It’s my wife’s birthday and I’m in trouble. I sell wine to restaurants throughout Portland. But who to choose. We rarely eat out. We mostly cook, and it’s usually vegetarian. So the whole restaurant scene seems like overpriced, meat-fest, fluff (especially when we buy wine at cost). Yet, deep down, she wants to be overwhelmed. Nothing too formal, just outstanding.
After a mild heart attack, I forget my job. I forget accounts that sell my wine. I think about who I respect. Where do my wine-geeks eat at?
Although October and Fall have started, it remains sunny, 80F, and the Fates have a table for two on the patio. After a nervous parley with their buyer, we settle in. The world turns amber.
Then out come two glasses of Crèmant de Bourgogne: Burgundy’s affordable answer to Champagne. From Clotilde Davenne, it tastes snappy, citric, a touch saline, and utterly refreshing. This leads us to a challenge: she wants the five course, totally unknown chef’s menu, and I want the Red Wine-Braised Freekeh & Delicata Squash salad, as well as the Merguez-Stuffed Lamb Shoulder.
What could possibly pair?
We sip the flute and pour over the wine list. I have some top Champagne, reds, whites, Brunello, and Burgundy there. Yet nothing makes sense. Then fantastic, adorable rondels of fried potato distract us. We sip the bubbly. At least four waiters try to help us. We sip the bubbly. Bread arrives. We sip the bubbly.
Then the dim bulb lights: bubbly. Not this bubbly. But not my bubbly. But a bottle of Champagne. It is her birthday after all. Not any Champagne, but grower Champagne, Dom Perignon’s next door neighbor, a small grower called Roger Constant LeMaire makes Cuvée Trianon, Brut Champagne.
It looks a vibrant, pale gold with fine yet rapid, aggressive fizz. Intense aromas show off four years of cellaring on yeasts: salt, pepper, chai spices, and baguette crust are there, backed by lime, lemon, strawberry pith, and ginger. It feels dry, serious (6g of sugar/liter), incisively tart, yet plump enough to hold onto and through our meal-malestrom.
What follows is fantastic food pornography. A plate of currant-filled duck, horseradish spiced tongue, and an unbelievably complex, bread-wrapped, mushroom/nut-filled, sliver of delighted pork splay before us. Cold cuts never seemed so good.
The Champagne sings, especially with the breaded pork.
Next, our first plates emerge. Her surprise dish is a crusted salmon, baby eggplant, browned butter, and veg. fest:
The LeMaire Champagne holds beautifully, like a splash of lemon and chalk. My golden squash plays off its mineral and fruit.
Then arrives Champagne’s greatest challenge: her Braised Oxtail & Gnocchi in Jus and my Merguez-Stuffed Lamb Shoulder, resting on a spicy tomato relish with corn and a wedge of fried masa cake.
All reason would say “have red wine you idiots!”. But half the bottle of Champagne persists. Somehow, that spicy chunk of 60% Pinot Noir, hand selected fruit, and all that time on the lees make LeMaire intense enough a competitor to hold up. It has also warmed up and the fizz softened, making it more of a wine than a bubbly.
Yes, the spice and herb from my dish make it seem drier, more acidic. Yes, all her oxtail’s earthiness brings out its fruit. Yet it stands up, cleansing our palates of the oil and fantastic fat.
Then her eclectic four cheese plate emerges. The truffled pecorino is delightful with it, Cyprus Grove bright and quite good, the cedar smoked goat was odd yet great itself, but the brie, albeit simple alone, was breathtaking with the last drops of now mellow Champagne.
And then we wait.
The sun sets and the late rush has hit Paley’s. People order Chateauneuf du Pape with their appetizers and chat about how Robert Parker is a genius. Meanwhile, we glow over LeMaire’s success. And then dessert arrives. The ginger ice-cream is lovely, the almond tort crunchy, and figs earthy (if underripe):
But then Joshua emerges from the shadows with a bottle of Madeira. Nary twenty four hours had passed since I suggested Paley’s get Madeira. And The Rare Wine Co. provides (although it annihilates our desert…consider more balsamic glaze to counter).
Glowing from a three hour feast, we head home.
I walk to our mailbox, expecting nothing. But then, I pull out an odd, large envelope, with red stamps and blue pen. I nervously hand it to Tracy. She screams and tears it open:
Somehow, Jancis Robinson, the first non-trade MW, the Queen’s wine adviser, Tracy’s idol, writer of THE Encyclopedia of Wine, and my heroine, had found a photo of herself in Moscow, on the release of her World Atlas of Wine, from 2002, signed and sent it for Tracy, with no idea that her birthday was today.