98 & 03 B. Mascarello, 85 Tignanello, 90 Quintarelli Recioto Riserva @TonyVallone

Where do we go from here?

When my friend and client Tony Vallone opened last Thursday’s dinner (at Tony’s in Houston) with 1998 Bartolo Mascarello Barolo, I wondered how the subsequent wines could possibly compete with such a stellar entry.

Tony paired this extraordinary bottle with a porcini mushroom risotto, made with Acquerello rice and prepared rigorously all’onda — an indisputably traditional and ideal match.

Even though the wine had begun to disassociate slightly (i.e., some light solids had begun to form in it), this bottling was the apotheosis of Barolo: earth, tar, and mushrooms on the nose, rich ripe red fruit in the mouth, all “supported” (as the Italians say) by Mascarello’s signature acidity. I was surprised by the solids in this wine (and will revisit the 98 in my cellar) but was nonetheless thoroughly impressed by the balance and nuance of this superb wine.

When I had breakfast with Angelo Gaja last month in New York, we talked about how the warm 2003 Langa vintage was such a great restaurant wine inasmuch as the wines are already showing very well (he declassified nearly 50 percent of his crop that year, he said, noting that it was an “honorable” but not “great” vintage). For producers with great growing sites (like Mascarello and Gaja, however divergent in style), it was still possible to deliver excellent wines from the early and very small harvest. Tony paired with halibut (yes, fish!) dressed with an Amatriciana sauce — a creative and decadent match that worked surprisingly and brilliantly well. I loved the way the richness and ripe fruit in this expression of B. Mascarello worked with the acidity and savory of the sauce and creamy flakiness of the fish. While I don’t think that the 03 will be a thirty-year wine, I was taken with how fresh it was and how nervy its acidity. How can you not love Bartolo Mascarello? Always a great.

The last time I tasted 85 Tignanello was in 2005 in New York. I was blown away by how different this wine was from the 1990 we tasted in 2009 at Alfonso’s. I might be wrong about this but I ascribe the difference in style to the change in winemaker that came about in that era: although the wine was conceived by Giacomo Tachis, who made its early vintages, Riccardo Cotarella took the reins at the winery in subsequent years and he nudged the wine toward a bolder and more American friendly expression.

The wood was perfectly integrated in this wine and it was vibrant and remarkably fresh. Not only was I impressed by its fitness, I also thoroughly enjoyed it.

Tony’s general manager Scott Sulma has every right to tease me about my across-the-board disdain for Super Tuscans, given my request for a second glass of this wine with my rack of lamb. A truly original wine — in its twilight but not in decline.

Quintarelli was at the peak of his genius in 1990 when he made this wine… an extraordinary vintage by one of the greatest winemakers of the twentieth century (he even made his rare white Bandito in 1990).

What an incredible bottle and what an unforgettable experience! The 14.3 alcohol in this wine was perfectly balanced by its acidity and freshness and its unlabored, subtle notes of ripe red and stone fruit were answered in counterpoint by a gentle hint of bitter almond. Absolutely brilliant, unique, and thrilling… One of the most memorable wines I’ve ever had the chance to taste…

And dulcis in fundo

For his birthday, Tony surprised cousin Marty with Baked Alaska. I love Tony’s playfulness and his love of baroque presentation, especially when it comes to nostalgic desserts like this one.

Cousin Joanne, Marty, and I were still talking about the dinner when we got back to their place in Houston. And we were STILL talking about it over breakfast the next morning.

Tony, thanks again for a night I’ll never forget.

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