Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ubuntu restaurant, Napa

I should never be caught dead in a vegetarian joint. Hard to fathom for a Russian Jew that a meal is a meal if it doesn't have meat or poultry or fish or sausage.

One place on Earth so far (and apologies to all my vegetarian friends from India) where I will go gladly every time and forget all about meat is Ubuntu restaurant in Napa. They call it a "vegetable" restaurant rather than "vegetarian" to try to fool the prejudiced carnivores like myself. Their daily garden menu are dishes inspired by the bounty of biodynamics, seasonality, and creativity. Just several years in existence, and already granted a Michelin star, this two-story establishment is strange - folks literally walk out of the second floor's yoga studio in their sweats, while the trendy first floor is filled with well-dressed gourmands. The founder / owner apparently is passionate about yoga and food, and managed to combine those two into one amazing experience in historic downtown Napa. The rationale, I suppose, is that you work up quite a healthy appetite during Yoga, "healthy" being the key word. The closest I've seen to the art of food at Ubuntu is Japanese kaiseki. But at Ubuntu, you get the seasonal California produce shaped by Iron Chef techniques, and presentation that would make the Japanese proud. The flavors, textures, and arrangements by the executive chef Aaron London and his staff are simply breath-taking.

"Arbuckle grits"

Chickpeas a la Catalan


The wine selection by the glass fits the dishes, and I would order a couple of different wines to go with the different flavors. They even had a really quite good Friulian blend of Tocai Friulano, Ribolla Gialla and Chardonnay from Napa Valley (!) that had acidity and freshness! (I know - hard to believe!)

In keeping with my Russian roots, I am not sure that I could handle a meat-less dinner yet, but for lunch - book me for Ubuntu!

P.S. For those interested to learn more about Ubuntu, here is a very good in-depth article on

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri 2011

Gambero Rosso - Italy's most famous food-and-wine guide since 1987 comes out with their annual Tre Bicchieri wine ratings. Fort Mason Center in San Francisco is filled with what feels like a thousand people. So many familiar faces, some new. Is everyone speaking Italian? I even think I can understand some of it. After all, I lived 3 months in Italy when I was 16, as a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine on the way to America. Or maybe it's from all the Italian wine I've been drinking lately. The terroir finally manifested itself? Buono! Questo ragazzo idiota! Vabbene! Tre Bicchieri!

If you like Italian wine, then Tre Bicchieri is your guide. To my palate, it's more reliable and authoritative than anything from Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate. For the 2011 edition, more than 70 Gambero Rosso tasters blind-tasted nearly 25,000 wines from 2,350 producers all over Italy. The editors then awarded 402 "tre bicchieri" (three glasses - their top designation) and 32 "the bicchieri plus" (the absolute highest award for wines selected by the editor-in-chief Daniele Cernilli), reflecting Italian wine quality and trends, and influencing fine Italian wine consumption around the globe. One could expect air of unapproachability from such god-like officials, but in reality, talking to Marco Sabellico and Eleonora Guerini (two of the three senior editors present at the tasting in San Francisco) was easy. To be perfectly frank, I was mesmerized by Eleonora's lightest-shade-of-blue eyes and Marco's baron-like mustache. The wine talk was just the icing on the cake!

Eleonora Guerini, Iron Chevsky, and Marco Sabellico.

Overall impressions

It felt like no particular region stood out, or rather I saw fair representation from all over Italy. In 2009, the 2004 vintage dominated with Barolos and Barbarescos from Piedmonte, and Brunellos and Super-Tuscans (Bolgheri, Maremma and Toscana IGT wines) from Tuscany. In 2010 and especially this year, the representation from those has not been as pronounced, even though the absolute number of tre bicchieri winners did not significantly change for those great regions. However, the wines were less clustered on any particular appellation. And I saw fewer bombastic styles. Brunello was almost unnoticeable. Barolos were still showing well, with riservas from 2004 being very strong, and the 2006 solid but still very tannic and unyielding. Super-tuscans have showed up every year with quality wines, but I continue to be uninspired by that entire category of French varietals (Cab, Merlot, Syrah), much preferring Italy's native grapes. With one more year of experience under my belt of tasting and learning Italian wines, I was able to better appreciate the bounty of what different regions had to offer beyond Piedmonte and Tuscany, from Lombardy to Trentino to Friuli to Veneto to Campania to Marche to Sicily. That diversity coupled with the fact that we have not had a blockbuster vintage from Piedmonte since 2004, and the fact that much anticipated 2006 Brunellos haven't yet arrived in numbers, explains the composition of the 2011 Tre Bicchieri show.

