Saturday, October 25, 2014

Grilled lamb in good company!

Great dinner last weekend at Chris & Molly's (our dear friends) - Chris is a master griller and he impressed once again with his lamb chops! (pun intended). Serious winos in attendance contributed a tasty array of wines. While most of the wines delivered, the consensus seemed to be that the 1996 Clape Cornas stole the show with the lamb. I especially liked the 2002 Beaune-Greves 1er Cru burgundy from Michel Lafarge, even though it was perhaps a bit too bright and delicate for the lamb, but so satisfying, complex and charming like only an aged burgundy can!

Here are the wines and dishes to salivate over:

Champagne starter.

Fascinating wine - a 1987 Corton-Charlemange white burgundy from Mommessin, the producer of the famous Clos de Tart grand cru - who knew he had a white grand cru! Silky texture, copper tones (color and palate), unfortunately over the hill, with oxidized notes. Still a rare treat.

The '97 Brunello Poggio Alle Mura from Castello Banfi was in good shape. On its own, it would have been attention grabber. Nicely mature, it seemed it should continue to drink well for at least a few more years.

Oh the mouthwatering, perfectly medium-rare, herb-crusted lamb - probably the best, tender-most grilled lamb I had ever had - what a treat! The Ottolenghi rack of lamb recipe can be found here. The exquisite quality fresh Napa lamb came from Draeger's Market in Menlo Park.

Sides to go with the lamb. The ham and gruyere cheese seeded brioche from Manresa Bread Project was a special treat.

This 1996 Cornas from Clape was the crowd favorite - a wine with tons of character and complexity. Brown sugar / tree bark and porridge notes, iron, savory meat, olives, exotic (green) peppercorns, relatively lean, briny acidity went well with the lamb. Tasted prior to the lamb, it seemed quite austere. But with the lamb, it sang!

Pavillon Rouge 2000 Bordeaux - a very good second wine from Chateau Margaux. This would make a great dinner all on its own!

2008 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Asili. Young but already elegant, red fruited, near silky, great acidity, with great potential. I really like the 2008's and this Giacosa Barbaresco was a knock-out. Similar to Lafarge though, perhaps too light and elegant of a match for the lamb, but a great great treat!

And here we go - 2002 Beaune-Greves 1er Cru was like coming home - this wine made me smile and relax - Burgundy - there is just nothing like it! Elegant red berries, perfectly mature, great acidity, silky and charming. From the master of Cote de Beaune - Michel Lafarge.

Dehlinger has got to be one of the most satisfying new world producers of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Maybe it's because it's one with the most old-world sensibilities in their wines. Russian River Valley based, they make wines that taste real, unforced, from the land. Claret is the second wine of their Cabernet Sauvignon, made in a slightly lighter style than their top Cab. No fancy facade, just vivid wine with good acidity, inky, sleek, with earthy elements. It is perhaps because of their absence of flamboyance or flash, that they don't seem to get very high critics' scores, but the wines are highly respected among wine geeks, and I highly recommend them if you can find them. At 14 years of age, this claret was dense and very youthful.

Both the 2006 Raveneau Chablis Monts Mains and the 2006 Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape blanc were in great shape!  The Raveneau was quite substantial for a Chablis. The Beaucastel blanc was weighy and dense, with notes of honey and hazelnuts.

Top sparkling rosé from Italy - Ca'del Bosco Franciacorta 2004 "Annamaria Clementi". 100% Pinot Nero (Noir). Very serious wine - hints of citrus, raspberries and grass. Definitely a worthy Italian answer to Champagne. Great way to cleanse the palate at the end of the meal.

Great dinner!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Zola - excellent French restaurant debuts in Palo Alto

Zola just opened in downtown Palo Alto. Finally, I hoped, a foodie French place, worthy of taking my burgundies to, by the chef and wine connoisseur Guillaume Bienaime, previously of Marche in Menlo Park, a restaurant that was renowned among wine geeks for hosting great wine dinners.

