always happen. But, this year got off to a rollicking start!
Toward the end of January, I was looking through the cellar for a well-aged Cabernet to accompany grilled lamb chops we were having for dinner. I spotted the 1985 Trefethen Hillside Selection (a designation the Trefethens decided to later drop in respect to John Shafer’s Hillside Select) and thought it would be a perfect choice.
And so it was. The aromatics were engaging and the palate displayed an expressive range of secondary and tertiary flavors that drew me into the glass. The structure and balance were impeccable and the sweet tannins framed the entire experience. Its youthful flair has melded into an adult that reflects everything I would hope for in a wine of this stature with almost 40 years of age. It then improved over the next couple days to extend the pleasure.
So that was a great entry to 2023, however, the month of February proved a gold mine of discovery with older vintages from our cellar and those of close friends shared on several occasions.
Last May, my wife Barbara and I partnered with Joel Tavizon of downtown Napa’s Celadon Restaurant to offer a unique evening of wine and food as a featured lot in our 33rd annual Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s “A Culinary Evening with the California Winemasters” auction held at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California.
This dinner for eight featured an inspired 5-course menu paired to wines from our cellar from the seventies, eighties, nineties and aughts. It was purchased at the Premium Bid by Napa residents Anna and Roger MacAllen and held in early February. Joel and I created the menu, and under the skillful hand of Chef Antonio Ramirez, each course was spectacular and perfectly paired to the wines.
This became an ideal excuse to finally keep my resolution and begin my quest to savor some great oldies from the cellar. And this was just the start of a robust month when some great wines and special times were enjoyed with others as well.
Our Celadon dinner began with a range of delectable hors d’oeuvres including a tasty smoked mozzarella arancini, chicken in tender lettuce cups with Thai peanut sauce and a crostini with wild mushrooms and truffle oil. All were paired to the vinous “baby” of the evening. The delightful 2008 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs from the “aughts” that was still very youthful and engaging with a delicate mousse and brightness from nose to finish.
The next course was our first step into the “nineties” with a delectable filet of branzino over an intriguing couscous with golden raisins and toasted almonds paired to a 1991 Peter Michael Chardonnay Clos du Ciel. This was definitely the most creative pairing of the evening and one I will always remember.
The Peter Michael Clos du Ciel is drinking at its peak and (like some other wines of the evening) is now at a plateau that promises to continue for several years. As lovers of old white Burgundies know, the aromatics and flavors of a classic Chardonnay tend to morph into complex and seemingly caramelized notes with age. Thankfully, after 31 years this was certainly the case here. This unique Burgundian note was the perfect match to the restrained yet enticing sweetness of the couscous and the inviting texture of the branzino.
The second course took us into the “eighties” with a 1989 Château Beycheville from Bordeaux’s St. Julien appellation. 1989 was the star of the critically acclaimed trifecta of 1988 (understated and elegant), 1989 (bold and deeply structured) and 1990 (rich and opulent) when it came to ultimate ageability. I have always looked at Beycheville as the “Burgundy” of Bordeaux displaying beautifully balanced elegance in a more feminine style than its neighbors in the Médoc region.
We paired the Beycheville with a delicious cavatappi pasta in a duck ragu with porcini mushrooms. The duck was a complementary pairing to the wine’s brilliant, elegant and restrained hints of red fruit while the mushrooms offered a contrasting note with their earthy quality. A fabulous wine not yet at its peak with years of growth and enjoyment ahead.
Our main course was a rack of lamb beautifully plated with cippolini onions and haricot verts atop a bed of creamy polenta and topped with a rosemary lamb jus. Here we stepped into the “seventies” with selections from Napa Valley (1976 Joseph Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon) and Bordeaux (1978 Château Cos d’Estournel from Bordeaux’s St. Estéphe appellation in the north).
The Phelps Cabernet delivered everything you would want from the drought stricken 1976 vintage with mouth-filling textural appeal accompanying the dominant tertiary aromatics and flavors. 1978 was one of Bordeaux’s top vintages of the 1970s but somewhat unfairly underrated when compared to 1970 and 1975. Cos d’Estournel was a lively counterpart to the Phelps Cabernet resting comfortably at the top of its plateau and positioned to continue delivering abundant charm in future years.
