THE ADORATION OF THE MANATEE



Clever New Yorkers flee the city in August, but for those of us who remain to sweat through the dog days a few singular natural wonders can be found; chief among which is the return of the manatees to their summer home in island waters. So it is that a quintet of Sirenia-besotted winegeeks gather on a warm late summer evening for a celebration of the wanderings of these gentle giants.

Conquering the continuing travails foisted upon us by the MTA are Andrew and Jennifer Munro Clark and the usually punctual Jay Miller, who is not entirely punctual on this occasion only because of aforesaid travel challenges.

Lisa greets the intrepid geeks with a frothy glass of Francois Pinon Vouvray Brut N.V. "Ah, the new batch," sighs Jay happily. Yup, it's the new batch, the blend of '02 and '96. Smells lemony-yeasty, hints of marzipan and quinine, gentle veneer of waxiness. Cheerfully frothy, with impressive breadth and purity, easygoing complexity and bright freshness. Fine fizz, worthy of the assemblage of a manatee-lovers' quorum.

I've actually had quite the frantic day. I'd arisen at 7 to await the FreshDirect delivery that would bring the main load of party supplies--I'd procured the fresh manatee from a connection at our local Farmer's Market, but this was all the other foodstuffs--and the window of delivery came and went with no sign of my goodies. Turns out a technical SNAFU on our end had left our order in cyberlimbo, so I had to race off to our local Costco and Gristede's to try and rustle up something approaching what I'd planned. But that's manatee-filled water under the bridge at this point.

Wait, where was I going with that?

Oh yeah, the beauty part was that the one dish that I couldn't replace was my planned appetizer, and it just so happened that Andrew and Jen toted along a salmon appetizer, ready to serve. Pretty cool, huh? We all take it as a sign that the manatee gods are smiling down on us.

So with the nummy salmon hootie we have an Alice & Olivier De Moor Aligoté Bourgogne 'À Ligoter' 2005. I'm still confused as to why some versions of this wine have the '╦ Ligoter' label and some don't. Airy, minerally nose, touch of gardenia, touch of chlorine, rocks underneath it all. Tastes pure, crystalline and sedate, like an iced-over lake, with a hint of blubbery softness in the middle and an all-rocks finish. Very nice.

Next up is a Thomas-Labaille Sancerre Chavignol les Monts Damnés Cuvée Buster 1999. Aromatically reticent--gently honeyed and lemon-chalky smelling, with a sprinkling of yellow ginger root. Tastes pleasant but little flattened-out, a bit of a pressed-flower feeling to the middle, but the finish is long and gingery. Pleasant, but not terribly fresh.

Here's the first of my planned courses, a contemporary take on a traditional Roosevelt Island dish--seared spicerubbed manatee cheeks with a light comte sauce. The traditional wine match with manatee cheeks being Savennières, we decide to go all out and taste a quartet of mystery-shrouded bottles.

Mystery Savennières A. Medium straw-gold color. There's an odd funkiness here, smells burnt and lactic, like scalded milk. Under that there's quince and honey and wooly earth, but the funkiness is offputting. Tastes soft and spreads easily out on the tongue, loose and pure, gentle wine, tastes better than it smells, although the soft fleshy milkiness doesn't exactly qualify it as textbook Savennières. The texture is a bit creepy but it grows on me. (Clos de Coulaine (Papin-Chevalier) Savennières 1996).

Mystery Savennières B. Medium pale straw-gold color. A bit flinty-funky smelling at first, blows off soon enough, leaving behind a much more classic SavenniĆrish nose--honey-earth and wax and almond-quince. Tastes large and lithe, a big, flavorfully earthy wine that just nestles snugly into my mouth. Youngish, with just the beginnings of development, this seems younger than Wine A, better structured, more focused, despite the broad beam. Very nice broad-shouldered Savennières. (Domaine du Closel Savennières Clos du Papillon Cuvée Speciale 1996)

Mystery Savennières C. More classic Savennières smellies in spades--chalky minerality, honey-lemon and earth, beeswax. Seems younger than either of the first two, but there's some development here as well, a powerful core of yellowfruit that's loosening up around the edges. Taut at the core and firmly wrapped, it's a big wine, but one with a great deal of composure and a surprisingly light touch on the finish. Breadth, power, depth, complexity, finesse, the whole package. My favorite so far. (Clos de la Coulée de Serrant Savennières-Coulée de Serrant 1996)

Mystery Savennières D. Medium straw-gold color. Hey, this smells mentholated! Strange minty-menthol note over quiet earthy-honeyed yellowfruit and hay. Decent but rather wan Savennières, lacks verve. Where's the verve? Middling acidity, a bit squishy, a bit vague. Easily the least of the four. (Château d'Epiré Savennières Cuvée Speciale 1996)

When the bags are removed a hush falls over the room, the kind of awed hush that might result from, say, one's first encounter with a manatee in the wild. The Coulée de Serrant is fresh and young and powerful, far more akin to the way the wine tasted soon after release, as opposed to the past few bottles that have seemed oddly advanced. It's like a ninth-inning comeback by a ballclub you'd counted out, say for instance the Brevard County Manatees, rallying to stun the opposition.

