My favorite haunt, Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar (500 Ala Moana Blvd. Restaurant Row, Honolulu, HI) regularly hosts structured wine tastings led either by the winemaker or winery owner, or sometimes directly by resident master sommelier Chuck Furuya. Sometimes participants bring their own wines to pair with a preset menu created by Chef Keith Endo. Sometimes these BYOB tastings are done “blinded” so participants judge a wine purely by its merits and not by its notoriety. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the Vino staff felt that most diners would have recovered from Thanksgiving’s excesses, but it would be early enough in the holiday season before things got crazy. This led to the Ultimate BYOB tasting. The menu for the evening read like this:
Oven-roasted New Zealand langoustines with fresh homemade linguine and cioppino butter sauce (wine recommendations: aged Chardonnay, Vouvray or vanguard Mediterranean white)
Roasted Hawaiian swordfish with sun dried tomato gnocchi and Chardonnay jus (wine recommendations: aged Chardonnay)
Hudson Valley duck sausage with foie gras ravioli, Hiraoka Farms broccoli rabe and Bing cherry demi (wine recommendations: aged Sangiovese or Pinot Noir)
Garlic-crusted lamb chops with Nalo Farms Swiss chard, homemade cavatelli pasta, gremolata and natural jus (wine recommendations: aged Cabernet, Nebbiolo, Bandol or Syrah)
Apple tarte with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce
The wine pairing selections suggested by Furuya follow each dish with the caveat that since this was the Ultimate BYOB, wines should be those that participants (one bottle per diner) were saving for a special occasion, probably aged but most definitely something special. Since my personal collection of wine consists mainly of reds, I decided on an aged Sangiovese for the duck and an aged Syrah for the lamb. And since we were at the start of the holiday season, we chose to get a room at the Hawaii Prince Hotel and cabbed to and fro… so I also brought Champagne to start and a dessert wine to end the meal.
Tarlant NV Cuvee Louis Champagne (4/5) — Toasted hazelnuts, citrus and citrus curd on the nose with a lighter mouth feel and nice balance with a long finish.
Tarlant is a grower-producer Champagne and the Cuvee Louis originates from 60-year-old vines from an equal mixture of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I procured my bottle from none other than K & L Wines in San Francisco. Since I purchased my bottle several years ago, I assume that the vintages used were from 1990, 1993 and 1995 — the Cuvee Louis is usually a blend of the last three vintages.
1997 Lisini Brunello di Montalcino (4.5/5) — Rich earth, old leather and semi-dried cherry on the nose with a touch of tobacco and licorice. Also rich and concentrated on the palate though nicely balanced with a very long finish.
This Brunello comes from the vaunted 1997 vintage — Wine Spectator gave the vintage 99 points and this specific wine garnered 95 points. Brunello di Montalcino is pure Sangiovese, specifically the Brunello clone, so it shares the same earthy and cherry characteristics of its cousin, Chianti. However, with some bottle aging you start getting earthier aromas and flavors while still maintaining the red fruit quality. My only regret is that I now have one bottle less… though sharing a bottle with other wine enthusiasts (fanatics) is priceless.
1988 Noel Verset Cornas (4.9/5) — A very complex nose with black olive, charred beef, old leather, underbrush, tar and dried red fruit. A medium mouth feel with exceptional balance and seamless flow with a long finish.
Though Verset Cornas will never garner huge scores by wine publications, it is one of my favorite wines. As soulful as wine making gets, however, sadly there is no more wine since 2006. Noel Verset had no descendants to pass the trade on to and once he hit 80 years, the French government started reducing his potential pension. Therefore his last official vintage was in 2001 and though he sold most of his grapes to other Cornas producers, he continued his own label (albeit with miniscule production) until 2006. I never give a wine 5/5 but this is as close as it gets.
1997 Dolce (4.25/5) — Glazed apricot, honey, citrus curd and a touch of butter pastry on the nose with a concentrated, viscous mouth feel and a very long finish.
Created in 1985 by the makers of Far Niente, Dolce combines late harvest, botry-ized Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc in the same manner as Sauterne production. Grapes exposed to frequent fog and very little breeze results in the growth of Botrytis cinerea; this mold causes grapes to shrivel, concentrating their flavors, acids and sugars. The resulting wine is rich and sweet and when given ample aging time, produces a nectar of the Gods.
The Wine Pairings
While almost every wine was great on its own, there were standouts when wines were paired with the various dishes. For instance, aged white Burgundy is as good as white wine gets (other than aged Champagne) but in most cases, while they were OK with the langoustines and swordfish, the “fresher” wines complemented the seafood to a greater degree. The younger Champagne and Burgundies as well as the Sancerre brought out the sweetness in the langoustines. Surprisingly, an unknown varietal — the Vitovska — from northern Italy “sang” when paired with the swordfish. I assumed that the richness of swordfish could hold its own against aged Burgundy — and the swordfish did hold its own — but the Vitovska almost acted like a “sauce” for the swordfish.
The red wines also seemed to follow the same pattern. While the many red Burgundies were great wines on their own and while they all paired nicely with the duck sausage, the Brunello brought out the duck flavor the most and highlighted the foie gras ravioli. With the lamb chops there were several wines that paired quite nicely including Domaine Tempier La Tourtine, Vieux Telegraphe La Crau, Chateau Haut Brion and my Verset Cornas — but in the end, though there were many “heavy hitters” in the mix, I had to go with my Verset Cornas.
Plan your own BYOB
I recommend planning your own BYOB to learn about the pleasures of food and wine — or more specifically to learn about your own likes and dislikes with various food and wine. It doesn’t have to be anywhere near as extravagant as the Vino event; simply decide on a theme based on certain grape varietals or certain wine regions or certain wines meant for certain foods. For instance, you could do a Pinot Noir comparison of California, Oregon and French wines. Or maybe compare the wines of Spain with Rioja, Priorat and Ribera del Duero. Or simply see which wines complement Vietnamese or Chinese foods. For added complexity, you could place the wine in brown bags so none of the tasters know which wine is which until the very end. That way you can determine the most important wines for yourself — the wines that you like and the wines that you don’t like, regardless what Wine Spectator and Robert Parker say. I personally am looking forward to the next Ultimate BYOB at Vino, which will take place on New Year’s Eve. Until then, a voitre santé!
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, Hawaii and can be reached at email@example.com.