For dessert, we stepped back into the “nineties” with a 1994 Warre’s Vintage Port paired with a dark chocolate pot de crème for the sweet match and Stilton cheese for the salty textural contrast. 1994 was one of the few vintages of the 1990s that was universally declared by the Port and Douro Wines Institute (IVDP) in conjunction with a majority of the respective producing houses.
A bit on the more elegant side of other Vintage Ports and years away from its peak, the 1994 Warre’s was a delight to enjoy after the meal paired to contrasting elements on the plate. Vintage Ports are bottled after just two years in cask and destined for long-term development in the bottle as opposed to their Tawny siblings that are often aged for decades in cask and are at their peak when bottled. At 28 years of age, I found this Warre’s remarkably youthful and am looking forward to enjoying it again over the years as it continues to mature in the bottle.
A few nights later, Barbara and I joined good friends Suzie and Paul Frank of Glass Slipper Vineyard in Coombsville (also founders of Gemstone in Yountville) and restauranteurs Deborah and Robert Simon of Bistro 45 in Pasadena for dinner at Cole’s Chop House in downtown Napa. No dedicated pairings for this social evening, just the wines we brought to enjoy with each other.
Dinner began with a 1985 Château Léoville-Las Cases (Bordeaux’s St. Julian) from our cellar then continued with 1990 Domaine Armand Rousseau Clos de la Roche Grand Cru (Burgundy) from the Franks and concluded with the Simon’s 2006 Vega Sicillia Unico (Spain’s Ribera del Duero). A great selection that covered all the bases from the elegance and aged complexity of the Léoville-Las Cases to the mid-life beauty and charm of the Clos de la Roche and concluding with the heft, depth and brawn of the Unico.
Later that week we headed south to Hermosa Beach to spend a few days with our son Randy’s family and then Super Bowl Sunday at the home of good friends Sharon and Hal Lampert in Sherman Oaks.
At Randy and Noelle’s, we were treated to a not-so-oldie 2009 Patz & Hall Chardonnay Dutton Ranch that displayed a deep golden hue and a sense of age on the nose followed by a lengthy youthful expression on the palate and finish. It appears to be nearing its peak with several good years still ahead.
We brought a 1985 Château Lynch-Bages from Bordeaux’s Pauillac region (home to three of the five First Growths of Bordeaux). Fifth Growth Château Lynch-Bages is often referred to as a “mini-Mouton” (a reference to Bordeaux’s First Growth Château Mouton Rothschild) and stands side-by-side with the “Super-Seconds” in price, prestige and collectability.
The Lynch-Bages lived up to its treasured reputation of the “iron fist in a velvet glove” so often related to Mouton. The light garnet hue with traces of youthful ruby gave a hint of what was to come. Earth and tobacco accentuated the nose with a touch of red berries in the background. The palate was an expression of power balanced with elegance and dominated by secondary and tertiary flavors and texture followed by finely layered finish. Definitely at its peak and proceeding on its plateau trajectory.
At the Lampert’s Super Bowl day, everyone brings a bottle from its 10th anniversary year to accompany a never ending stream of dishes from the kitchen. In keeping with the tradition, there was a broad range of wines from 2013 to enjoy during and after the game. Prior to kick-off, Hal poured several non-traditional Italian blends including the 1988 and 1998 vintages of the famed Super Tuscans Tignanello, Ornellaia and Sassicaia with a ringer of 2011 Massetto,
Both Ornellaias were the stars of the show displaying power and grace with a richness on the nose and palate that drew me into the glass. The Sassacaias were similar in nature with the 1988 showing a bit more maturity and nearer to its peak of enjoyment. The Tignanellos, with their emphasis on Sangiovese, were a notch behind showing a more accelerated aging pattern but holding on to a layer of deep complexity.
The Massetto (100% Merlot from Tuscany’s Bolgheri region) was far younger than the others and dominated on the “power” scale with richness, depth and concentration so representative of its historic bottlings. It was a great complement to the other wines in the group and completed a welcomed journey through some of Italy’s most stellar wines and growing areas.
February is almost over and I’m looking forward to savoring more oldies through the coming months at a more relaxed pace. Being able to properly cellar and age fine wines is part of the joy of collecting, but sharing these gems in their “adult years” with friends and family is surely the reward of collecting.
Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article with an e-mail to me at email@example.com.
Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 40 years.