Charleston, Charity Dinner

  • Robert M. Parker, Jr.

  • 05 Jul 2009 | Events

This was an enjoyable evening of terrific wines (from my cellar) and fine food prepared by Baltimore’s most brilliant chef, Cindy Wolf, at her beloved Charleston restaurant. A group from Charlotte, North Carolina flew in for this charity event that benefitted a well-known hospice in that city. As always, Chef Wolf’s food is as good as it gets, beginning with her world-class cornmeal fried oysters. She also demonstrated her terrific talent as a sushi chef with her Irish salmon tartare and yellowfin tuna tartare with Ossetra caviar. No one makes better soup than Charleston, and the cauliflower soup with pan-seared sea scallop was sensational, as was the pan-roasted turbot. The quail dish was a whole quail cooked very rare, which few of the guests enjoyed. Cindy Wolf has a wonderful quail dish that she often prepares, and I should have requested that one. I just don’t enjoy bloody birds, and from what I heard at the table, no one else did either. We finished strongly with one of Chef Wolf’s great dishes, the pork confit with fried green tomatoes. While I drank the dessert wine, I did not taste the almond butterscotch cake. In an attempt to keep my waistline in check (no easy task given my hedonistic tendencies), I usually pass on dessert.

The wines began with the Bruno Paillard Brut Millésimé 1996 Assemblage, which is a very good, somewhat under-the-radar, medium-bodied Champagne that is still fresh and lively with plenty of citrus. The flight of Chardonnays did not elicit as many “wow’s” as I expected. Everyone’s favorite was the Aubert 2004 Lauren, closely followed by the Marcassin 2004 Estate. The latter wine was more closed and slightly earthier without the vivid fruit display of Aubert’s 2004 Lauren. The 2003 Peter Michael Ma Belle Fille was outstanding, and the 1997 Marcassin Gauer Ranch-Upper Barn is still rich and vibrant. I had had a much better bottle a few weeks earlier, but it is not unexpected to find some bottle variation with a 12 year old California Chardonnay.

We then moved to a flight of one of my favorite white wines from the Central Coast, the limited production Sine Qua Non blends of Roussanne, Viognier, and Chardonnay. The 2004 The Rejuvenators and 2006 Hoodoo Man were the two finest dry whites we had. Both offered incredible aromatic displays of tropical fruits, honeysuckle, and marmalade along with great acidity, precision, purity, and length. The 2002 Whisperin’ E, one of my favorite wines, was just a bad bottle. It was not corked, but just off and very flat, which is completely at odds with every other bottle I have had.

The “theme” for this evening was “New World Wines,” with the only exception being the Champagne. I pulled out some of the most limited production, high quality Cabernet Sauvignons from my cellar, and finished with a knock-out vertical of the Sine Qua Non Syrah. The first flight of reds was spectacular. Surprisingly, the weakest wine was the 2002 Peter Michael Les Pavots. This is a gorgeous wine, so perhaps this was a slightly off bottle, but it seemed muted, in a closed, dumb, monolithic style. The 2001 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon did not perform as well as I would have expected based on my past tastings. It is an outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon, but it was blown away by four other wines in that flight. The fabulous, inky/purple-tinged 2003 Sloan Cabernet Sauvignon boasts notes of roasted coffee, crème de cassis, toast, smoke, and earth. Full-bodied, rich, sensationally pure, and packed and stacked, it is a young red displaying remarkable potential. It should evolve for another 20-30 years. Consistently one of California’s most brilliant wines is the 2,000 case production of Shafer Vineyards’ Hillside Select. If the 2001 and 2002 are close to perfection, the 2003 is not far behind. This wine tasted like a great first-growth Pauillac, but with more power and density of fruit. With a sensational purple color, superb aromatics, firm but silky tannins, and a multilayered mouthfeel, this is an amazing wine. It is uncanny how the Shafer family can turn out such brilliant wines year in and year out. What a shame production is not higher. The Bryant Family Vineyard is another grand cru site in Napa Valley not far from Lake Hennessy. The 2003 Bryant Family Cabernet Sauvignon is the first vintage where then winemaker Philippe Melka controlled the viticulture and the winemaking. The result is a brilliant wine from a vintage that is probably underrated coming after two monumental years for Napa Cabernet, 2002 and 2001. Extraordinary notes of blueberry liqueur intermixed with acacia flowers, spice, and background oak are followed by a layered, full-bodied wine with amazing persistence, richness, and length. The outlier in this flight was the Quilceda Creek 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington state ... and it was the star of the flight. The fact that it is about one-third the price of the other Cabernets should send a strong message to those who have access to it. A remarkable Cabernet Sauvignon of great purity, it offers beautiful crème de cassis fruit, an earthy component, plenty of tannin and structure, and a freshness and delineation that are admirable. To reiterate, the 2001 Screaming Eagle was outstanding. A delicious wine, if it were tasted alone, without any competition, I am sure it would have scored slightly higher. However, it did not reveal as much character and richness as I have seen in the past.