I asked both Marco and Eleonora what in their views was different this year from last. What were the emerging trends in Italian wine?

"I see Campania gaining [with producers like Feudi di San Gregorio, Pietracupa, Mastroberardino (all tre bicchieri recipients)] - making great wines from native grapes such as Fiano di Avellino, Greco di Tufo [two whites], and of course Aglianico [famous red that goes into Taurasi]", said Eleonora.
"What about Falanghina [another well-known Italian white from Campania]?", I was curious.
"Not so much. Falanghina is not as good", Eleonora struggled to find the right words in English. "Does not age well. Lower-end."
My experiences with the above grapes didn't really show such a big difference, but I had not had them at more than a couple of years of age.

Macro chimed in: "We see more native varietals emerge: Pecorino (from Marche), Casavecchia (from Campania), Nerello (from Sicily). We also see increasing popularity of organic, natural, and biodynamic winemaking. Quality of those is not necessarily better or worse, but people are more environmentally conscious." Marco continued: "The biggest trend we see is the pendulum swinging back to more traditional wines. In the past 20 years, people have played around with modern / international, over-ambitious, over-the-top, bombastically styled wines (richer, riper, oakier, approachable earlier), and now that they've satisfied their curiosity and had enough fun, Italian wine scene is moving back toward more moderate, traditional, authentic way of making wine."

I also asked Eleonora's perspective on the last few Barolo vintages. Eleonora sees 2005 as a poor vintage but with a number of producers having made good, approachable wines. Everyone agrees that 2006 is good and structured, and will age well, but just doesn't have as much fruit as 2004. She loves the 2007, and is generally thumbs-down on 2008 (too rainy) and 2009 (too hot).

Top wines of the tasting

At the beginning of the tasting, I asked Eleonora which wines she thinks I must try. That was my politically correct way of getting the list of her personal favorites. As she pointed out a number of items in the booklet (Schiavenza, Paolo Conterno, Ettore Germano (Herzu), and a few others) and explained why she liked them, it was clear her palate was similar to mine - she preferred lighter, less opulent, more classical wines. Italian Nebbiolo over Napa Cab any day! Later on, having gone through several hours of tasting, I must concur with her. Many of the wines she pointed out were among my favorites.

But the top spot of the show, for me, goes to Ferrari - the producer from Trentino-Alto Adige (Italy's northernmost region) I've mentioned in the two previous years, who this time seemed to rise even higher. This year for his efforts at Ferrari, the winemaker Ruben Larentis was awarded Winemaker of the Year. Ferrari presented:

2004 Trento Brut Perle Nero - 100% Pinot Noir, beautiful Champagne-like brut. 6 years on the lees.
2006 Trento Brut Perle Rosé - 80% Pinot Noir / 20% Chardonnay, another beauty - delicate roses, redcurrants, raspberries, and citrus. 5 years on the lees. Wonderfully lively and perfumey.
2001 Trento Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore Brut - Ferrari's top bottling and perennial tre bicchieri winner (this year tre bicchieri plus). 100% Chardonnay. 10 years on the lees. Big, yeasty Champagne-like sparkler.

All three traditional-method sparkling wines were outstanding, and easily rivaled top Champagne. Not cheap, at $50-100/btl, but the best I've seen from Italy, showing better than the iconic Ca'del Bosco Annamaria Clementi, which in the currently released 2003 vintage seemed ripe, heavy, powerful, almost bully-like, not surprising given the obscenely hot, much-maligned 2003 vintage in Europe. Call me crazy, but the 2003 Annamaria Clementi reminded me of the '98 Krug. So how bad can that be?! But the Ferrari's were just spot on! When I mentioned my opinion of Ferrari's wines to Eleonora, she nodded like it was a no-brainer. "Of course! These are the best sparkling wines in Italy!" About 80% of the annual production of Giulio Ferrari (Ferrari's top cuvée) is sold in Italy. Only a 1000 bottles a year are imported to the US, so given the scarcity and the reputation among Italian wine connoisseurs, the wines sell, even at $90/bottle.

