Guests at The Fairfax Embassy Row’s Jockey Club certainly didn’t suffer from Pinot envy at the Hanzell Vineyards wine dinner.
By Kelly A. Magyarics
Really, is there any greater culinary pleasure in life than the right dish sublimely paired with the perfect wine? Why yes, actually. How about four courses, paired with five wines, all planned and executed by a chef and a winemaker, with no effort on your part whatsoever beyond showing up? Now that’s an evening well spent.
The eight wine pairing dinners that comprise the first ever Capital Wine Festival this spring, held at The Jockey Club at The Fairfax at Embassy Row, are hosted either by the winemaker or winery owner. Modeled after the immensely popular Boston Wine Festival, now in its twenty-first year, the weekly dinners of the festival are created by Jockey Club Chef Levi Mezick to accompany each winemaker’s selections. (And incidentally, 20% of all ticket sales go towards the Haiti relief effort.)
On March 10, Sonoma’s Hanzell Vineyards was in the house, pouring and exploring their Burgundian-style Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Located high in the Sonoma Mountains with forty-two acres under vines, Hanzell’s focus highlights terroir and ageability of their wines. Hanzell president Jean Arnold Sessions was on hand to discuss the winery’s philosophy and Old World approach to winemaking.
The event attracted about sixty wine lovers, including lots of long time Hanzell customers, as well as enthusiastic oenophiles and admitted newbies. Sessions provided detailed background history on the winery, as well as some noteworthy anecdotes. For instance, Hanzell was the first winery to create and use custom-designed stainless steel temperature controlled fermentation tanks; the first to use inert gas in the form of nitrogen to prevent oxidation; and the first to use imported Sirgue French oak barrels exclusively for barrel aging wine. But the evening wasn’t just about details for wine geeks. The four-course dinner by Chef Mezick highlighted two vintages of Chardonnay, and three of Pinot Noir.
An Olive Oil Poached Codfish was accompanied by cockles, lemon verbena purée, shaved carrots and fennel, and paired with both Hanzell’s 2003 and 1997 Chardonnay vintages. The dish was fresh and fragrant—a perfect course to usher in the first signs of spring. The more recent bottle offered more primary fruit flavors, as well as a great line of minerality. The older Chard (and the definite crowd pleaser) exhibited caramel and butterscotch notes, as well as a touch of oxidation, all which added to its complexity, sip after sip. (Sessions scoffed at those who say that Chardonnay isn’t an age-worthy wine, and noted that use of oak is one of the factors that can make it last for years in the bottle.)
The next three courses were paired with different vintages of Pinot Noir. Fickle and notoriously difficult to grow, Pinot that’s properly coaxed and coddled will have both that gorgeous balance of cherry/raspberry fruit, as well as an intriguing earthy quality—often described as mushrooms, or even wet leaves. Great stuff. But it takes a deft winemaker’s hand to keep the grape sultry and seductive—sure, over extraction of the grape gives it more color and oomph, but unfortunately can also lead to jammy, overripe fruit flavors and harsh tannins. Hanzell’s delicate Burgundian approach (the original owner fell in love with Clos Vougeot) keeps it all in check.
Baked Dourade with oyster mushrooms, green beans and Pinot Noir beurre rouge was enjoyed alongside the 2006 Pinot Noir, fruit-forward, with cherry aromas and soft and silky tannins. The full flavors of the smoky, meaty Bacon Wrapped Monkfish with grilled radicchio, panisse and a caper golden raisin emulsion matched the gumption of the 1996 Pinot, a wine that lacked the fruit of the 2006, but definitely had more grip.
The final pairing partnered a Morel Crusted Lamb Rack with morel risotto, braised romaine and a rose petal emulsion with the 1984 Pinot. “You become part of the winemaking process if you cellar it,” said Sessions of their older wines. This twenty-six year old bottle, opened a few hours before the dinner, was showing beautifully, with complex, multi-layers of wet leaves, mushrooms and the forest floor. Sessions mentioned that this wine is at its peak right now, and won’t improve with additional bottle age. Translation: Drink it if you’re lucky enough to have it.
If you missed the dinner, you’re in luck, as the festival isn’t over yet. The last dinner on March 17 will feature wines by Napa’s Duckhorn Vinyards—quite a lovely way to spend St. Patrick’s Day. For ticket information, visit www.capitalwinefestival.com.