The next flight of reds, older wines that are still very young, was also impressive. All of the wines, with the exception of the 1991 Stag’s Leap Cask 23, are far from full maturity. The 1994 Dominus has always performed well, and it remains at a plateau of perfection and richness. The 1995 Plumpjack Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve (from cork, not screw cap) was young, huge, and chewy, but still so backward. Initially, the 1994 Dominus threw off a hint of brett, but that disappeared as the fruit came forward. This remains one of the three or four finest wines made by Christian Moueix at this hallowed vineyard in Yountville. As mentioned, the 1991 Stag’s Leap Cask 23 is fully mature, and was the only wine to reveal some amber at the edge. Elegant and rich, for me it is the last great Cask 23 since a period of mediocrity began. The 1991 Harlan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon tasted like a classic Pauillac. Exhibiting an inky/ruby/purple color that has not yet begun to lighten, along with notes of cedar, crème de cassis, spice box, and earth, noticeable tannins, and a full-bodied, concentrated style, this still young 1991 will not hit its peak for another 3-5 years. Even more backward was the 1991 Seavey Cabernet Sauvignon. This should go down as one of the most legendary wines made in California, yet few people understand just how great it is. Moreover, there have been other vintages since the 1991 that are just as good. The opaque inky/black color is followed by stunning aromas of melted asphalt, black truffles, crème de cassis, earth, and forest floor. Massive and full-bodied with well-integrated tannins and an incredibly long, promising style, it may last another 50 years. The 1996 Pahlmeyer is drinking beautifully. While it needs several more years to hit full maturity, it is closer to that plateau than the Seavey, Harlan, or Plumpjack. It exhibits sweet black cherry and black currant fruit intermixed with background toast, smoke, and earth, full body, and no hard edges.

The final flight was terrific. The recently released Sine Qua Non 2006 Syrah Raven was a beautiful wine of purity, balance, and elegance. The 2005 Sine Qua Non Atlantis Syrah was a more European-styled effort without the weight, power, and density of the three wines that followed. However, it offered beautiful fruit, plenty of blackberry, cassis, and floral notes along with a meaty component in the mouth. While less evolved than the Raven. When I put my nose into the 2004 Poker Face, it was almost impossible to go back to the previous two wines. Pure perfection, it is an extraordinary wine of great power, multidimensional flavors, and a stunning perfume of bacon fat, barbecue spices, blackberries, cassis, licorice, pepper, and earth. In the mouth, it is voluptuous and decadently rich, but remarkably well-balanced and pure. A wine I may have underrated (I was tempted to give it a perfect score also) is the 2003 Syrah Papa. The finest showing I have seen of this wine, it stood head to head with the Poker Face. While perhaps slightly less concentrated and nuanced, it is a phenomenal offering from one of California’s true geniuses of winemaking and viticulture. This flight ended with the 2004 Sine Qua Non Ode to E, which needs an additional 4-5 years of bottle age. A massive wine, I would not be surprised to see it turn out every bit as good as the Poker Face or Papa. It is a brawnier, richer, more structured, denser Syrah that needs plenty of aeration. Keep in mind that all the Syrahs and Cabernets were double decanted 2-3 hours before the dinner.

We finished with the 2004 Sine Qua Non Mr. K. The Strawman, which I notated with the word “RIP” on the menu as this is one of the last wines to come from the late Alois Kracher working in conjunction with Manfred Krankl. A brilliant effort, it offers lots of marmalade, complexity, an unctuous texture, good acidity, and tremendous purity with high sweetness (but it is not cloying because of the good acidity). One couldn’t help but feel some sadness because of the premature death of Alois Kracher several years ago due to pancreatic cancer.

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