There is a time to bind and a time to loose. Alas, our little band of Nashville Scene wine tasters has both loosed and lost one of its original members, Bill Gooch. Before he moseyed off to greener pasturesin Ball’mer no lessit was meet of us to feed Bill one last time before parting. So we were as merry as was possible under the circumstances. We ate rather wellnone of us is a slouch when it comes to cooking. And we drankor at least tastedeight bottles of chardonnay.
Why chardonnay, you might ask, since this was a going-away party, the sort of event that demands the sacrifice of a fatted calf, to be served along with a proper red? Truth to tell, we chose chardonnays because it was the end of summer, and the salmon were running down at Kroger. In fact our whole wine tasting on this occasion revolved around the meal prepared for the dear departed, and, because of that, we departed from our regular procedure in tasting our selections. Our dinner consisted of an appetizer of melon with prosciutto, cream of carrot soup, an entrée of grilled salmon with fresh asparagus and a rice pilaf studded with fruits and nuts, chiffonade salad, and, for dessert, crème brûlée.
Sharp-eyed readers will note the mention of eight wines and only five courses, and that was another reason for a preliminary tasting. Three wines did not make the dinner cut. Let me hasten to add that this was not due to the fact that they were in any way “bad wines.” Some of them were quite good, better in some instances that the ones we chose for the meal. In some cases, however, differences among the wines were not great. Since some of the good wines tasted so much like others of the good wines, and in order to include a greater variety, we chose to taste other styles along with our meal.
Here are the chardonnays which we tasted but did not use during the dinner:
The Morgan 1994 at $18, suggested by the staff at Frugal MacDoogal’s, was the one wine we regretted not tasting with our meal. Some of the most educated palates in our group felt that it lacked the ne plus ultra of complexity, but almost everyone agreed that it was smooth, with enough bite to stifle any accusation of blandness. It had a fine fruity bouquet that bloomed to pineapples and spice on the palate, and many of us felt it would be an excellent choice for substantial picnic food or for a meal at which it was the only wine served. Again, we thought this was a splendid wine to partner with a wide variety of food, and the only reason it did not find a place on the dinner table was because we found another chardonnay that seemed just a bit more apt for each of our courses.
We knew that we were taking something of a chance with the $25 1994 Saint Aubin “Les Combes” from Burgundy, suggested by the staff at Nashville Wine and Spirits. “Flinty” was the adjective they used. Tasteless, bland, and watery were the kindest descriptives bestowed by our tasters. This aqueous lack of taste led to several trans-lingual puns all based on the the fact that the French word “bain” (bath) and the syllable “bin” sound very much alike. Perhaps the Saint-Aubin is a perfect accompaniment for summer watersports, but who would waste this much money for a poolside quaff? We also noted that this is another Kermit Lynch selection. Lynch’s picks represented two of the worst bottles in our tasting of pink disasters earlier this summer. We are all beginning to suspect kinky tastes.
We are also swearing off wines that are attempting to pass as premium vintages but which use plastic corks. Such is the case with the $20 1994 St. Francis Reserve Estate from the Sonoma Valley, suggested by the staff at Frugal’s. Chardonnays are often said to have a “buttery” taste, but in this case St. Francis must have been the patron of oleo. It had an extremely unpleasant bouquet with sulfurous off odors and that faint tang of plasticizers. Perhaps if you call the 800 number on the back of the bottle, you’ll get ideas for other uses of this wineperhaps as a paint remover. This goes “aux bains” with the Aubin. The Franciscans should sue.
As to the wines that made it to the table, some of them were splendid indeed.
We chose the 1994 Acacia Carneros$19, suggested by the staff at Cool Springs Wine and Spiritsto accompany our appetizer of melon and prosciutto because we felt it had both the sharpness to cut throught the fat of the ham and the fruit to properly accompany the melon. We were in no way disappointed in the choice. Some tasters felt that it was an undistinguished wine overallsome even expressed a dislike at first tastebut everyone agreed that the initial sharpness mellowed quickly to tartness, and that tartness paired particularly well with the melon. Other foods that our tasters suggested as a partner for this wine included an antipasto tray, nova lox, and smoked cheeses or smoked trout paté.
Our cream of carrot soup was accompanied by the $10 suggestion from Bud’s Liqours, a 1992 Soda Canyon from the Napa Valley. This is the one wine that provoked the most discussion of the evening. Our most experienced tasters were split down the middle about its complexity. Some found the initial butter in the bouquet bloomed into pineapple flavors with overtones of peach and pear. Others found that the initial butter was a uni-dimensional impression that did not develop. In all cases we thought that the Soda Canyon was a good accompaniment to the richness of the carrot soup; its spicy hints were a good foil to the herbs. We all agreed that this would be an exceptional wine with oily foods, more than one taster suggesting it as a partner to swordfish, shrimp remoulade, or a salad with an oily dressing. We all proclaimed the Soda Canyon a great bargain.
All of us were really impressed by Cool Springs’ pick of the 1994 Cambria Katherine’s Vinyard ($18), with which we acompanied our entrée of salmon. It had all the butter, all the richness, all the oak, all the fruit, all the mouth filling-flavor of a great California style chardonnayand at a fraction of the cost of some of those big-name wines. This wine offered a luscious bouquet of ripe peaches and nectarines that broadened to include the richness of pineapple and pears after just a few moments of rest. The remarkable thing was that none of the previous flavors fadedmore were added. Furthermore, this complexity worked in the service of the food. The butter in the wine made up for the lack of a heavy sauce on the fish. Its huge body was unswayed by the asparagus, and the multi-layered fruitiness picked out the dried fruits and cardamom that perfumed the pilaf. In the last movement of his fourth symphony, Mahler includes a song that talks about the foods of heaven. This wine accompanies them all.
About the only false note of the meal was the rather rich salad of cheese and raw vegetables that I brought to the table. Its olives, raw broccoli, and cauliflower caused some problems with the 1994 Markham Napa Valley ($15.50suggested by Frugal’s). There was certainly nothing wrong with this wineits bold introduction immediately bloomed with hints of flowers and honey. The broccoli was the culprit, because its sulfur compounds caused such a clash that the accuracy of some tasters was put off for the rest of the meal. The honeyed qualities and oaky finish of the Markham delighted most of the tasters, who also liked its unfolding complexity. Its tendency to gain greatly in sweetness as it warmed to room temperature led several of our tasters to suggest that it would make an outstanding companion to a not-too-sweet dessert. All of us ranked the Markham only slightly below the Cambria, and, for the price, we thought that it was a splendid value.
Finally, our dessert of crème brûlée was accompanied by a 1994 Matanzas Creek Sonoma Valley, suggested by Nashville Wine and Spirits ($27). All our tasters agreed that, although this was a very complex mixture of tastes, each taste was so well integrated that it was impossible to pick out a predominant one. It had a robust body and long finish that gained even more in depth as it came to room temperature. It also had a certain brightness“tart” is too strong an adjectivethat prevented it from being covered by the richness of the crème. Some of us sneaked a taste of the Markham with dessert, and, although it was a very good companion, we were even happier with our pick of the Matanzas Creek.
Ave atque vale Bill Gooch. Fine wines, fine food, and fine friends to all of you.