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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

My 1983-Themed 30th Birthday

Anyone who knows me even fairly well has probably already come to the conclusion that I have a morbid (and probably unreasonable) fear of aging.  I’m not sure why I have this fear, but it’s been going on for some time now.  It’s as if I can’t bear the thought of time passing as quickly as it does, and I can’t even think about what marks the passage of time leaves on me, both physically and mentally.  It was as if I wanted to freeze time, for some reason.  I beam each time I’m asked for my ID before being served or sold wine, and this year I was asked once if I was playing hooky from the local high school, and (being a regular Sunday churchgoer), one morning this past year I walked into church and a lady instructed me to go sit at the front of the church “with the other confirmation candidates” - imagine how happy I was!

1983 Dom Perignon
Well, the inevitable happened this past week - I turned 30.  It’s something I was dreading, both the actual thing of leaving my 20s and also the idea of admitting that I’m 30 now, and the idea of others finding out.  Don’t ask me why it became such an obsession of mine, because I can’t find a completely logical reason for it, but I literally waited up as the clock struck midnight and I turned 30, as if I expected to turn into a pumpkin or something like that, or perhaps the governor would come through and issue a pardon, allowing me to remain at 29 indefinitely.  Whatever the case may be, I had no choice but to turn 30.

In the lead-up to that day, I decided I’d have a small birthday party for myself - with wines all from the 1983 vintage.  Imagine that - well, yes, it was kind of expensive, but it was completely worth it.

On the actual day of my birthday, my boyfriend instructed me to close my eyes and put out my hands - and much to my surprise, he placed a box in them - with a bottle of 1983 Dom Perignon in it!  (I hadn’t purchased any 1983 Champagne for the party so that was exciting!)  While the wine was a little bit tired and showing its age, it was such an awesome thing and worth experiencing.  (And the box and bottle are beautiful!)

And then over the weekend it was time for the party - it was a small gathering, but if it had been lots of guests, there never would have been enough of those bottles to go around.

1983 - the lineup from start to finish
I did some serious homework and preparation while getting ready for the party - I wanted to choose only bottles from reputable places and from regions that were particularly good in 1983.  I chose a Mosel, an Alsatian white, 3 Bordeaux reds, a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, an Amarone, a Sauternes, and a Port.  (And, truth be told, I was a nervous wreck right before opening the bottles, for fear of at least one of them not showing well - lucky for me, they were all amazing.)  I decanted each of the reds (and used a candle under each of them - which I highly recommend doing if you’re decanting, especially with older bottles - you don’t want to be drinking sediment!), and just getting the corks out was scary enough - the only two that came out effortlessly were the Trimbach Clos Ste Hune and Beaucastel.

I chose the German Riesling to start - the Bollig-Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Auslese from Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (and there was something cool about the label at the top of the bottle telling me it was a product of West Germany - I had forgotten there was still a Cold War on when I was born!) - and it was lovely.  Clean and still fairly light in color, with lots of orchard fruit that was only just barely beginning to appear like dry fruit, and plenty of acidity, the wine was still showing beautifully and it was a perfect start to the evening.  It was paired with Comte cheese and prosciutto di Parma.  The subtle nuttiness and mild nature of the cheese and the salty yet complex prosciutto were a wonderful match for the fruit and clean feel of the Riesling.

Lobster Salad
The next Riesling was something I was extremely excited about - the Trimbach Clos Ste Hune Vendange Tardive from Alsace - the heralded wine from a heralded vintage in the region was all I read about in the immediate lead-up to the dinner party.  And as hard as it was to believe, the wine was even better than I had anticipated it would be - still really holding up well, in fact I think it’s got more time - still plenty of fruit, mostly orchard and some tropical with a bit of candied citrus, with floral notes, stony mineral, and just a hint of petrol toward the back - and a light golden color - it was wonderful and showed plenty of acidity.  It was a perfect pairing with my appetizer creation - a lobster salad of fresh chilled lobster with a bit of chopped celery and a touch of shallot, on a bed of Boston lettuce and frisee, and a dressing/marinade of fresh lemon juice, olive oil, kosher salt, black pepper, dill, parsley, and tarragon.

Next up were the 3 Bordeaux - the braised lamb shanks were taking a while longer than expected to cook once they were in the oven (in fact I usually cook them for just over 2 hours, but this time it took almost 3 hours) - the lamb shanks were braised and then cooked in Pinot Noir and beef broth with kosher salt, black pepper, fresh garlic, rosemary, parsley, and a bit of lemon, and they were absolutely delicious.  But since they were taking a while, I started decanting the Bordeaux, and we sipped.  First was a Pomerol, the Chateau la Croix de Gay - and being a Right Bank Bordeaux, it’s mostly Merlot with some Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.  And I felt a little more confident after smelling and tasting that red and observing it in the decanter and then in the glass, that 1983 reds could hold up as well as their white counterparts.  All 3 Bordeaux still had a bright red rim with a dark core - I thought there’d be more brick on the rim.  Honestly, it didn’t appear as a 30 year old wine at all.  Smooth, elegant, and releasing aromas of barely cooked meat and plum flesh with some dried floral notes and a bit of tobacco, it was clean, pure, and delicious.
Braised Lamb Shank

Soon, we were on to the next Bordeaux, which was truly amazing as it released a beautiful bouquet as it went from bottle to decanter (I kept bringing the decanter close to me to keep on loving the aromas) - darker than the Pomerol in color, the first of the 2 Cabernet-based reds from Saint-Julien, the Gruaud-Larose was practically bursting with characteristics of both red and dark fruit (more dark than red though), savory herbs, dark chocolate, tobacco, and cedar, and a dark cool mineral toward the finish (and something about it that was reminiscent of men’s cologne) - and a lovely balance.  This one really left an impression - I loved it.  And I can assure you that if I drank a bottle of that very wine from that vintage every night, I’d still never tire of it and never stop appreciating it.