Amongst the reds, two Barolos from 2004 easily outshone everyone else:

2004 Massolino Barolo "Vigna Rionda" - so pure, bright, and delicious! (can be found on wine-searcher for $55-60, quite a bit lower than the 2001.)

Always a pleasure to hang with Franco Massolino, especially while grasping his juicy 2004 Barolo Vigna Rionda.

2004 Bruno Giacosa "Le Rocche del Falletto di Serralunga d'Alba" red-label Riserva - a Giacosa classic (priced at the highest end of the Barolo stratosphere ($400)) - a very complex wine with deceptively soft texture. Cured meat, tobacco, plums, raspberries, dried flowers, almost an aged character, long finish. Awarded tre bicchieri plus. "Probably the finest Barolo of recent years, on par with Barbaresco Asili '96 and Barolo Collina Rionda '89", says the Tre Bicchieri guide. Not sure that I'd pay $400 for it, given that there are other amazing Barolos in the $100 range. But $300-400 is where the iconic Italian reds (from Gaja, Giacomo Conterno, Biondi-Santi, Dal Forno, Quintarelli, and a couple of others) are these days.

Marco added another fave of his - Biondi-Santi Brunello (whose 2004 Riserva is crazy expensive ($400), named the Red wine of the Year, and not available at the show unfortunately). I asked if they liked Soldera, and they said "No".

Other very good wines

2004 Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello di Montalcino Riserva - smooth, elegant, spicy, leathery, impressive.
2008 Ettore Germano Herzu Langhe Bianco (Riesling) - this is the best Riesling I've had from Italy. Very tasty wine, with great acid, minerality, and fruit, completely dry, but with more body than you find in a trocken (dry) German Riesling.
2005 Guido Berlucchi Franciacorta Brut Extreme "Palazzo Lana" - from 100% Pinot Nero (Noir)
2005 Le Marchesine Franciacorta "Secolo Novo" - awarded the Sparkling wine of the Year, made 100% from Chardonnay, this wine is yeasty, more fruity and lemony than "Palazzo Lana" above.

From left to right: 1. Francesco Ripaccioli (grandson of the founder Primo Pacenti) of Canaliccio di Sopra with the 2004 Brunello Riserva. 2. Sergio Germano (who runs the estate with his father Ettore) of Germano Ettore with the 2008 Herzu Riesling. 3. Andrea Biatta of Le Marchesine (the youngest generation of the Biatta family who own the estate) with 2005 Le Marchesine Franciacorta "Secolo Novo".

2009 Ruggeri Prosecco Extra Dry "Giustino B" - a vintage Prosecco - a small number of Veneto producers have started making them in the last 4-5 years, taking Prosecco to another level.

The young Giustino Bisol explained that "Ruggeri" was the last name of his grand-father's partner who together with his grandfather founded the estate in 1950. Eventually the two parted ways, and the Bisol family has been running the estate for two generations, yet the original name was kept. Here Giustino is holding his eponymous vintage Prosecco 2009 awarded tre bicchieri.

2006 Pio Cesare Barolo "Ornato" - caramel plum, chocolate, licorice, tasty.
2006 Castello di Monsanto Chianti Classico Il Poggio Riserva - a very pretty, balanced, smooth, medium textured Chianti Classico that manages not to taste like a Brunello despite its $50 (very high for Chianti) price tag.
2008 Petrolo "Galatrona" - 100% Merlot. As I already mentioned, I am not a fan of Super-Tuscans, but as far as those wines go, this is a good one. I enjoyed it far more than the powerhouse, super-ripe 2007 (98 point Wine Spectator, not surprising). The 2008 is a cooler wine, with notes of earthy veggies, and thus IMHO much more food-friendly than 2007.
2007 Tenuta Olim Bauda Barbera d'Asti Superiore "Nizza" - a bit deeper, darker and thicker than your everyday Barbera, but showing fine balance and complexity of tobacco leaf, graphite, and black cherries, with good acidity.
2008 Palari "Faro Palari" - Sicilian red made primarily from Nerello Mascalese, topped with small amounts of other native varietals, in the Messina region of the island (Messina is the third largest city in Sicily, after Palermo and Cantania), from Faro DOC. Pinot body, velvety, red and black cherries, spice and pencil lead, nice character. Similar to Etna Rosso (that I covered here).

