The holidays are packed tight with exuberant, noisy parties for work and family. Sometimes you need to give yourself the gift of a quiet dinner with friends. That's exactly the excuse you need to break out that bottle of wine (or several bottles) you've been saving for a special occasion. You could wait forever — and find the wine is over the hill. Or you could make your own occasion, a simple dinner to showcase the wine. Think of it as an evening spent in the company of a few good bottles — and a few good friends.
We were six for a meal I'd planned around three stellar wines I'd been hoarding for a while. The menu? A classic rib roast with a punchy horseradish cream and sides of mashed potatoes with celery root, and green beans with tarragon. I didn't want anything too complicated or swaggering to obscure the wines. This was to be their night. And I knew that simple and direct food would let them shine.
The roast was a first for me. I tend to like to cook beef dishes in which the flavor is built in over time — a Provençal daube, beef goulash, bollito misto, brasato al Barolo. But as every expert I consulted told me, a prime rib roast is so easy even someone who doesn't cook at all can pull it off. There are only two things to remember: make sure the beef is at room temperature when you put it in the oven and leave time for the roast to rest when you take it out.
After the military precision of the Thanksgiving meal, cooking the roast and sides seemed almost comically simple. I wandered into the kitchen and back out, checking the temperature, watching the roast slowly brown and about every half hour or so, slicking it down with melted butter infused with garlic and thyme.
An hour or so before the roast was slated to come out of the oven, I opened the bottles — 2000 Marcassin Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, 1994 C.V.N.E. Imperial Gran Reserva Rioja and a 1990 Paul Jaboulet Hermitage "La Chapelle" — to make sure the wines were in good shape. They were. But I decided not to decant them, just leave the bottles open. And I kept them outside on the deck to stay cool. I like to see how the wine evolves from the time it's opened to the last small pour. If you decant it, it's already halfway there by the time you take the first sip. I want to experience the wine as a living thing.
The idea was to enjoy the wines one by one with the occasional hop back to one or the other. I wasn't interested in ranking them but in experiencing each on its own terms.
The Marcassin Vineyard Pinot Noir was all sweet cherries at the first taste, with a lovely silken texture. A few sips more and darker, earthier tones revealed themselves. Such a subtle wine needs subtle food, and the beef, a true medium rare, was just that. Next up was the 1994 C.V.N.E. Imperial Gran Reserva (Wine Spectator's top wine this year). It was a great, great bottle from start to finish, supple and nuanced, and it was the wine we all felt worked best with the roast. The spectacular Hermitage "La Chapelle" tasted of wild plums and smoke and earth. Complete in every way and a real stunner, it seemed to need something with bolder flavors, a beautiful piece of lamb, say.
The meal, which included a kabocha squash soup and persimmon pudding cake, was artfully simple, really all about product. That's why it's essential to get your hands on a great piece of beef, preferably prime. The only mistake you can make is to overcook the roast.
In the end, this was as stress-free a dinner party as I've had in a long time. I like to think the wines enjoyed having their moment to shine too.