After 3 hours at Zola and sampling a dozen dishes, I am thoroughly satisfied. It was creative seasonal French cooking, comfort food, I'd say, taken to the next level. Not fancy gastronomic, but rather very very tasty. The style of food gave me a feeling like Pizzeria Delfina (of course, that's Italian) and Marlowe (California cuisine), in San Francisco, but with more selection, and it's French - my favorite! This will be my go-to place in Palo Alto, thank goodness, finally! It's not cheap, but not too expensive either, for the quality you get.

Here are some quick snapshots of what we had. Everything was delicious, and paired with wine very well!

We sampled a variety of appetizers with a great bottle of 2010 Domaine des Comtes Lafon Meursault Clos de la Barre - the wine was a little tight at the beginning, as expected for the structured 2010 vintage of white burgundy, but continued to flesh out throughout the meal, a most excellent bottle of white burgundy, one of the best I've had all year, and to think - this was just a village level wine. This is of course a famous monopole of Domaine des Comtes Lafon. The master of Meursault showed his chops - elegance, balance of fruit, stone, cream, acid, spice - all there, in a very aristocratic package. It has a long long life ahead. I wish I had a 6-pack (alas, I only have one more bottle).

Beef tartar, whole grain, chive, black truffle, fingerling chips

Terrine de Campagne, chicken & pork, pickled mushrooms

Seafood special

Bone marrow

Roasted Button Mushrooms, “Escargot Butter & Crumb”

Short Rib “Bourguignon”, garniture traditionel, parsley bread crumb

Charred Brassicas (cauliflower), french curry, golden raisins

Ricotta Gnocchi - slow egg, mushrooms, brown butter, green onion

Roasted Pork Loin & Belly, piperade, crispy fingerlings, garlic confit, smoked paprika

The pork was a superb pairing with the 2005 Corton-Perrieres, which had been opened for 4 days, finally showing its best on day 4, indicating, not surprisingly, that 2005 grand crus are still much too young. Nevertheless, after sufficient aeration, the wine was on, with tons of deep material (typical of 2005) and game. Even though Vincent Girardin is not my favorite producer, this was a solid showing. I had had this wine one year ago and it was disappointing then. What a difference a year makes, and once again this is a reminder that Burgundies, especially at higher rungs of the hierarchy and from strong vintages, need time. Somewhat surprisingly, the Meursault was also quite a good match to the pork, very different obviously, but intriguing and pleasing. By this point of the meal, the Meursault had opened up, broadened, filled out and revealed more spice, all good things to accompany the pork dish.

I'll be back!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Top Champagne Tasting of 2014

The 10th annual Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) North America Champagne event roared through San Francisco at the end of September. Held in the gorgeous Ferry Building at Market One, with the largest concentration of venerable masters of wine (MW's) in one room that I'd ever seen, this continues to be my favorite champagne tasting of the year in the Bay Area, and an incredible bargain at $65. Once again, this time it did not disappoint. The quantity and quality of the champagnes seemed as high as ever, and generous selection of cheeses didn't hurt either. Hardly any surprises among the tasted wines, vintage champagnes were the most impressive group, as they should be. I wholeheartedly recommend this event to everyone who is interested in champagne. For more info on IMW events, check here.

Here are my quick notes.

Vintage champagnes were impressive.

All four of the big boys showed well - Bollinger "La Grand Annee" 2004, Dom Perignon 2004, Henriot Enchenteleurs 1999 (out of magnum), and Gosset 2000 Grand Millesime. Perhaps Bollinger and Gosset had slightly more exotic flavors, and Henriot with powerful crystalline minty expression. DP was good and dependable, as always.