Other promising wines

A number of wines seemed too young for me to fully access and appreciate yet, but which could turn out to be very very good.

2007 Arnaldo Caprai Sagrantino di Montefalco 25 Anni - powerful, rich & structured, drink in 2020!

Iron Chevsky and Marco Caprai (son of the founder Arnaldo) of Arnaldo Caprai - the world's most recognized maker of Sagrantino di Montefalco, Umbria's greatest red wine.

2006 Paolo Conterno Barolo "Ginestra" - very tight and tannic right now, hard to judge, check back in September.

Giorgio Conterno (whose great-grand-father started the winery in 1886) of Paolo Conterno (no relation to Giacomo or Aldo Conterno) with the 2006 Barolo Ginestra, awarded tre bicchieri for the third time.

2007 Pelissero Barbaresco "Vanotu"

Giorgio Pelissero (the owner of the estate, founded by Giorgio's grand-father Giovanni Pelissero, with the first bottles produced by Giorgio's father Luigi in 1960) with the 2007 Barbaresco Vanotu.

2004 Schiavenza Barolo "Broglio" Riserva - very precise, great acid, needs time.
2005 Borgogno Barolo "Vigna Liste" - raw, energetic and young, very tannic.
2006 Vietti Barolo "Rocche" - a typical Vietti, with darker notes, a bit of heat, menthol, spices, and chocolate.
2006 Ca'del Baio Barbaresco "Pora" - very young and tight, spicy, needs time.

Last year, I remarked on the 2006 Barbaresco Asili represented by sisters Paola and Valentina Grasso. This year I ran into them again and was not disappointed by their Barbaresco "Pora", more structured than the Asili.

2006 Renato Ratti Barolo "Rocche" - tight, a little bitter, a little hot (14.5%), needs time.

Brian Larky (on the left), the founder of Dalla Terra (importer of Vietti and Casanova di Neri, among others, read more about him here) and Pietro Ratti (the son of the founder Renato) of Renato Ratti with the 2006 Barolo Rocche.

2007 Nino Negri Valtellina Sfursat 5 Stelle - this wine is made from matt-dried Nebbiolo grapes, similiar to the Amarone method - a wine from Lombardy, only 1200 bottles are sold in the US per year. As expected, it has a baked berries angle to it, so if you like that aspect of Amarone, you will love it in Sfursat.
2005 Massimino Venturini Amarone "Campomasua" - nice spices, cloves, veggies, root veggies, and dry fruits, high acid.
2004 Mastroberardino Taurasi Radici Riserva - spice, leather, plum, raspberry, forest floor, awarded tre bicchieri plus.

Other positive mentions

2008 Pietracupa Cupo (Fiano) was quite fascinating. A crisp white made from Campania's Fiano grape, earning tre bicchieri plus, normally thought of as a pairing for seafood, it had smokiness that made me think of charcuterie. Pietracupa's other white wine, 2009 Greco di Tufo also earned tre bicchieri for the fourth time in a row. That salty, almondy, minerally wine transported me to a warm summer day in the Mediterranean overlooking the sea, with a plate of freshly grilled fish with a lemon squeezed on top.

Sabino Loffredo (son of the founder Peppino Loffredo) of Pietracupa peeking through his 2009 Greco di Tufo and 2008 Cupo.

2007 Chianti Classico "Rancia" Riserva - always reliable and on the rounder / creamier side of Sangiovese.
2009 Ca'Rugate Soave Classico Monte Fiorentine - very enjoyable expression of Soave
2008 Pieropan Soave Classico La Rocca - almost Chardonnay-like expression of Soave, with some oak, tasting quite substantial. Very cool Alsatian-looking bottle.
2009 Feudi di San Gregorio Fiano di Avellino Pietracalda - clean and minty.

