An Italian Dinner at Home

We began the evening with two brilliant Champagnes. The crystal clean 1996 Dom Pérignonexhibited loads of citrus and laser-like precision as well as tremendous intensity and palate saturation. This brilliant, zesty 1996 may be less plush than the compelling 1990. The slightly more oxidized style of the 1990 Bollinger R.D. is an acquired taste. It seems to evoke "love it or leave it" reactions in more tasters. I love it because of its white Burgundy-like creaminess and earthy, rich, full-bodied personality. The 1990 is a brilliant effort, but I must admit that its reception by our guests was extremely mixed. We then moved to two fabulous Chardonnays, both magnums. The young, still somewhat primary Aubert 2002 Chardonnay Quarry Vineyardis a fabulous offering with a leesy complexity as well as a Chassagne-Montrachet-like texture with the additional ripeness and glycerin afforded by the ripe fruit levels obtained in California. With very good acidity as well as tremendous purity, it is a gorgeous Chardonnay to drink over the next 3-5 years. There is only a handful of California Chardonnays that improve past 5-7 years of age, but the magnum of Peter Michael's 1997 Chardonnay Point Rouge is still beautifully fruited, offering notes of honeysuckle, smoke, earth, and good underlying acidity. Moreover, there are no signs of oxidation. The question is, is it any better than it was six years ago? I'm not sure, but I continue to be in favor of drinking the great California Chardonnays during their first 5-6 years of life.

The red wines included a succession of Châteauneuf du Papes that worked marvelously well with the earthy, grilled flavors of the shrimp dish, and the hearty, heavy duty lasagna. The lightest of the Châteauneufs was the fragrant 1994 Rayas, which again received mixed reactions from the dinner guests. I loved its kirsch and sweet cherry characteristics, but it comes across as a lightweight compared to the other reds served. I thought it to be outstanding, but this is not a great vintage for Châteauneuf du Pape. It should be consumed over the next 4-5 years. The 2000 Chapoutier Châteauneuf du Pape Croix de Bois (from magnum) revealed a heavier duty style with more glycerin and alcohol. It also possessed a classic kiss of kirsch liqueur intermixed with licorice, pepper, and loads of fruit in a perfumed, highly intoxicating style. In total contrast was the magnum of 2000 Pierre Usseglio Châteauneuf du Pape Cuvée de Mon Aïeul. Produced from old vine Grenache, with no exposure to oak, it is a completely different animal. Its dense ruby/purple color is accompanied by aromas and flavors of blackberries, blueberries, licorice, and a hint of acacia flowers. It tastes like Châteauneuf du Pape, but is totally unlike the Rayas. Still young and primary, with an unctuous texture, it was opened four hours before serving and was double decanted. It was even better the next day. This beauty should evolve gracefully for 15 or more years.

We then moved back in time with two bottles of Henri Bonneau's 1989 Châteauneuf du Pape Marie Beurrier. Sadly, both bottles had fecal/cesspool-like aromas that made them impossible to drink. It has been a while since I had the wine, but I remember having far more positive impressions of it. Having just had a 1990 Marie Beurrier that was pure nectar, I wondered if these were just bad bottles? That was easily made up with the brilliant performance of the 1985 Pégaü Châteauneuf du Pape Cuvée Réservée. I have had better bottles of this wine as well, but it is still an outstanding Châteauneuf du Pape. This particular bottle seemed more rustic with more intrusive tannin. The color remains a healthy dark plum/ruby to the rim, and the wine is full-bodied with loads of garrigue, kirsch, plum, fig, and animal notes. It is a rustic, traditionally-styled Châteauneuf, but this may be the lowest score I have given a wine from this vintage in the last 4-5 years.

An absolutely magnificent offering that was the "wine of the night" for me as well as most of my guests was a magnum of 1990 Clos des Papes Châteauneuf du Pape. I was lucky enough to purchase a good quantity of this wine, and I have been drinking it with great pleasure. Yet each magnum seems to get better and better as it gets older. This bottle was several years away from its apogée. Its gorgeous perfume of sandalwood, sweet cherries, spice box, and flowers was followed by a full-bodied, incredibly elegant, pure style. This Châteauneuf could easily be mistaken for a great grand cru red Burgundy in a blind tasting. At this point in the evening we ran out of wine, so I opened a magnum of Angelo Gaja's 1997 Sperss. Since I hadn't planned on serving it, I quickly double decanted it (it was at room temperature) . However, it was extremely young, primary, and unevolved. An impressively made wine with the wood component kept in the background, it boasted oodles of concentrated fruit, great delineation, a hint of Nebbiolo's tobacco leaf, licorice, and spice box components, and full-throttle, big, impeccably well-balanced flavors. Contrary to what some people said about the precocious 1997 vintage, it appeared to be 5-10 years away from full maturity.

As for the food, even though my wife and I both love to cook, we had purchased this dinner at a charity auction, and it was catered by a friend of ours in Monkton. She did a great job. All of the dishes had loads of flavor.

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