Sixteen vintages of Vega Sicilia served in a private room of Jovia, Josh DeChellis' new restaurant, sounds genius doesn't it? Vega Sicilia is one of the world's most respected (and expensive) wines and DeChellis is the chef of the well respected Sumile who has joined with the owners of Zoe (also well respected) to open Jovia. This dinner brought together very fine pedigrees that promised brilliance.
My past tasting of Vega Sicilia is limited. Going into this tasting I was far more familiar with its legend as "one of the world's greatest wines" and process (very long cask aging followed by even longer bottle aging before release) and grapes (cabernet sauvignon, merlot and tempernillo) and somewhat dubious accolades like "holds its own with the greats of France." The wines were provided by The Wine Workshop part of Acker Merrall, a very reliable local wine retailer and auctioneer, and they all were from the same collection that appeared to be, as represented, a well kept one.
DeChillis has impressed me at food events and at his restaurant Sumile with his Japanese-French fusion cuisine. At Jovia I have been told he is doing New American with Italian influences and receiving good mention as a result. As this menu bore out, though, the intention for this dinner seemed instead to be a nod to the Nuevo Cucina of Spain, as would seem to be a fitting compliment to Spain's most respected wine.
Vintages: 1994, 1990, 1981: The '94 was bold, spicy and alive. The '81 was best associated with the dish. The wines from the '90's were cocktail wines, good alone but big for the dish. The octopus suffered from poor execution, the chew was too chewy and the crisp was not crispy enough. The flavors were kind of flat, as if a hotel had prepared it for a wedding.
Vintages: 1975, 1973, 1970: The strong one in this grouping was the '70. Very Burgundian in comparison to the others, it had notes of barnyard to go with the earthy, woody aromas, notes of cherries to go with the cassis, and generally was well balanced and harmonious between the lush fruits of the hot-weather cab and the acidity of the tempernillo. The tagliatelle had a nice bite but was otherwise unremarkable, as if we were at an awards ceremony.
Vintages: 1969, 1968, 1966: The '69 was the strong one in this group, showing much as the '70 had. The '68, which gets huge accolades in wine press, was flat and the '66 was faulty in some way, not corked but smelling of old leather boots from a musty cellar. This dish seemed as if it's recipe had been pulled from a cookbook about the "new food." The duck had had any game it brought to the game leeched out of it by poaching, there were slightly sweet dense pared little turnips and a green cooked well past recognition (which may have been bok choi) and the mousse was actually an espuma, light and airy and very ill-conceived as a pairing to this wine in these vintages, as if someone fresh out of the CIA was doing their first fund-raiser.
Vintages: 1965, 1962, 1960: All in all my favorite flight of the evening. These wines were dignified old ladies. They are no doubt starting a decline from where the '69 and '70 are right now, but at the moment they benefit from the subtleties of fading fruit, tannin, acid and wood notes, clearly sophisticated and classy. The lamb was sliced, filled with pepper and herbs, and reformed with caul fat, served on beans and a potato puree. It somehow tasted just as Tetra-min goldfish food smells. The jus that accompanied it had been cooked to the plate rim, I assume by some heat device as if it had waited for the weekend warrior server to get back to the kitchen after the first round of tables were served at a political event.
Vintages: 1957, 1955, 1953, 1951: These wines were respectively horrible, horrible, ok in comparison, and dead. The '51 was just shot, the ruby color of the other 15 was gone and the wine was simply lost. It is hard to fairly judge the '53 in comparison. It was nowhere near as bad as the '57 and '55 but it was if the wines wanted to upset us. This dish was just crazy. A fondue of sorts made with an insanely strong Spanish bleu cheese that completely blew out the canned truffle bits that although visible were otherwise undetectable, poured over a piece of toasted-to-the-point-of-dryness cinnamon raisin bread. It was generally agreed that had anyone actually enjoyed the wines in this flight it would have ended the minute this was tasted. The "torta" may have stood next to a few ports and sauternes, but not many.
The only critique I have ever had of Josh is in the drinks served to accompany his food, and that goes on. In this case, I suspect the actual execution of these dishes was left to someone who was operating under the belief that the night was about wine and no one would care how the food went out. In general, what I enjoy most about chef Dechillis' food is his light hand and subtlety, but tonight subtle crossed the line to flavorless (with the exception of dessert).
The wine was of good manifest, and provided by a quite reputable dealer. I don't think the bottles were in any way faulty. It is worth mentioning that the tasting was held while a huge storm front moved through the area, so if you are someone that has observed certain wines and food showing as flat during severe swings in barometric pressure you can easily blame that for the lackluster showing which I am tempted to do, having enjoyed Vega in the past and definitely considering myself among Josh's fandom.
Based on this tasting sampling sixteen of the twenty most highly praised vintages, I think I see where the praise stems from. Vega Sicilia Unico tastes like great Bordeaux, just like it. Back before people used centrifuges, artificial yeasts, and micro-oxygenatation to insure their wines always tasted like '82s, whether the weather was right or not, I am sure this was a good thing to know about, especially in vintages like '68.
It seems that Unico is still very traditionally made, using varying lengths of time in barrel and bottle to insure it is always going to be the best it can be, while the Bordelais it emulates have happily applied new technologies to cut these corners. Sadly, what we are left with is a more expensive version of a readily available commodity. Sure, the '94 was deep, complex and involving, with a bright future, but so is a '96 Mouton and it is only $220 or so a bottle as opposed to $300. I would love to reward Vega for doing things traditionally, but their tradition is that of being the best Spanish copy of Bordeaux. Even though they have been doing it for one hundred years, I would rather drink something entirely born of Spain, and when I want Bordeaux I'll drink it.