THE crab cakes were forgotten for the moment. It would have been a sin to keep the wine waiting, gleaming a pale, golden yellow in the glass. Melon, pineapple and jasmine notes. The initial sip brought a rush of zesty freshness. Doesn’t it remind you of a Pinot Grigio? Or a Chenin Blanc, I thought. The Joseph Phelps Sauvignon Blanc Saint Helena 2014 (100-percent estate-grown Sauvignon Blanc) did not fit the mold of the grape’s green, grassy profile. There was more tropical fruit than greenness, riding on the bright zestiness that is so Sauvignon Blanc. The Chardonnay Freestone Vineyards 2014 (100-percent estate-grown Chardonnay) was poured next, just as the thick mushroom soup was served. Buttered toast, lemon curd and tart green apple with the same racy acidity of the Sauvignon Banc. Red was the color of the evening, but the gorgeous Joseph Phelps whites were holding their own.
It was a Friday night at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse, the celebrated steakhouse’s Philippine branch at Resorts World Manila. I had endured two hours of end-of-the-week traffic to get here but the reward was the opportunity to experience two vintages of Insignia, the flagship red of Joseph Phelps Vineyards. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Happy Living Fine Wine, the importer of Joseph Phelps wines, had organized the dinner to highlight what must be the most enduring of partnerships—that of red wine and red meat, in this case, California Cabernet Sauvignon and top-quality American beef.
Insignia was first produced in 1974, one of the first Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated Bordeaux-blend wines in the Napa Valley. Since then, it has been highly regarded as the benchmark for quality winemaking in California, a triumph for the merits of blending, the style Joseph Phelps so passionately espoused. Joseph Phelps founded his eponymous winery in 1973 when he purchased a cattle ranch near Saint Helena in the Napa Valley. The winery now produces (apart from Insignia) Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Viognier from estate vineyards in Saint Helena, the Stags Leap District, Oakville, Rutherford, Oak Knoll District, Carneros and the South Napa Valley. But it is Insignia that has achieved legend status, both for its quality and longevity.
With an icon red, it had to be the “king of steaks”—the porterhouse cut. Usually weighing from 18 to 24 ounces, a porterhouse steak combines the best of two cuts: the hefty, firm strip loin and the juicy, tender filet mignon, separated by a “T”-shaped bone. (The porterhouse, in fact, is the larger sibling of the T-bone steak.) The “USDA Prime” tag is a quality grade of American beef, ensuring that the meat has been evaluated following the official grade standards “developed, maintained and interpreted by the USDA’s Agricultural Grading Service,” says What’s Your Beef?, a guide to understanding USDA’s beef grades. USDA Prime is at the pinnacle of quality (followed by USDA Choice and USDA Select), characterized by abundant marbling.
At Wolfgang’s Steakhouse, it can only be USDA Prime porterhouse, dry-aged for 28 days in their in-house aging room. Dry aging requires meat with a high concentration of evenly distributed fat. The process, which can take from 15 to 28 days under controlled temperature and humidity conditions, results in more intensely flavored and tenderized meat. That was exactly how the meat was when it was finally served—a hefty specimen more than an inch thick; rightly grilled and seasoned, smoky char and pink tenderness melding into one stupendous steak experience.
How long can they keep? The Insignia 2011 and 2012 were poured side-by-side. From 10 to 50 years, replied Robert Baxter, export director for Joseph Phelps Vineyards.
The proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon varies from vintage to vintage—82 percent in the 2011 and 75 percent in the 2012—as with the amounts of Petit Verdot, Malbec, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It was cool and wet in 2011; there was moderate heat in 2012. That would make the 2012 the more promising keeper. I picked up more milk chocolate in the 2011; dark espresso in the 2012. These are concentrated, opulent, full-bodied wines defined by complex flavors and a graceful muscularity.
What did you like best—is the inevitable question at every wine dinner. The Insignia 2011 or the Insignia 2012? It is difficult to choose between the majestic and the magnificent.
Happy Living Fine Wine is the importer and distributor of Joseph Phelps wines: www.happylivingwines.biz, firstname.lastname@example.org, 895-6507/08