From scotch to port

Most tasting reports, Omniboire’s included, consist of a litany of wines or spirits accompanied by lengthy, possibly even pithy, descriptions. Stars, poufs, even corkscrews are accorded. The notion is that the consumer will pick a bottle that sounds appealing and try it — simple as that.

But most wines and spirits aren’t consumed in such isolation; there’s a context. And at this time of year, that context may well be a lox-to-nuts dinner requiring a variety of drinks. So, as both a change of pace and the evocation of a quasi real-world situation, Omniboire put together a holiday dinner party — a mock meal, really — and you’re invited. Don’t bring any bottles; we’ve got that covered.

We didn’t kick over all the traces for this event; the guests were the expected wine-world worthies: Woody (“Dr. Riesling”) de Luna and Ray Ayala, both of Republic National Distributors; David Verheyen of Domaines & Estates; and Moe Lazri, manager of the Fig Tree and Little Rhein. Omniboire washed the rarely-used Riedel glassware — twice. Each guest brought a wine appropriate for a particular course of this hypothetical meal (Lazri brought some appetizers from Fig Tree as well), and since we weren’t tasting blind as we usually do, there was no scoring. No encouragement was needed to spur discussion, however.

Omniboire kicked off the event with a 16-year-old single malt Scotch from a sparsely settled island in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. The Isle of Jura (~ $53) is a personal favorite precisely because it shows some traces of its marine setting without resorting to the big smoke and iodine of the Laphroaig single malts from neighboring Islay. We tried it first neat. “It’s not a big ‘thug’ of a Scotch,” noted Verheyen. “More of a white-collar criminal,” countered Ayala. Light peat, orange, spice, a touch of smoke, and toffee emerged. But served neat it might even be better after a meal, thought Lazri (Omnibore had debated this), so we added a cube of ice to each glass.

And the difference was dramatic. The Jura’s Highland-like qualities emerged, with a more floral component being emphasized. Now it was an apéritif and more comfortable with some J Harbutt Simply The Best Lyburn Smoked cheese from Central Market (the cheese out-smoked the Scotch, in fact). Yes, we know your normal dinner guest isn’t going to stand around debating all this; forgive us.

True to form, de Luna brought a Riesling, the recently released 1992 Zilliken Formeister Geltz Saarburger Rausch Riesling Spätlese ($45). The name is a mouthful, but so is the late-harvest wine. There’s a touch of smoke on the nose, coupled with vibrant, spicy apple that carries through on the palate. “Warm apple juice!” said both Ayala and Lazri. “It doesn’t have the bracing acidity of the younger `rieslings`,” claimed Verheyen. “It’s delicate,” thought Omniboire, but de Luna preferred “‘filigreed’ — it’s the term the Germans love.” We tried this with Lazri’s seared tuna over cellophane noodles with a sesame oil, soy and garlic-shallot drizzle: perfect, though a simple smoked salmon would work well too.

The fantasy of this faux feast was that the main course might have consisted of a joint of beef or a haunch of venison, so two red wines were on the agenda. In Old-World-before-New order, next up was Verheyen’s Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Rioja Gran Reserva Especial, Cosecha 2001 ($54). “It smells like Old World,” offered Ayala, and indeed it had a robust air of fruit compote — plus “cedar-infused cranberry,” said de Luna. But for all its initial power, the wine was also extremely elegant, continuing to unfold in the pompously large glasses. Debate ensued about whether Murrieta, Rioja’s oldest bodega, had been aiming for a modern-style Rioja, eschewing the traditional brooding presence, and the consensus was that it tended toward modern without being a “fruit bomb.” “Big and fruity drives me crazy,” remarked Verheyen. (Take that, Robert Parker.)

We tasted this and the next wine with some boiled tongue and fennel mayonnaise brought by Lazri and thinly sliced roast beef with what turned out to be an overly assertive sauce of yogurt, mayonnaise, fig preserves, and Thai curry paste by Omniboire. The tongue was terrific, and the sauce’s subtle fennel flavors seemed tailor-made for the mostly tempranillo blend.

Red wine number two was Ayala’s 1997 Rodney Strong Symmetry from Alexander Valley ($48), a blend of cabernet with malbec, cabernet franc, and petit verdot. “Very polished,” thought de Luna; “it’s got cedar and good minerality.” “You can tell it’s not from Napa,” noted Verheyen. “It doesn’t have that fingernail-polish character.” “It’s more like a pinot; you can drink it with anything,” claimed Lazri. “But the sausage brings out the structure,” countered de Luna.

So, yes, there was also sausage, a pinot-infused variety from World Market. “Try it with the Spanish wine,” enthused Lazri — and yes, it was good. And then things really got crazy in a flurry of tasting across courses. A dangerous amount of glassware now covered the table. At this point, another Zilliken Riesling, older but even livelier, emerged from de Luna’s magic insulated bag, and it was fantastic with the curried mayo, the remaining tuna … but we’d better move on to dessert.

For this course Lazri had brought a 10-year-old Tawny Port from Quinta do Noval (~ $30); it glowed with a vibrant topaz color and hummed with honey, toffee, and nougat. “It’s almost floral and rosy on the palate,” said one taster. (It was getting late and attribution was becoming more difficult.) “It would be perfect around a fireplace with walnuts and Stilton,” said another. Lacking a fireplace and walnuts, Omniboire substituted a version of Florentines, a thin, lacy cookie of almonds with a coating of chocolate. Nutty enough; it worked. •

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