There were about 160 or so wines at the tasting. I managed to get through probably half of them, based on the recommendations from Eleonora, plus my own old-time faves, friends' suggestions and whim. Apologies to anyone whose great wines I may have missed. As a result of my Tre Bicchieri coverage over the past three years, as well as drinking countless Tre Bicchieri wines at home and at restaurants, I continue to hold Gambero Rosso in high esteem when it comes to Italian wine recommendations. Though in a hurried pace of an industrial grade tasting event, I may think I found my favorites, it does not mean I would turn down any wine that has a tre bicchieri designation on it. The ultimate test comes when pairing with food, not by running through rows filled with a hundred wine producers. Thus, with all due respect to my own experience and judgment, take my assessment with a grain of salt, because that's just my palate on a given day.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Old 1986 Dunn and smoked meat

What did I do with the left-over 1986 Dunn? (See my previous post to find out where I got it). I sucked the air out, put it in the fridge, and a few days of hibernation did it no harm, even despite the seemingly fragile age. These babies can last!

Without the distraction of other Dunns, I had no need to over-analyze or draw comparisons. Mano-a-mano against the smoked Russian cold cuts, this Dunn was killer, with its own cured meat, leather, and eucalyptus notes. The meats? Cured pork loin, cured beef tongue, and Estonska sausage - Russian store all-time favorites.

Over the past week, I paired the '93 and '86 Dunns with arugula salad with dried berries and balsamic vinegar, beef bourguignon, angel hair pasta with meatballs in red sauce, and now the smoked cold cut meats. These Howell Mountain Cabs of yesteryear performed great in all those pairings. I think it's the cool earthiness and the great acidity that make them work. Hat's off to Randy Dunn for making such great wines.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dunn's greatness confirmed - drinking the 1980's and 1990's Howell Mountain Cabernets

My last memory of 2010 was my first visit to Dunn Vineyards, on January 31. Mike Dunn made time to taste through a royal array of his Howell Mountain cabs: 1989, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006. Out of appreciation of the wines, and sub-consciously maybe the appreciation of his hospitality, I did extol the winery. Value-wise, Dunns appear to be priced incredibly competitively for California, and arguably more in-line with 3rd, 4th, and 5th Growth Grand Cru Bordeaux of similar quality. Not inexpensive (new releases selling for $80+), but certainly nowhere near the prices of the top wines of the other Napa brand names that I have visited in the past year. The account of my first meeting with Mike Dunn, along with the introduction to the winery and the Howell Mountain sub-appellation is here.

The follow-up visit this weekend was to dive deeper into the Dunn cellar, and to hopefully re-examine the initial impressions. Mike pulled a 1985, 1986, 1987, 1991, 1992, and 1993 Howell Mountain Cabs. Given the age and rarity of these wines, asking about their cost is somewhat irrelevant. Most of them can still be found through wine-searcher in the $100-200 range, but not in pristine condition of the Dunn's cool storage. For bottlings this old, storage fidelity is critical.

I was impressed and touched by both the wines and the personality of Mike Dunn (I met his dad Randy briefly as well, but spent vast majority of the time with Mike, while as I learned later, Randy was heroically saving a neighbor's house from burning down!). The least self-important, the most down-to-earth person I've met in all of Napa Valley? Perhaps. Mike is a "dude" with worldly sensibilities. Well educated, he invests no time in making himself appear an important figure of California wine industry. He is content being a village worker in the small town of Angwin, 15-min drive from St. Helena, where his Popeye-like forearms swell and ache tending to the Dunn family vines. You sit down with him, no white table cloths, no fancy glasses. He hardly even talks about the wines, he just lets you experience them, while he puts on funny Indian and Russian accents in the presence of my multi-ethnic tasting companions.

Still very much under the shadow of his dad, the legendary wine-maker and wine consultant Randy Dunn, Mike is itching to spread his wings. He looks toward slightly more modern wines, approachable earlier, less "Bretty", higher alcohol if that's what the vintage gives. I'd rather he not. Perhaps in the future, I will sit both of them down and document a real heart-to-heart as to where the Dunn style would go if Mike were to do it on his own, but for now, Randy - now in his 60's - makes the final blending decisions, and if necessary, in warmer vintages, calls the shots to do reverse osmosis to drop alcohol down into the 13.8-13.9% range.