The final Bordeaux, which was the first red to really pair with the lamb shanks (and potatoes, portobello mushrooms, green beans, and corn) - was the Leoville-Las Cases.  Elegant, to say the least, and much like the other 2, not at all weary or showing much age.  The color was beautiful, again the bright red rim and dark core, with notes of subtle dark fruit and some red fruit, dried petals, subtle tobacco leaves, and mineral toward the end.  Lovely.

One of the major rock stars of the evening was next - the Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape (Southern Rhone of course) - made up of all 13 permitted grapes from the region, mainly Grenache and Mourvedre.  And much like the Trimbach, the cork came out with such ease that I was already feeling relieved before it even went into the decanter.  The color was gorgeous and becoming lighter and clearer, and the characteristics were of mellow fruit, flower petals, and an almost sweet aroma that I didn’t expect at all, and not much of the intense earthiness that it may have shown at one point in its life - on that particular evening, everything was in perfect balance, the wine was complex but subtle and mature, and it felt almost as if, had it been opened a day earlier or a day later, it might not have shown so perfectly.  I was thrilled.

The final red was the Bertani Amarone - a big wine with a big presence - very dark in the glass, almost dense with raisinated dark fruit characteristics and a simultaneous warmth and boldness, everything about it was dark, red, and luscious.  That was a perfect end to the reds and an ideal transition from a hearty lamb dish to the after-dinner cheese course.  And again, I was incredibly relieved at just how well another big red was showing.  How, I wondered, did I get so lucky?  Well, when I think of the people who made my 30th birthday special for me, and some of the things and events and people that have graced my 30 years of life, I suppose I really am quite lucky and the wines were just a bonus that served as a reminder of my good fortune.  I need to remember this more often.

Anyway, I do love some funky cheeses after dinner, so with the cheese platter consisting of Epoisses, Saint-Agur, and 5 year aged Gouda, the Sauternes was the Premier Cru Classe Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey.  I’m already a Sauternes lover and always have been, especially when they’re already aged a bit, but the oldest I’ve had so far was about 15 years old.  30 year old Sauternes from a great producer?  Liquid gold.  A gorgeous deep honey color in the glass, the wine showed characteristics of dried apricots, wildflower honey, candied orange peel, and an almost indescribable aura of warmth and sophistication - and it was a perfect match with the cheeses (especially the Saint-Agur, which is one of my favorite bleu style cheeses).  Just incredible.

The final wine was the Taylor Fladgate, which I chose as my representative of a great vintage for Port.  And I’m glad I did, because it was amazing (and still was last night, because I had a bit left in the bottle and was able to revisit the Port experience all over again) - barely brickish with an almost pink/purple undertone in the bright redness in the glass, it’s rich and wonderful, with an amazing blend of aromas and flavors of dark fruit, dried fig, brulee, and a warm earthy sort of finish.  That was paired with the birthday cake, which was made by my sister - one of my favorite desserts growing up - Sachertorte - an Austrian chocolate cake with apricot filling and a dark chocolate and coffee icing - delicious cake, delicious Port, perfect pairing!

So there it was - after all the excitement and planning, my 1983-themed wine dinner/birthday party happened and it was perfect - I would not have changed anything.  A few moments of an emotional rush for me (particularly when I opened the Clos Ste Hune, for some reason), the process of decanting the reds over a candle and wondering what would happen next, if they’d all be ok - everything was perfect.  I could not have asked for a better evening.

What did I learn?  Well, I learned that I’m even better at decanting than I thought I was, and I learned that there’s not much to be afraid of when removing old corks from bottles - it’s just a matter of being careful and still confident.  I also learned just how well a 30 year old wine from a very good vintage will show if stored properly over the years.  I also learned that 30 isn’t so bad.  The wines held up.  I held up.  A few grey hairs here and there isn’t the end of the world.  And as I explained regarding what to expect from the wines - and used my 1 year old nephew (who was present at the party and was a perfect little gentleman!) as an example - most evenings, we drink very young wine - around the age of my nephew.  This time, we were drinking wines as old as I am.  What we want to see is graceful aging.  We don’t want to see a juvenile wine if it’s 30 years old, just as we don’t want to see a 30 year old human being behaving as a 1 year old human being.  But if some of the luscious fruit and big, round presence that we’re used to just isn’t showing, that doesn’t mean the wine has gone bad.  It just aged gracefully, as these bottles did, and it’s something I hope I can continue to do.  And maybe eventually I’ll stop fearing the aging process so much, after witnessing just how well the wines handled 30 years of age.

There’s a lot to learn from wine.

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