The Chop House

While in Chicago for Vin Expo America, I hosted a group of French wine producers at the Chop House. This charming, atmospheric restaurant offered classic steakhouse cuisine, including outstanding beef cooked to perfection. It was the perfect foil for the intensely flavored wines from California (and a few ringers).

All of the wines came from my cellar except for the non-vintage Taittinger Brut Française, which was a crisp, fresh Champagne revealing yeasty bread dough notes along with loads of fruit and a light to medium-bodied style. One of the greatest Chardonnays anyone could produce is the 2001 Peter Michael Chardonnay Point Rouge. A fabulous, limited production cuvée, which I had the good fortune to enjoy on two consecutive evenings, it possesses wonderfully intense tropical fruit notes backed up by minerality, honeysuckle, good structure, and a nearly endless finish. The terrific 1999 Marcassin Chardonnay Alexander Mountain estate came across as more Burgundian, revealing hazelnut, leesy orange rind, and lemon blossom characteristics. It exhibited a medium to full-bodied, earthy, more terroir-driven style than the complex, fruit and mineral-driven Point Rouge. The most restrained as well as mineral-filled Chardonnay was the impressive 2002 Ambullneo Big Paw from Santa Maria. This is the debut release from this producer, who seems destined to make impressive Chardonnays as well as Pinot Noirs. Made in a grand cru Chablis-like style, it came across as restrained and French-like after the two more exotic, exuberant North Coast Chardonnays.

The three most stunning Cabernet / Merlot offerings included the perfect 1997 Bryant Family Vineyard, which several of my French guests thought was the greatest California wine they had ever tasted. A tour de force, it is unquestionably the finest Cabernet Sauvignon Bryant Family produced under Helen Turley's regime. It was nearly matched by one of the great sleeper wines of the last decade, Dalla Valle's 1998 Maya. This vintage was highly criticized by many California-based writers, and there were certainly some unsuccessful wines, particularly in the mountain vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, but this is a spectacular effort. While possessing tremendous complexity, wonderful density, and great length, it appears to be evolving at a faster pace than most Dalla Valles. It should drink well for another 10-15 years. Equally spectacular was the 1999 Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Hillside Select. This fabulously concentrated Cabernet is one of the candidates for wine of the vintage, a very good, but not great year for Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa and Sonoma. Other fine wines included a very young, awkward, but tasty 1999 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, which revealed aromas and flavors of pure crème de cassis, and the chocolatey, lush, opulent 1997 Pahlmeyer Merlot. The still tannic, young yet impressive 1996 Peter Michael Les Pavots was one of the darkest Cabernets, equaled in color saturation only by Shafer's Hillside Select.

We then moved to a fascinating flight of top Syrahs. The extraordinary Sine Qua Non 2001 Midnight Oil exhibited notes of bacon fat, blackberry liqueur, a hint of cassis, and licorice in a full-bodied, pure, well-delineated style. Although still an infant, it has wonderful accessibility, and held its own against the succession of Cabernets that preceded it. The wood component was beautifully concealed beneath a wealth of fruit and concentration. In contrast, the 1996 Astralis, the top cuvée of Syrah from Clarendon Hills, which has been relatively closed since its release, displays a saturated ruby/purple color to the rim as well as a big, spicy, peppery nose revealing a notion of blackberries. It remains tight and unyielding, tasting more like a French Syrah than the exotic, exuberant Midnight Oil. I would not open a bottle of the Astralis for another 3-4 years. In retrospect, I would have had the Midnight Oil and some of the Cabernets decanted many hours in advance if time had permitted.

We finished with an excellent, but somewhat uninspiring 1999 Yquem, which revealed a hint of volatile acidity along with lovely orange marmalade notes intermixed with notions of tropical fruits and coconut. While good, it is not a great effort from this hallowed estate. In contrast, the 1967 Yquem was brilliant. Its medium amber color was followed by an incredibly complex perfume of crème brûlée, toffee, caramel, and Grand Marnier. The finish went on and on.

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