Despite the gaudy packaging, Piper-Heidsieck "Rare" (2002) always impresses with what's inside. As did the very reliable Pol Roger with their Pinot Noir dominated powerful "Extra Cuvee de Reserve" (2004, 60% Pinot Noir / 40% Chardonnay), even if this is not their top-of-the-line cuvee Sir Winston Churchill. I have come to expect very high quality at every level of Pol Roger's champagnes, including their non-vintage and the various vintage cuvees. If in doubt, you cannot go wrong with this producer. But the other two - Nicolas Feuillatte "Palmes d'Or" 2002 and Mousse Fils Millesime Brut 2008 were pleasant surprises. Generally, Feuillatte is not mentioned in the same league with other top champagnes, but this top wine stood out with intriguing brown sugar notes. But an even bigger discovery was Mousse Fils. I had never even heard of Champagne Mousse Fils, but I was thoroughly impressed by the complexity and richness of flavor, along with super fine and creamy mousse. This is a relatively unknown grower champagne house with prices below other top wines in Champagnes. This was also my first 2008 vintage champagne, a vintage that is much heralded in Champagne as the best after 2002. Impressed, I proceeded to order several bottles immediately from my favorite wine merchant, for a more "thorough" evaluation later on. This definitely deserves a closer look.

Among the four vintage Blanc de Blanc's, I was particularly impressed with Christian Coquillette Champagne Saint-Chamant BdB 2005 - powerful, flavorful champagne. Dom Ruinart BdB 2004 and Pol Roger BdB 2002 were more steely and classical, seemingly coming from more structured vintages and in need of more time.

Oh, this Perrier-Jouet "Belle Epoque" 2004 Rose is always a beauty - I've tasted it several times with consistent notes - gentle strawberries seduce every time. I know this is a very widely available champagne - you can see it at Costco, etc...  - so maybe it doesn't possess a coolness factor, but it is very very good Rose, and one of my favorites every year.

Another note on Krug - though vintage Krug was not present at this tasting, I just recently tasted the 2000 Krug, and as good as the NV grand cuvee is, the vintage (2000) is a step up in intensity, with powerful, grippy texture and concentrated, lingering flavors. Both are just beginning to hint at their potential, and will benefit from a lot more time. I would not hesitate to stock up, if you can afford.

All in all, Champagne continues to dazzle my palate, and I find that with a few additional years of cellaring post-release, these wines hardly ever disappoint, and with prices of other top regions continuing to climb sharply (Burgundy, Barolo), Champagne prices have remained relatively stable. While there are a myriad of options to choose from, from trendy small grower producers to established big brand houses, I find quality in all camps high, and I think big houses are doing a great job, despite large production. Your good old Dom P, Cristal, Krug, Bolliger, Taittinger, Heidsieck, Dom Ruinart, Perrier-Jouet, Henriot, Gosset and so on, are as good as ever, as are cool growers such as Egly-Ouriet, Henri Goutorbe, and Mousse Fils.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Krug, Yquem, Sassicaia, and more! - Epic 5-year anniversary tasting at Tango

September 2014 marks the fifth anniversary of Tango, the mobile tech company in Mountain View, where I am the VP of Engineering.

As mentioned previously, besides my main job, I also run the "Tango Winos" wine tasting club there as an extracurricular activity and as a management "thank you" to employees. We do this quarterly, paid 100% by the company, with focus on higher-end great wines of the world, something that employees will not usually (perhaps ever) drink. Forty people attended the latest one, which is a lot for barely a 200 person start-up. The tasting, served with catered dinner, was a ton of fun for everyone, and is the only corporate wine tasting event of such caliber anywhere in the Valley, AFAIK, which makes me particularly proud to do this at Tango. What made this tasting even more special was the 5th anniversary of the company, so we upped the ante with famous bottles at $200-$500 each!

I prepared a venerable array of 7 wines, 3 bottles each, with the exception of d'Yquem which we "only" had two bottles of, poured to the top-scorers of the wine quiz at the end of the tasting (yes, there is a quiz! :) All the bottles were in perfect condition without flaws.

