Charity Dinner at the Oregon Grille, Baltimore
The best restaurant outside Baltimore, in rural northern Baltimore County is the Oregon Grille. I have long been a fan of Chef Mark Henry, although I don't think this restaurant has fully utilized his talents. It's basically a steak and lobster house where Chef Henry is permitted to do a few innovative dishes for the locals. However, there are some things he does better than anybody, and that includes some of my favorite French chefs. He creates incredible soft shell crabs in a beurre blanc sauce with nicely integrated mustard seed, giving the sauce a spicy tanginess. Henry also makes fabulous Taylor Bay scallops (the USA's finest scallops, which come from an aquatic farm near Cape Cod). It is hard to find them in restaurants because they have to be shipped in live, and have a shelf life of approximately two days. Both of these dishes work unbelievably well with California Chardonnay and French white Burgundy. Following these two, we had one of Chef Henry's signature dishes, a grilled salmon with roasted peppers in a highly reduced Pinot Noir sauce ... a perfect foil for Pinot Noir. The finest steaks in the Baltimore area can be found at the Oregon Grille. Their legendary strip steak is the best I have been able to find outside of New York City's Sparks Steak House. The dessert was indescribable. Let me just say, I renamed it Ode to Sharon Stone, and it merits an "X" rating. If you think of her most famous movie scene, you'll know what I mean.
The wine theme basically celebrated great Burgundy. The first flight (California Chardonnays mixed with terrific white Burgundies) was outrageously good, proving once again that the greatest French white Burgundies often age better than their red counterparts. I know that's heresy, but the truth is often painful. Sauzet's superb 1995 Puligny Montrachet Les Combetteswas far better than the sloppy, quickly evolving, clumsy 1994 Niellon Chevalier Montrachet. The biggest surprise in the first flight was how vigorous, rich, and lively the 1994 Pahlmeyer Chardonnay and Marcassin 1993 Chardonnay Upper Barn Gauer Ranch performed. I tend to prefer California Chardonnay during its first 4-5 years of life, but these wines are still going strong at nearly ten years of age. Of course, they will not last as long as a great white Burgundy, but they are still impressive. Both were bottled unfined and unfiltered. The Hospices de Beaune 1989 Meursault Les Genevrières (Remoissenet) was stunning. It was the last bottle I had from a case I bought in the early nineties. It was one of those magical cases where each bottle got better and better. It is a glorious concoction of liquid minerals, hazelnuts, and super-ripe, concentrated fruit. It will easily last another decade. Another great bottle was Leflaive's 1989 Bâtard Montrachet. It revealed vibrant acidity as well as opulent honeysuckle, citrus, and mineral notes. Speaking of liquid minerality, Lafon's 1985 Meursault Les Perrières hit the bull's eye. It is a spectacular wine, with layers of fruit, freshness, and great aromatics. I have often been disappointed by how Lafon's white Burgundies age (this is an estate where the underrated, fabulous Volnays age better than many of his white wines). That was followed by a spectacular 1983 Leflaive Chevalier Montrachet. Many white Burgundies from this vintage cracked up quickly, but not Leflaive. This offering revealed some of the minerality found in the Meursault Perrières, as well as layers of unctuous, concentrated fruit, and a vibrancy that is unbelievable for a nearly 20-year old wine. Sadly, this was also the last bottle from a case I purchased many years ago.
I have no comments on the two Beaux Frères Pinot Noirs other than to say they were not totally embarrassed by the brilliant red Burgundies, two of which are my favorites for drinking now ... the Ponsot 1990 Clos de la Roche Vieilles Vignes and 1990 DRC La Tâche. Both are virtually perfect red Burgundies, although their upbringing is completely different. La Tâche enjoys 100% new François Frères oak barrels, and Clos de la Roche is aged in ancient barrels (30-50 years old). However, they share several fundamental requirements for making great red Burgundy/Pinot Noir. Both are produced from incredibly low yields, old vines, and experience no fining or filtration prior to bottling. Both efforts from the ripe 1990 vintage are just coming into their own, yet should last for 10-15 more years. I tend to like red Burgundies on the way up, as many fade quickly once they hit their peak. The Leroy 1991 Romanée St.-Vivant was a brilliant wine, but it was over-shadowed by La Tâche and Clos de la Roche Vieilles Vignes. Leroy's 1991 is a beautiful offering from an underrated vintage in the Côtes de Nuits. While still young and primary, I was surprised by how much new oak was evident. Another meaty, chewy red Burgundy is the 1990 Jadot Beaune Clos des Ursules. It exhibits notes of balsam wood, thick, juicy black cherries, a hint of herbs, plenty of meat, and a taste of earth. It is a big, full-bodied red Burgundy that is just beginning to strut its stuff. It will drink well for another 10+ years.
It's funny how some wines can completely fool you. From cask, I thought Philippe Leclerc's 1985 Gevrey Chambertin Combe Aux Moines was an outrageously great wine. I bought a case, and the first three or four bottles I had during its first decade of life were grotesquely woody and out of balance. I even began to believe some of my critics might be right. However, in the last five or six years, all of Leclerc's 1985s are doing just what he said they would ("wait 15 years and you will be rewarded with majestic flavors"). That's exactly what has happened. The wood has been pushed to the background, the fruit has come forward, and the result is an incredibly complex, meaty, dense, opulent, full throttle red Burgundy the likes of which is difficult to find. The lesson is, in the great vintages, forget Leclerc's wines for 10-12 years. They truly behave differently than most of their peers. Another wine I thought highly of from cask (and also purchased) that has proven to be a pathetic, washed-out loser is Bourée's 1985 Charmes Chambertin. This wine is so bad I wouldn't even use it for salad vinegar. It is a horrible excuse for red Burgundy. God knows what happened to it from cask to bottle. Profound, prodigious, complex, and ethereal describes the 1985 Clos Frantin Vosne Romanée Les Malconsorts. This estate owns some unbelievable vineyards, but the wines vary from disgusting to sublime. This is an example of the latter. It has more in common with the DRC 1990 La Tâche than any other offering in the tasting. It is pure magic, but I would opt for drinking it over the next several years as it is fully mature. Ponzi's 1985 Pinot Noir was very good, but clearly in a different league than the finest wines of this flight. It revealed a pleasant cedar, cherry, spice box, smoky character, but its herbaceousness made it stand out as something completely different. One of the few Burgundies I have ever bestowed 100 points is the cuvée of 1985 Mazis Chambertin Madeleine Collignon sold by the Hospices de Beaune. This wine was brought up in barrel and bottled by Leroy. Believe it or not, it is the second corked bottle I have had of this wine, which is selling for stratospheric prices. I'm a traditionalist, and for the life of me, I can not accept screw caps for wines of this magnitude. Moreover, I do not believe synthetics will hold up as well as natural cork, yet what a waste of money and of a prodigious wine. Lastly, the 1978 Richebourg from the Domaine de la Romanée Conti was just beginning to crack up, which became even more evident as the wine sat in the glass. Nevertheless, it still possesses that extraordinary perfume that only a great DRC wine seems capable of giving in a top year ... full of foresty, underbrush, truffle, meat, smoke, herbs, and fruit notes. However, the amazing perfume was not backed up by the flavors, which were beginning to dry out in the finish. Owners are advised to drink it up unless they have stored it in a ice cold cellar.
The magical 1955 Taylor Port is fully mature, but should last another two decades at this quality level. Its striking nose, viscous flavors, and wonderful sweetness without any heaviness are what makes vintage port so special.
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Petit Louis Bistro
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