Great pairings become so with a little time to reflect. Great pairings hang around, sticking in your craw for weeks, months, even years, remembering the "Holy Crap!"-ness of it all long after time should have erased it from any sort of memory. You could eat and drink and think, "This is pretty gosh darn good stuff," and the next day find yourself picking it apart a bit. Its residual mental gas just doesn't hold up.
This pairing, a meal of northern Italian vittles Spanish'd up to meld with a flat-out spectacular Rioja from a historic vintage, felt like a very good pairing that became less so with time. Frankly, if I'm first and foremost liking and remembering how the tannins beautified themselves with the veal fat, it's a bad sign. When the technical/structural are at the top of the 'what I liked 'about this' list, it's probably never going to reach the realm of Great.
This wasn't great. It was good. And sometimes good is damning with faint praise.
Food: Veal short ribs braised in honey and rosemary and risotto Milanese with arugula salad to finish
Recipe here with some modifications. 2.5 pounds of veal short ribs from D'Artagnan instead of veal shanks. Balsamic swapped out for sherry vinegar and viura used as the dry white wine to make this a touch more Spanish and elementally link up with the Rioja. Pearl onions and six cloves of garlic substituted for the shallots called for in the recipe. Risotto alla Milanese and its saffron base already had echoes of Spanish. Pecorino (sheepy) and viura used here to further that along.
The star of the meal was the use of the honey, accenting the veal in happy ways, offering a bright and delicate sweetness to the meal. Just shimmering stuff. Beautiful veal. We loved this. And the saffron risotto slid right into the weight and depth of the veal oh-so nicely. Arugula salad with parsley and pomegranate seeds to finish.
We'd recommend this meal and recipe with one reservation. While these were beautiful veal short ribs (D'Artagnan = the best), short ribs by their very nature have some serious-ass fat to them. Made us sleep like crap. We like fat. This was a lot of fat.
Wine: 2001 La Rioja Alta Viña Ardanza Reserva Especial ($30 - Spanish Table)
80% tempranillo, 20% garnacha, 36 months in American oak. Popped 30 minutes before drinking. No decant, which has been the way to go with this wine for us. Great evolution throughout the two hours open and beautiful right off the bat.
These are starting to dry up on the market so get it while it's to be gotten. 2001 was a silly-great vintage across the board in Rioja. This one shows why. Read about La Rioja Alta here. Only three times in their 120 years of existence has La Rioja Alta labeled the Viña Ardanza a Reserva Especial. That's how good the vintage was.
Pretty, old, alive nose. Liqueur-soaked dark cherries to start that happily skipped right to a cedar and leaf complexity halfway down, all bouncing along quite nicely and lightly, thank you very much. Bit of licorice this time, some wisps of burning leaves, somewhat different than the last time we had it in that we found it freaking gorgeous stuff but missed the perfect lift that we had with that walnut-pomegranate chicken. This was an example of great old-style Rioja doing what great old-style Rioja does: it goes through about 5,000 phases, each one interesting, each one delicious, but every one doesn't hit the food and wine sweet spot in the same way. They can be finicky, even when catered to.
Together, this was very good. But...
Pairing: Good, but firmly rebuffed at the gates of Great.
It came in the indescribable expansion that this wine and great old-style Rioja can and usually does achieve. Didn't get it this time. Maybe it was the familiarity of the wine after just having it four months ago. But the pairing didn't allow this wine to stretch its legs and offer a window into its grace, coming off like a world-class tennis player who doesn't have to dig deep to beat the sacrificial lambs in the early rounds of a major. Glimpses here and there but no sustained window of beauty where you know you're watching something rather special.
We liked this. A lot, actually. The veal was stupid-good. But the wine with the food felt, just a little bit, like it was going through the motions because it knew it could. Tons to like here, just never enough to love.
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