June brings a high concentration of private and public occasions to Casa Maresca. I’ve never been able to forget either Diane’s birthday or our wedding anniversary because they are separated only by D-Day, a date impossible to ignore. From our earliest time together, this concatenation has led us into several-day-long fits of cooking and dining – pushed into glorious excess, of course, by the final departure of winter gloom and the arrival of sunshine, fresh vegetables, and the first sweet fruits of the year.
This year was no exception, except that, out of respect for our own increasing age, I substantially raised the age of the wines we drank with our Hail to Sunshine! Hail to Us! dinners – thus, three 1988s and one 1996, and every one of them high grade indeed.
The First Fit: Warm-up. This pre-festivity dinner consisted of the Balthazar-inspired short ribs that Diane has blogged about. They were rich, lush, and filling. Luckily, I had chosen a wine that stood up to them very well. In fact, the wine collaborated with them to enhance their richness and to plump itself up in the process. What we drank with that beef protein-and-calorie bomb was Caparone Vineyards Paso Robles Nebbiolo 1988, and a thoroughly gorgeous wine it was.
As near as I can gather, 1988 was not a great year for Napa and Sonoma. It appears to have been the second of two drought years, and produced some fearsomely alcoholic, harsh-tannined Cabernets. Further south, the harvest fared better, because ’88 was highly esteemed for Rhone varietals. Of course, no one was tracking what the harvest was like for Nebbiolo: Far too little of it had been planted, and most of the growers who tried it were struggling. Nobody ever said Nebbiolo was an easy grape.
Dave Caparone set in his first Nebbiolo in the mid-Seventies (and Sangiovese and Aglianico too), and he tended it like a first-born child, an attitude now continued by his son Mark. As Dave wryly says, Nebbiolo is a grape for those who have mastered Pinot noir and are looking for a challenge. His ’88 answered the challenge, and then some. It was, as you would expect, fully mature, with the classic Nebbiolo pale garnet color and orange edge – but, as I didn’t entirely expect, it was still fresh and live, filled with classic, mature Nebbiolo flavors with a fascinating overlay of bittersweet dark chocolate – unmistakably Nebbiolo, even though equally unmistakably not Piedmont Nebbiolo.
This is just plain classy winemaking, to produce a wine that tastes of both its variety and its terroir. Wine like this reflects a lifetime of labor devoted to what is in California an unfashionable variety: more’s the pity for California. I only wish that more winemakers showed this kind of passion and dedication.
The Second Fit: Aperitif. For special occasions nothing serves better as an aperitif than Champagne, and few things are better than a top-flight vintage Champagne from a great producer. So we started Diane’s birthday celebration with a glass of Gosset Celebris 1996. ’96, as Champagne buffs know, made a great vintage year for Champagne, and the Gosset firm, one of the very oldest in the Champagne region, did a beautiful job with it. This wine exhibited a golden color, minute perlage, and all the classic Champagne wheaty/toasty aromas and flavors, with just the slightest edge of oxidation, which rather than detracting from the wine lent an attractive touch of le gout anglais (as the French call it).
So enjoyable was this Champagne, and so hefty, that we were strongly tempted to keep drinking it through dinner, which it could have handled very nicely. But we had already made up our minds to drink the other half of the bottle for our anniversary aperitif, so we proceeded to . . .
The Third Fit: Birthday dinner, in this case asparagus mimosa followed by sweetbreads prepared in puff pastry packets, as at Chez Pauline, one of our favorite Parisian restaurants back in the days when we got to Paris often. (Where are the snows of yesteryear?) The asparagus were fresh from the Greenmarket, as were the luscious, first-of-the-season shell peas we served alongside the sweetbreads.
The wine I picked to match with all this was a 1988 Drouhin Chambolle Musigny Premier Cru. For me, Musigny is the sweet spot in the Cote d’Or: I just love those wines for their delicacy and grace. Rarely do they show power: Though they have it, they’re just too suave to flaunt it. Most vintage charts will tell you that 1988 was a good but not outstanding vintage in Burgundy, and for all I know they may be right. All I can swear to is that this bottle was outstanding – pale garnet in color (looking remarkably like a mature Nebbiolo, in fact), enticingly floral/herbal/mineral in aroma, on the palate elegant and restrained, yet live and persistent. Understated elegance is as close as I can come to summing up this Chambole Musigny. It meshed beautifully with the sweetbreads, whose presentation in puff pastry created a paradoxical combination of elegance and earthiness (no matter how you wrap them, sweetbreads are an organ meat). A lovely dinner matched with a lovely wine.
We took a breather on D-Day, and dined lightly on the season’s early radishes (the Greenmarket again) and simple omelettes, to make room for
The Fourth Fit: Our anniversary dinner started with the second half of the Gosset Celebris, and I thought it was even better than the first day. I’m not sure Diane agreed, but it was not something we would argue about, especially not before our anniversary dinner: tagliarini dressed with mushrooms and white truffle (both the egg pasta and the truffle paste carried back from my last excursion to Alba), followed by a dish that was a throwback to the ’60s, Steak Diane from Craig Claiborne’s old New York Times Cookbook. The wine I chose this time was a 1988 Barbaresco Bricco Asili from Ceretto. By pure luck, I think this one was the wine of them all.
The 1988 harvest was the first of modern times in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones. I mean that in two senses: that it was the first of the warmer (climate-change induced?) growing seasons that the zones have since enjoyed, as well as the first of an unprecedented trio of top-flight vintages – 1988, 1989, 1990 – that heralded good times for Piemonte winemakers. Growers and Nebbiolo fans alike still argue about which is the best of those three.
Our ’88 showed a lovely crystalline color, a live, bright garnet, with a narrower orange edge than I expected. The aroma was classic – white truffle, tar, dried roses, leather, underbrush – complex and intriguing. On the palate, it gave lovely sweet black cherry fruit, with soft, soft tannins and great, lively acidity, everything finishing in a long-lasting burst of dried cherry. It tasted wonderful with the pasta, in which it recognized a kindred spirit, and almost equally good with the Steak Diane. The last few sips of it, by themselves, practically eliminated the need for dessert. (We ate it nevertheless: the season’s first local strawberries. How could we not?) A gorgeous, gorgeous wine, and a fitting conclusion to our few days of feasting.
After that, it was compensatory salads and Barbera and Beaujolais for a few days, to get us back to normal. Sigh! Who wants to be normal?