Tasting impressions

2000 Krug Champagne - nose and palate: incredible power, bubbles going strong for 2 hours in the glass, toasted brioche, almost tannic and grippy on the tongue, so much material in there, candied lemon peel, ginger, my wine of the night. ($200/btl)

2011 Domaine Trapet Pere & Fils Chambertin Grand Cru - Trapet family are the second largest land-owner of the grand cru vineyard of Chambertin with 1.9 ha (closely following Armand Rousseau's 2.15 ha) - one of the greatest vineyards in the whole world. Usually the larger the holding one has within a vineyard, the higher the chances of making a better wine, as the producer can pick and choose from more supply, while declassifying imperfect material into lesser cuvees. Trapet has a very solid reputation for wines that are supposed to be less approachable in their youth and blossom over the long haul. In recent years, Trapet is known to have further cut down on new oak and the quality has been on the rise. I was quite excited in anticipation of tasting this wine for the first time. Nose: stems, very fragrant with hints of flowers, I am nearly certain that with time it will turn into roses. Palate: inevitably silky but currently marked by gritty tannins. Long finish, red fruits, earthy / floral / stemmy / root veggies, intense and focused. Right now, it comes across as more flowers and vegetables than fruits, but the sap, intensity and purity bode well for the evolution in the bottle. I can imagine how a riper vintage ('09, '10, or '12) should produce an even better wine. ($250/btl)

2011 Maison Ilan Chambertin Tete de Cuvee Grand Cru - riper nose, darker color. Palate: sexy ripe cherries and raspberries, some earth and roasted beets, hints of chocolate. Riper, richer, sweeter, darker than Trapet, comes across as more modern, a bit more plummy. A touch of roasted beets really balances out the richness of the fruit. The crowd favorite. For me, Trapet was leaner and more earthy / floral,  more fragrant and pure, but both wines had impact, intensity and promise. This is a very trendy producer right now among Burgundy geeks, due to limited production and the exciting story of the owner - Ray Walker - the only Californian to have ever established a winery in Burgundy and the only American to have ever made Chambertin, impressively having secured contracts for grapes from some of the most prestigious appellations, of which Chambertin is at the top of the list. While there is no new oak used in any of Ray's wines, the Chambertin was aged in used oak for over two years, which rounded it out. We were privileged to taste this wine - a very respectable, even impressive effort. ($300/btl)

It's interesting to see the obvious color difference between the two Chambertin's. Just from that, one can deduce some of the flavor profile characteristics mentioned above.

2009 Arnaud Ente "La Seve du Clos" Meursault - nose: lemon brulee. Palate: rich, spicy, classy oak, medium acid, intense and weighty, but not enough acid for me to make this exciting or lively, a bit heavy and flabby, which makes sense for the vintage. This is an expensive ($160-200/btl) culty village level burgundy from 100-yr old vines. I could taste the intensity, but this should be much better in a better vintage (for whites, probably any vintage after 2006, except 2009).

2011 Sassicaia - love it! deep inky tannic, full-bodied but elegant, great Italian acidity, deep berries, blueberries, blackcurrants and olive/rosemary/herb-inflected nose and palate, more intense than I recall 2010. Tasted the 2011 four times in the last 1.5 months, it has progressively shown more intensity and tannins, which I like because I am going to put it aside for 20-30 years (in a magnum) for my son's birth-year collection. This was my second favorite wine of the night, after Krug. ($180/btl)

2009 Joseph Phelps Insignia - typical high-end Napa cab, this is weighty, full-bodied, sweet fruit compote (compared to sleeker Sassicaia), dark-red/blue fruits, rather than blacker fruits of Sassicaia, medium-to-low acidity, plums, very clear (enjoyable) note of tobacco, tannins. I had enjoyed the 2010 and 2011 that I have tasted in the last year slightly more, particularly 2011 which due to a cooler year, had more focus and acidity. ($160)

1990 Chateau d'Yquem - nose: apricot marmalade. Palate: silky toffee, vanilla, honey, apricot. Beautiful amber color. Delicious. That said, this $500 wine didn't strike me as significantly better than the 2005 Chateau Guiraud or Suduiraut ($50-$100 wines) I had recently. Perhaps the silky texture of d'Yquem was more extra-ordinary, but it could have been due to age as much as quality or pedigree. Overall, this was very nice, but not worth the $$ premium, IMO. A privilege to taste, nonetheless.

Indeed, it was a special tasting, and of the several annual Tango wine tastings, I hope to have an excuse for this level of connoisseurship at least a couple of times per year. Work hard, play hard, right?! Enrollment to the Tango Winos club is open to everyone in the company. And yes, we are hiring! :)

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