We (Helmet, Pichon, Magnus, Fox, Xing, and myself) attended a vertical wines of Giacomo Conterno dinner with the wine maker Roberto Conterno at Babbo last night. We had 7 wines spanning the 1990's, each paired with its own course. The Monfortinos were all reserve Barolo, and the Cascinas were all Borolo Cascina Franca.
Nose: Stones, black tea, cedar, leather, rose
Palate: Big attack, short finish, lots of tannin
Pairing: Agnolotti. Goat cheese, rabbit and veal-stuffed pillows of pasta, lightly buttered and served to be eaten with fingers from a folded napkin. The cheese brought a pull to the texture, while the seam of the pasta was folded back over itself, creating a dense chew.
Nose: Tar, creosote, raspberries, burdock
Palate: Leather, stones, great integration
Pairing: Sformato di Castelmagno with Rabbit and Watercress. The rabbit was said to be confit which I imagine involved much olive oil -- one, because it tasted remarkably of olive oil and two, because rabbits aren't very fatty. This dish was truly rich, lightened by the micro watercress.
Nose: Roses, forest floor, mushrooms
Palate: Bracing acids, huge tannin
Pairing: Zuppa di Porcini with Poppy Seed "Strichetti." This soup was truly about porcinis. It was made by reconstituting the dried porcinis, chopping and then blending them into vegetable stock with a touch of cream. This was then poured over little bowties that had poppy seeds incorporated into the dough.
Nose: Tar, creosote, raspberries, fennel
Palate: Black tea, forward tannin, lactic notes
Pairing: Cannelloni with Radicchio and Goat Cheese. Organized, baked and topped with a béchamel
Nose: Raspberries, mint, minerals, mousse, flowers
Palate: Tart, rich, young lactic notes, raspberries
Pairing: "Panchetta Ripiena" with Chanterelles and Thyme. Imagine the joy we experienced when it was explained to us that a piece of pork belly was going to be spread flat, covered with a layer of pancetta, rolled, sliced, fried, and topped with chanterelles that had been sautéed crisp in butter with some thyme. If that doesn't ring in your ears like a beautiful sonnet, I just don't know what to tell you.
Nose: Kirsch liqueur, stones, red currants
Palate: Signs of integration, wanton fruit, linear tannic finish
Pairing: Gorgonzola Crostino. A simple piece of bread topped with Gorgonzola, baked and drizzled with black truffle honey. Remember being a kid and topping Triscuts with cheddar and throwing them in the toaster-oven when you had the munchies? That, but with gorgonzola and truffle honey, enough said.
Nose: Game, raw meat, raspberries
Palate: Lively, hot, it's a monster
Paring: Bonêt alla Piemontese. Reminiscent of a hazelnut studded flan, this was a custard strewn with nuts and topped with crème fraiche.
In a world where everyone is paying lip service to tradition while fiddling around with things to make them appealing to the general American palate, the Giacomo Conterno winery has zero French oak. That means two things: first, these wines want time, and second, there is nothing getting in the way of the terroir showing itself.
It is wonderful how grape selection can affect a wine. The grapes for Monfortino are selected from the same vineyards as the Cascina, yet all the Monfortinos are reminiscent of rose petals and tea, while tar and raspberries are the flavors of Cascina.
All these wines have a long life ahead of them -- I am still not sure the '90 is ready yet, and the '99 was definitely grumpy for having been roused so early. The accepted truth is (and I think we all agree) that 20 years is young for these wines, and there really is no rushing genius. Because only if you have had a perfect Monfortino at the right time can you say “Gaja who?”
Like sex, there is no bad Babbo. There is Babbo-that-doesn't-knock-you-out-and-seems-bad-for-not-being-amazing, but I have yet to have bad Babbo. Also like sex, when Babbo goes perfectly it is so great. Because of the types of wine involved, there was just one dessert on this menu and standing alone it was great. For the first time in six years, I was served non-Coach Farms cheese at the end of the meal and, except for the service of the Agnolotti, I had seen none of these dishes before at any of the Empire's restaurants.
Truly great Babbo is truly inspired Italian food that sticks with the ethos that in Italy you would never use sub-par ingredients to fit a recipe but would adapt your recipe to fit your greatest ingredients. So here in America, what is best, not what is traditional, is served. Maybe the inspiration was a great winemaker; maybe another round of Beard nominations, but without being fussy or familiar this dinner managed to be fantastic.