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Andrew Chalk: Recap of Quintessa Wine Dinner at Abacus

Mr. Chalk talks.

We continue our survey of Dallas wine tastings and dinners, hoping to bring the interesting ones your          attention. Three weeks ago we went to Jimmy’s Food Store for a tasting of Italian wines. Two weeks ago we went to Urban Crust for a Spanish wine tasting. This week we visited Kent Rathbun’s Abacus for a tasting of wines from Quintessa, a boutique winery in Napa led by the winemaker, Charles Thomas.

Charles Thomas has a dream job. As Director of Vineyards and Winemaking at Quintessa in Rutherford, California he makes wine at a small winery that is focused on quality. Winery owner, Agustin Huneeus, makes the resources available to achieve these goals. Huneeus and his wife, Valeria, bought the property without a vine on it in 1989. This allowed them to start with a clean slate and choose how to prepare the land for vineyards and how to plant the wines. They planted in 1990 and 1991, eventually producing the first vintage in 1994. A winery was not built on the premises until 2002, although you could miss it, even today, as it is designed to be inconspicuous within the folds of the Napa hills. Internally, it is built on ‘gravity flow’ principles. That is, grapes enter at the highest point and no force, other than gravity, moves ‘things’ until wine appears at the bottom.

The flow continues below.The vineyards are planted with the classic Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. Plus a little Carmenére, reflecting Huneeus’s Chilean heritage, and minus Malbec. The winery has been biodynamic since 2005. Thomas joined in 2007 after gaining 16 years experience at Robert Mondavi Winery, eight years at Kendall Jackson’s Cardinale boutique label and five years at Rudd.

At Abacus this week we had the opportunity to taste the first release of Quintessa’s premier wine that Thomas had overseen and also wines of other Huneeus labels that he makes. The wines were served with a four-course meal prepared by Abacus chef Omar Flores and pastry chef Mark Menzie.

The first course was Crispy Seared Ivory Salmon, Marinated heirloom Tomatoes, Wilted Watercress, Pancetta-Horseradish Crème Fraiche. Flores explained that Ivory Salmon are white-fleshed King Salmon that have an extra enzyme to process the carotene in their food that would otherwise turn their flesh pink. The sensory result is that the flesh is milder and more buttery. The dish was paired with 2008 Illumination Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley. (Approx. $40) This wine is made mainly from a small plot of Sauvignon Blanc grapes grown in the Quintessa Vineyards but a little Semillon (8%) from elsewhere is added. The grape juice is fermented in concrete ‘eggs’ made in Burgundy and highly regarded by some prestigious Burgundian winemakers. The result is a wine that is a complex blend of Sauvignon Blanc fruit and lemon scents in the nose, superb weight on the palate, and a long aftertaste. It is less grassy than New Zealand Sauvignons, but retains their brightness. It is less overtly fruity than typical California Sauvignons but undeniably has a fruit signature, helped by the Semillon. It is less mineral than the Loire Sauvignons from France, but nonetheless has a mineral vein running through it. Perhaps it most resembles a white wine from the Graves region of Bordeaux. It attained a 95/100 score from the Wine Enthusiast. From our point of view it was an excellent match with the Ivory Salmon.

Next was Balsamic Braised Kurobuta Pork Cheeks, Summer Truffle-Parsnip Puree, Pickled Bing Cherry Vinaigrette and the 2006 Faust, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. (Approx. $50) Faust, stresses Thomas, is not a second label. Rather, Huneeus wanted to produce a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that drew its fruit from an area greater than just the Quintessa vineyard. In order not to risk confusing the Quintessa name in consumers’ minds, he created a new label. Thomas makes the wine at Quintessa, using 25% new French oak and 75% once-used. The wine has 13% Merlot and 3% Malbec added to the Cabernet Sauvignon. The fruit comes from the rock stars of Napa Valley viticulture. It is a very showy, lush wine. The soft tannins cloak the mouth like velvet. The open dark berry fruit lingers in the aftertaste. This wine can be drunk now or kept for several years. The pork cheeks received universal acclaim at our table, as did the delicacy the chef showed in the use of truffle oil.

On to the red meat course: Wood Grilled Lamb Ribeye, Melted Leek Potato Puree, Porcini Mushroom Pan Sauce. Two wines were served, intended to be compared to each other, and as matches with the food. They were 2005 Quintessa, Napa Valley (approx. $100) and the 2006 vintage of the same wine (approx. $120). I found it hard to believe that they came from the same winery. The 2005 was a loosely structured wine with open, forward red fruit. The 2006 had a nose of black cherry, a concentrated structured mouth feel with a taste of ripe, sweet fruit. Thomas attributes the difference to the warmer vintage but I wonder, given the timing of his arrival, if he didn’t have a material influence on the 2006 that he could not have had on the 2005. Our table split almost 50-50 on which was preferred, stopping just short of a food fight on account of the quality of Omar Flores’ rib eye steak.

Quintessa does not (yet?) have a dessert wine in their portfolio, so Fonseca Bin 27 Ruby Port was served with dessert: Mark Menzie’s Poached Fig Bavarian, Manchego Tuile and Port Wine Reduction. I didn’t notice many empty plates.

Overall an A-list meal served with A-list wines that are made to a quality goal rather then a price target. Quintessa is serious about recognition in the top tier. Keep the name in mind when searching for Napa wines. Based on this event, Abacus wine tastings bring small, quality-oriented producers to the attention of Dallas consumers in an environment where they can talk to the winery directly. To sign up for the mailing list visit this spot.

8 comments on “Andrew Chalk: Recap of Quintessa Wine Dinner at Abacus

  1. Both 2005 and Quintessa are nice wines. Although pricing has gone up quite a bit the last few years

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