While Mike was cracking jokes with Rona and my friends wine geeks Sonia and Maureen, I was preoccupied with the wines. The more I sampled, over the course of 2-3 hours, the more I discovered. The first pass was analytical and critic-like. But after that, I relaxed and started enjoying. The oldest - 1985 - was fresh and cool as Spring. The youngest - 1993 - more youthful and intense. Remarkably Barolo-like: medium texture, acidic precision, fresh tannins, laser-like fruit intensity, and great overall finesse. "Barolo of Cab" I exclaimed, because if not for the flavor itself, this could have been a Barolo. Possibly the most complete and balanced California wine I had ever tasted.

"1993 Dunn Howell Mountain - beautiful nose, aromatic, intense and elegant. Relatively light, but oily texture, with great intensity and length, reminds me of Barolo in texture and intensity, great finesse, light stony mineral after-taste (in a good way)..." -- Iron Chevsky, Feb 2011

I was happy that Mike had 1993's available for sale, the fact of which I took immediate advantage. Alas, there was no more 1985's, my other favorite.

The 1986 Dunn was noticeably hotter (more alcoholic, despite the same 13% listed on the label) than either 1985 or 1987 - fruitier, thicker, stronger, with some cured meat, leather, and eucalyptus mint. The 1987 was cooler, with herbaceous edge, tannic and tart. The 1991 was a step up in youthfulness - fuller, denser, hotter, with obvious toasty/roasty notes.

The 1992 for me was just a notch more complex than 1993 - but not as balanced (showing more herbaceousness). I called it the most intellectual wine of the line-up, evidenced by the descriptors in my tasting note:

"1992 Dunn Howell Mountain - intense, inky, touch of chocolate, high-acid, tannin, limestone/soapy minerality, eucalyptus and mint, makes me salivate and want food, earthy, dry leaves on the forrest floor, running through Autumn woods naked, smelling wet earth and many other things I can't quite capture..." -- Iron Chevsky, Feb 2011

We finished the 1985 and 1992 later on that night at a friend's dinner party. I was inspired to suggest pairing the 1985 with fresh-from-the-garden arugula salad topped with nuts, dried blueberries, and balsamic vinegar - an amazing match! And pairing the 1992 with Beef Bourguignon, served with sauteed baby carrots, lardons, and shallots was perfect. The savory Dunn easily out-matched the pungently white-peppered great young 2006 Cornas Reynard from Allemand.

All of the Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernets exhibited mouth-watering, hunger-inducing acidity, notes of mocha and graphite, and stony minerality. Mike was smart enough to suggest that we take the remains of several wines with us - having those with dinner that night further highlighted their appeal and sealed my high opinion.

Friday, February 11, 2011

WSET Systematic approach to tasting wine

For those who never heard of WSET, it's an official certification of Wine & Spirits Education Trust, widely recognized in the world as a credential of wine expertise, akin to a Sommelier certification minus the service portion (i.e how to properly pour Champagne). WSET has multiple levels, and the highest and hardest one, called Diploma, takes at least two years of study, with multiple day-long exams at the end of various portions of the curriculum. One of them is blind tasting that tests one's deductive reasoning as much as his/her palate. Securing a WSET Diploma qualifies one for a study for Master of Wine degree, which is the highest honor in all of wine profession, sort of a Ph.D. title, but far more exclusive and prestigious than that, since there are fewer than three hundred in the entire world. Being a master of wine gives one almost a Yoda-like status, a position that doesn't come without super-human talent and commitment.

On the way, even getting a WSET Diploma is an accomplishment not for the faint of heart. Just the tasting portion - Unit 3, as they call it, is daunting. You spend hours rigorously analyzing several wines in front of you, narrowing them down to a region and variety, all along pinpointing a myriad of qualities of each wine, using scientifically appropriate language. The way you describe those is even more important than correctly identifying the wine. It's a fascinating exercise of wine geekdom.

I am not really sure - does it add pleasure or take it away?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Porko-buco with Barolo

Anyone in the mood for a magical pairing with Barolo? I always am!

Donato Enoteca continues to shine, almost two years after opening. I just come in and ask the chef (Donato or sous-chef Pedro, whoever happens to be at the helm that day) "What do you have today?"

