I took my orthopedic doctor out to dinner as a way of saying thank you for the terrific job he did on my total knee replacement in early January. (As a side note, anyone who is faced with this operation should realize that while the first month is not for sissies, there is rather dramatic improvement beginning around week five. The first four weeks were not easy, and physical therapy was difficult. For me, it wasn’t so much an issue of pain management, but rather the inability to sleep and get used to the titanium prosthesis in my right leg. As readers may know, eight weeks after the surgery, I went to Bordeaux for two weeks, and seven months later, the knee feels great.) While I was thanking him, he brought the finest wine of the night, in fact, two great wines, a 1989 and 1990 Châteauneuf du Pape from the arch-traditionalist, Henri Bonneau. Prior to opening those bottles, we started with a gorgeous 2009 Aubert Chardonnay Larry Hyde Vineyard that seemed richer and more intense than I remember it being prior to bottling. Both 2009 and 2010 northern California vintages will be more restrained, lower alcohol vintages because of the weather conditions the region experienced. However, this is no wimpish wine. We next had the 2006 Marcassin Chardonnay Estate, which seemed closed, and, remarkably, younger than the Aubert even though it is three years older. Loaded with potential, it reveals more earthiness and structure than the Aubert as well as a deep inner-core of fruit and richness. As longtime readers know, I have never been a great believer in the ageability of California Chardonnays, but I must say I am increasingly surprised by how well the finest age, especially those from Marcassin. Going back to the mid-nineties, assuming they have been well-stored, they are all in great shape. The 2006 Chardonnay Estate appears to have 12-15 years of life remaining.
We decided to enjoy the two Henri Bonneau Châteauneuf du Pape Réserve des Céléstins while the night was young, and both vintages expressed almost perfectly the two contrasting styles produced in Châteauneuf du Pape in 1989 and 1990. Both were hot years, but the difference is that 1989 was much drier, whereas 1990 had sufficient rain. 1990 was also slightly hotter, although both were well above average heat years. Alcohol levels in Châteauneuf du Pape are high to begin with (a minimum of 13.5% is required by law, but most producers routinely hit 14 to 14.5%), and I suspect Bonneau’s two vintages achieved in excess of 15%. In fact, I doubt that he, or his father or grandfather, who made wines as far back as the thirties, ever made any Réserve des Céléstins with less than 15% alcohol. Additionally, the drought year of 1989 has always given the 1989s a closed, firm but impressive constitution. They have taken an exceptionally long time to shed their tannins and fully expose their personalities. The 1989 Réserve des Céléstins is a late adolescent, and while still youthful, is very complex exhibiting tell-tale Bonneau notes of beef blood, sautéed porcini mushrooms, new saddle leather, kirsch liqueur, spice box and aged fresh beef. It offers an extraordinary explosion of aromatics that most wine lovers will adore. If you are looking for straightforward fruit smells, this is not the wine to contemplate. Full-bodied and powerful with tannins to shed, this big Châteauneuf du Pape has another 10, 15, perhaps 20 years of life left in it. In contrast, 1990 has always been one of those magical vintages where the wines were gorgeous to drink upon release and have never gone through a dormant stage. Some of the Châteauneuf du Papes dominated by Mourvèdre have remained firmer structured, but the wines dominated by Grenache have been the best drinking vintages ever in Châteauneuf du Pape. I suspect 2007 is a modern day version of 1990, although 2007 was not as hot as 1990, nor were yields as high. Nevertheless, the 1990 Réserve des Céléstins remains one of the most monumental wines I have ever tasted. It is fully mature and unlikely to get any better. The color is slightly lighter than the 1989's with more amber at the edge, but the incredible sweet cassis, black cherry jam, incense, earth, garrigue, smoked game and balsamic notes are to die for. Velvety textured, voluptuous and silky, this is a remarkable wine.
We then changed gears and moved into two much young Châteauneuf du Papes from magnum. One of the ten or twelve greatest 2003 Châteauneuf du Papes is the Janasse Vieilles Vignes, a wine that is close to full maturity. It is a gorgeous example revealing Grenache’s textbook notes of kirsch, lavender and licorice. Full-bodied, opulent, flashy, succulent and velvety-textured, it should continue to drink well for another 5-10 years. Much younger, firmer and more structured is the 2004 Clos St.-Jean Châteauneuf du Pape Deus Ex-Machina, a blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Mourvèdre. Possibly the “wine of the vintage,” it is extremely rich, concentrated and young. A dense purple color is followed by notes of fresh mushrooms, blueberries, blackberries, incense and camphor. This stunning magnum would benefit from another 2-3 years of bottle age.
The food from this well-known BYOB Italian bistro was, as usual, top-flight. The homemade ravioli stuffed with wild mushrooms was sensational as was Chef Luca’s veal scallopini layered with eggplant, mozzarella and a fresh, light tomato sauce. I had a taste of my wife’s veal florentine, a veal chop stuffed with spinach, that was also sensational.
I can’t recommend Vito’s Café highly enough for those who live in this area.
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Petit Louis Bistro
A lookalike, authentic French bistro, Petit Louis in Baltimore's Roland Park is the creation of restauranteurs par excellence Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman. You feel like you’ve walked into a bistro on the Left Bank of Paris when you enter Petit Louis. The food is classic bistro, and they do it well. All of the courses we had were flavorful, sometimes a trifle rustic, but delicious in their intensity. This was good comfort food prepared extremely well. The wines started with one of the major surprises for me over the last year, the 2006 sparking wine from Tony Soter in Oregon. I had this several times while I was out visiting Oregon, and I had always been impressed, but this is a 10-year-old sparking Rosé that is just sensational, and I’m talking world class—it’s that good. Something this good from France would cost at least two to three times as much, so kudos to Tony Soter. The 1995 Billaud-Simon Chablis Mont de Milieu was oxidized and undrinkable. The 1996 Zind-Humbrecht Pinot Gris Clos St. Urbain Rangen de Thann was sweet, and although it went well with the foie gras, it was just a little too unctuous and sweet a wine...