While we're mulling over the results of the blind tasting here's a nonmysterious Savennières, a Damien Laureau Savennières 'les Gênets' 2002. Smooth, medium-shy nose--earl grey tea, earth, quince and paraffin. Medium pale lemon-straw color. Not big and extravagant, but not lean and taut either--somewhere in the middle, substantial yet balanced. Impressive focus and presence, a weighty wine that still manages to be light on its feet. I'm not familiar with this producer, but this is an awfully nice young Savennières, classically framed but with a lot of character and substance, although still young and closed after the '96s. If it wasn't pricier than every Savennières producer apart from Joly I'd probably buy more.

All the Savennières match wonderfully with the manatee cheeks, the earthiness of the wine mingling with the savory tenderness of the meat. Jay is a little uncertain about eating manatee until I reassure him that all the meat we're having tonight is farm-raised, not wild. Thusly reassured, he tucks in with gusto.

On to the dish I call 'Manatee Two Ways,' which is simply marinated manatee ribs baked very slowly kalbi-style and lightly seared rare flipper slices, served with tiny latkes, collard greens and bacon corn bread. Reds are called for, so we begin with a Domaine des Terres Dorées Beaujolais Vieilles Vignes l'Ancien 1999. Ah, the inaugural vintage of the Ancien, replacing the late lamented Ancienne. Smells of cheerful cherry-strawberry fruit laced with an assertive talc minerality. Medium-lightbodied, lithe and bright, with a prettiness that gives an impression of insubstantiality despite the subtle persistence of the tart cherrypit flavors. This is as fresh as the the '04 that we had last week. It seems utterly unchanged from how it tasted on release. Andrew looks worried. "I have a confession to make," he stammers. "I've recently begun to have doubts about aging Beaujolais, about whether it really gets a whole lot better, or, or... I don't know. Never mind." He hangs his head.

Awkward silence. I study my shoelaces intently, Lisa counts the floor tiles, Jay pushes a forkful of manatee in circles around his plate. Jen coughs. We all silently agree to pretend we heard nothing.

So, um. Okay then.

Turns out I've served the rare flipper slices a little too rare for some. Andrew, in particular, isn't crazy about them and send his back for more heat. "Burn mine!" he suggests, so I do.

Next up is a Clos Rougeard Saumur-Champigny 2002. Smells dark and cranberry-cassised, tobacco and smoke and dark gravelly minerality. Medium bodied wine with firm acidity and velvety-skinned redfruit, plenty of depth and complexity, perhaps not the most focused of Rougeards but surprisingly open and approachable in its youth, lipsmackingly juicy and delicious. So lovely that my plan to monitor the Live Manatee Cam goes right out the window, forgotten in a misty red haze.

Last red is a Château Faugères St. Emilion 2003. Dark chewy-smoky red berryfruit, spicy-dark and rich-smelling. Tastes as rough and rich as it smells, matte mouthfeel, medium acidity, chewy dark cassisberry redfruit laced with tar and licorice and earth. Comparisons to Monte Bello or other quality California wines aren't too far off the mark. Not particularly Bordeauxish, but nice wine nonetheless, if you, like me, are willing to challenge the governing paradijum and not always find ripeness a flaw. Compact and composed, generously flavorful, a bit over-the-top extravagant, but amiably so. Nice wine, especially for merlot, although not even close to the bargain it was ten years ago (I paid $16 for the '95, this was more than twice that).

Here's another Greg dal Piaz special, a Rudera Chenin Blanc Stellenbosch Noble Late Harvest 2005. Big boisterous tropical smellies--pineapple and a dash apricot, lemon-paraffin, touch of spiced-hay botrytis. Tastes big and sweet and rich, like an island cocktail, with enough acidity to not cloy. It's not the most complex of chenins, and perhaps there's a shortness of finesse, but it's puppyish and sweet and amiably juicy. Very likeable, nice balance. There's a happy tropicality that you only see in Loire sweeties in extremely ripe years, and a lack of underlying minerality, but the bottle is emptied pretty quickly.

Jay has to head out early, but before he goes we raise one last glass to the noble Sirenia with another sweetie, a Château Doisy Daëne Sauternes 2001. Medium-pale straw gold color. Richly aromatic, vanilla and botrytis and lemon custard, traces of orange rind, lemon rind, pineapple rind. Big and sweet and rich, another '01 bruiser, robustly flavorful and bumptiously broadbeamed, yet with a firm central core of acidity and the lightheartedness that I've seen in a lot of '01s. Awfully young and primary, with a lot of rich depth. Loverly.

It's a warm summer night and we're heading out to the lighthouse to see if oldtimers' stories about manatees mating in the north bay by moonlight hold any truth, so it's time for some final fortification with Niepoort Porto Quinta do Passadouro 1995. Smells warmly cocoaberried, dark red clay and black raspberry infused with baker's chocolate. Mediumweight, medium-plus sweetness, rather composed and rich, not hulking. This bottling is never in the deep black style of the regular Niepoort porto, it tends towards more elegance, lighter in body, not quite as viscous or sweet or generally Bunyanesque. It's a calm, gentle little porto, darkly flavorful and rather mellow, probably better for early drinking. So we're drinking it. And it's drinking pretty well for us. And we're drinking it pretty well. And it's all gone.

Okay, that's enough wine, it's time to go manatee-watching. Grab the binoculars! Grab the frozen peas! We're off!


Adopt a Manatee Today!

(Recipes available upon request.)




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