Last Friday night, Pedro said "I got pork shank on a bone, off the menu". "Osso-buco?", I asked. "No, it's pork shank. Osso-buco is veal." Oh, porko-buco it is then! I didn't need any urging. Melting pork, falling off the bone, with a bottle of Barolo that I'd been curious to try for a while - Fontanafredda 2000 Barolo "La Villa" from a sub-plot of Paiagallo vineyard in Barolo. Absolutely awesome pairing - the pork was smoky charred on the outside and moist and gelatinous on the inside. The Barolo - pure milk-chocolate meets truffles and tarry berries, luscious texture, reflecting the warmth and seduction of the 2000 vintage. Delicious wine, although probably a touch more wood-chocolate-vanilla than I would have preferred. I've had so many other reds, but every time my nose dips into a glass of decently aged Barolo, as it touches my lips and rolls over my tongue, it is just so obvious why Barolo is the king of Italian wine.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Amazing Sichuan at South Legend with a weird Austrian

For Chinese New Year, Rona and I headed to our favorite Sichuan restaurant in the South Bay - South Legend on the border of Milpitas and Fremont in an Asian shopping plaza (where else?!). The food is amazing, and very inexpensive. In fact, in this economy, they've actually been lowering their prices.

As my gastronomic preferences have evolved over the years, I've oscillated between a few different types of Chinese cuisine. First, it was the americanized P.F. Chang and Asian-fusion style food. Don't like it anymore. Then I got into more authentic - first Shanghainese - with their delicious soup-filled dumplings, and otherwise heavier meat dishes with lots of brown sauce that pairs well with heavier new-world Pinot Noir and even Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Then I preferred Cantonese - with their dim-sum, fantastic seafood dishes and pan-fried noodles (amongst other things) that pair well with more elegant new and old world Pinots. Eventually, I graduated to Sichuan. There is just something deep, expressive, and fun in the chili and Sichuan peppercorn infused dishes, and especially at South Legend. These fiery dishes overwhelm most wines, and typically demand high sugar and penetrating flavors to tame the heat.

The whole fried bass fish in spectacular not-too-sweet, sour, and spicy Sichuan bean sauce. Special for Chinese New Year.

The place was unusually packed, but then again it was Chinese New Year - Year of the Rabbit - and the Chinese know where the good food is! I brought a bottle of a strange Austrian white wine from Heidi Schrock called Reid Vogelsang (2009) - a combination of Welschriesling, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), and Gelber Muskateller (a type of Muscat grape). Halbtroken (meaning "slightly off-dry" or "half-dry"), with strong, ripe fruit that tastes like candied lemon and pear, with hints of bitter citrus peel, flowers and spice. An interesting and original wine, it certainly did not suffer of shyness. Reminiscent of Riesling, though heavier and stronger, with a surprisingly long finish, but lacking the elegance and precise acidity that I enjoy in a good Riesling. Flavor-wise, I was "meh" on it, until I paired it with the food. Turned out, with Sichuan it mostly worked, particularly with milder dishes, but halbtroken did not have enough sugar to stand up to the spice of the whole-fried bass. I could see it pairing well with strong but not so spicy dishes, that traditionally enjoy baked fruit pairings - like turkey or pork, or even foie gras. At ~$23/btl, it's more of an education and specialty item for me than something I'll necessarily run out and buy a case of (this was a trade sample). Clearly, though, based on this dinner and my other recent encounters with obscure Austrian grape varieties, Austrian whites go far beyond the dominant Gruner Veltliner and Riesling, with versatility to pair well with a wide range of foods, and even compete with Rieslings and Gewürztraminers at the Sichuan table.

If you go to South Legend, be prepared for serious spice. It will knock winter cold right out of your chilled bones! You must order their mapo tofu (see photo below) and their boiled fish fillet in fiery sauce (similar sauces in both, so don't order them at the same time unless you have a lot of people). The whole fried fish in spectacular not-too-sweet, sour, and spicy Sichuan bean sauce is so complex and full of flavor, and tender on the inside, for $15 it is incredible. As an artistic digression, I liken the bean in sauce to oak in wine - when done well, it adds a deep layer of complexity to the dish. The 3-veggie dish (see photo below) consists of strings of cucumber, radish, and carrot, and is a refreshing counter-balance to the other plates. The more people you have in the party the better. Try their pickled veggies (radishes and cabbage) appetizer as well - the chili oil and vinegar sauce in that cold dish is so tangy and delectable, I have no idea how they do it!

Mapo tofu (left) and three-vegetables (right)

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