Three-Step Classic Wine List Gameplan

Drawing up the perfect attack on a classic restaurant wine list creates the same adrenaline level NFL coaches experience prepping for Sunday games. At least it seems that way; it’s both exciting and nerve wracking knowing one or two calls can define a dinner’s outcome. Planning is required. Have we worked with the restaurant’s wine list before?  What language can we use with this particular sommelier to trigger the right personalized advice?  Are we value or treasure hunting? Older or new releases?  Hard to find limited production wines or a repeat favorite known to please?

At dinners with a bunch of wino comrades, debating and decision making are as much a part of the evening’s fabric as any other stage of the meal. Other nights involve guests less willing to sacrifice time and brain cells debating wine selection. Last week at Veritas (oenophile nirvana) with Dan, I found myself somewhere in the middle.  We had a significant amount of news to catch up on, but the wine was equally important to both of us.  I had not worked with the Head Sommelier Rubén Sanz Ramiro before so I did not feel comfortable enough turning the entire experience over to him nor burying my head in the epic Veritas wine list for twenty minutes.  Here is the game plan I followed:

Proven White Wine Value: Kick-Off

We needed something to drink immediately, but didn’t want to trump our early catch up conversation with solitary wine list huddles.  Nor did I want to rush into a big up-front cash investment without enough time to think things over.  Not having established rapport with the sommelier yet, delegating was off the table.  I turned to the Loire section and quickly ordered the **** 2010 Huet Clos du Bourg Sec.

Our Boston tasting group had just conducted a blind tasting of Loire Valley chenin blancs and this Vouvray was my favorite.  It jumped off the list as an easy choice for the straight forward enjoyment and palate awakening I was hoping to quickly uncover.  While the “sec” designation is true to the wine’s overall dry nature, there is enough residual sugar framed by significant acidity to qualify it as a shoe-in for a pleasing start to the evening.  The later vintage did not disappoint with familiar steely notes, hints of background sugar, grapefruit and lemon meringue delivered in a round and luscious mouthfeel, chalk, and a crisp finish.  It’s a go to wine, and one that didn’t break the bank at roughly $70 on Veritas’ not-so-cheap list.  While we had a long game ahead of us, it was a perfectly designed kick-off play.

Cellared But Not Tried: Third Quarter Audible

With the dinner unfolding and middle courses arriving, this was no time to fool around.  I called time out and spent three minutes on the sideline scanning the list.  Without leaving the Loire section, I stumbled upon the ***1/2 2007 Clos Rougeard Les Poyeux.  I am an admitted sucker for Clos Rougeard, had tasted the already immediately enjoyable 2007 Saumur Champigny, but wondered if the Les Poyeux would provide as much immediate accessibility.

The wine also sat in my cellar and this was the perfect chance to check it out without draining my limited 2007 Clos Rougeard stockpile. Not wanting to waste too much more time with the list, I went with it.  I called for a producer that always knocks me to the turf.  This particular cabernet franc made by Rougeard’s Foucalt brothers showed trace hints of its truffle and licorice bones, but remained seriously tight all the way through to the end of the bottle.  It never opened up.  The wine seems like it will stay closed down for at least several years to come.

While the move informed delaying future 2007 Les Poyeux drinking, it did not do as much for our dinner.  It was a win/lose; I should have consulted the sommelier.  With just one question about its approachability (admittedly, a doubt I quietly pondered) he would have known the wine style I leaned towards and could have dealt a more accessible alternative.  Live and learn; turnover.

Consult Sommelier, He Understands Me Now: 4th Quarter

Rubén agreed the wine was too tight to really appreciate.  But, we went to school on that experience together and now had the beginnings of mutual understanding.  I asked him what he would drink next if he wanted something similar, but at the peak of its development.  He suggested the ****1/2 1998 Bois de Boursan Chateauneuf du Pape Cuvee des Felix.  I knew ’98 to be a prodigious year in Chateauneuf du Pape but had never heard of the Cuvee des Felix blend.  It turned out to be the first Cuvee des Felix vintage.  Rubén assured me this Boursan held the style I had probably hoped for with the Clos Rougeard, and was perfectly ready to drink now.

Touchdown!  The Boursan was a massive mouthful of well aged wine that smoothly coated the palate with unabashed silkiness, delivering rich and advanced raspberry and black cherry fruit flavors, animal fur and mushroom aromatics, and a streak of serious acidity to keep the wine as lively as it was exotic.  It generously expressed the licorice flavors the Clos Rougeard held closer to its vest.

The strategy worked and created a rewarding evening of drinking.  The structure of the ordering, inside this wine temple called Veritas, helped to keep my adrenalin in check.  Step 1: Known delicious white wine value.  Step 2: Classic wine laying in my own cellar to monitor drinkability.  Step 3: Ask the sommelier to follow your early moves with his own superior list knowledge.

What’s your game plan?
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