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A Franco-Texan Evening

Wine-it's what's for dinner. Well, not really. But when you are out to dinner with two experts on wine and liqueurs, it can quickly become the centerpiece of the evening.

In the spirit of facilitating a French connection, Mark Monfrey, a Dallas-based expert on specialty and handcrafted beverages from around the world, introduced me to his friend and colleague Alain Royer, a sixth generation Cognac maker from France.* They had just returned from an industry conference in New Orleans full of stories about the latest and greatest in liqueurs, spirits and even types of glasses to drink them in.

As we perused the menu at Dean Fearing's restaurant in Dallas, chef Dean himself came over to say hello and help us with our choices.* After much debate both en français et en anglais (in French and English), we decided on the chef's tasting menu, a gourmet extravaganza of several small plates of his signature southwestern cuisine.

Then, of course, we had to decide on le vin (wine). Alain kicked off our wine odyssey with an intriguing and delicious white wine choice from the Basque region of Spain. The Txomin Etxaniz was slightly effervescent and went perfectly with the barbequed shrimp tacos. As we enjoyed this unusual vin blanc (white wine) in delicate Riedel glasses, Alain pointed out that wine glasses should always be lightweight and should never interfere with the wine drinking experience. In other words, glassware "should melt away so that nothing comes between you and the wine."

Our next course was another chef special, the south of the border tortilla soup, accompanied by a Curran Grenache Blanc from the Santa Ynez Valley in California. Although widely planted in France and Spain, grenache blanc grapes are relatively rare in the United States so it was a real treat to try this special white varietal. This time, while the wine glasses were beautiful, they were heavy and definitely changed how we drank the wine.

Next up on our menu dégustation (tasting menu) were gorgeous Georges Bank sea scallops that tasted even better with the Jo Pithon Savennières chenin blanc from the Loire Valley in France. Another wine off the beaten path, this white was full of fruit with good body. Clearly, our sommelier was taking care of us.

Our final course included the maple-black peppercorn buffalo tenderloin-the best buffalo I have ever had-with jalapeno grits and accompanied by a fabulous red, L'Aventure Paso Robles Optimus from California. More French than Californian, this wine opened up moment by moment and was a powerful combination of cabernet sauvignon, syrah and petit verdot. Bacchus would have been over the moon.

By the time dessert arrived, we had tasted four fabulous wines. But more was still to come. Two additional glasses accompanied our mini trio of sweets. The wine staff poured a lovely Black Monukka dessert sherry from the Rotta Winery in California. I am a dessert wine fan and have tried many French variations such as Beaumes de Venise, Muscat and Sauternes. Still, I was unprepared for the voluptuous caramel and nut flavors of this rare dessert wine.

And then came the pièce de résistance (showpiece) of the evening. The wine staff poured us each a small glass of Château Paulet Cognac, a blend of very rare, fine Champagne Cognacs. Château Paulet, now owned by its president Jean-Pierre Cointreau, is one of the oldest houses in the Cognac area. The Cognac's crystal decanter was a showstopper in and of itself-it was designed especially for this Cognac by the French crystal house Lalique. I briefly held the decanter and secretly wished it was almost empty so I could take the collector's item home.

As we tasted the Cognac, one of the finest of the fine liqueurs in the world, Alain realized that the small liqueur glass was not quite right for this great spirit. He called over the sommelier and explained the issue. Immediately, we were brought slightly larger glasses. Voilà, the Cognac took on a whole other dimension. If I were not convinced before of the power of the right glass with the right libation, then now I was a believer. From that moment on, I would have to think of food and wine pairings more in the vein of food, wine and glass combinations.

As we parted for the evening, I thanked Mark and Alain for an extraordinary night of food, wine and conversation. It had been an education and a pleasure to break bread and taste wine with true authorities and connoisseurs of the wine and spirits genre. I felt like I had been to France for a night-all while sitting deep in the heart of Texas.

* Mark Monfrey works with importers, distillers and breweries that have a passion for their products. His Artisanal Beverage Company represents specialty and handcrafted beverages from around the world and craft beers from the U.S. Alain Royer is VP of Development for the Groupe Renaud-Cointreau.
* Dean Fearing's restaurant is located in the Dallas Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
* Château Paulet has an array of Cognacs including the Lalique Cognac.

September 3, 2008

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