Friday, January 23, 2015

2010 Brunello di Montalcino. Solid and Over-Hyped?

Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino came back to San Francisco with the Benvenuto Brunello tasting series after a 6 year hiatus. On the 24th floor of the venerable Fairmont Hotel with a view worthy of a presidential visit, and on the wings of the much hyped 2010 Brunello di Montalcino vintage, this was a highly anticipated Italian event.

2010 has been a great great year for wine in the major regions of France and Italy. But as Brunello requires extended (5-year) aging before release, only now are they rolling on to the market, after most other regions. Given what we have seen from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone, Barolo, Chianti and Tuscany IGT, the recent "best ever Brunello vintage" declaration by James Suckling drove masses to this event, hoarding space at the tables and elbowing their room to spit buckets and cheese trays. (Is it too much to ask of the esteemed members of the trade the simple etiquette to get your pour and move out of the way?)

After tasting through three dozen or so wines, I am scratching my head. Whether you should be disappointed or excited really depends on your perspective here. For a lover of Brunello, this is an excellent vintage, that has depth, concentration, body, good acidity, typicity of flavors, velvety textures and fine tannins. In other words, very good, or excellent, or outstanding, or modern classic, or whatever terms people in the trade will use to hype it up. Of course, the bombastic James Suckling pronounced this a "greatest modern vintage... They represent a new paradigm for Tuscany’s unique Sangiovese-based red...Vintages like this don't come along very often." Or acccoding to K&L's Italian expert Greg St.Clair: "I’ve never had anything like it before, the wines are so good, so incredibly... well, they are just incredible. You’ll be experiencing something that has never been seen before..."

Based on this tasting, if you love and need more Brunello, there is quality and consistency across the board in 2010. But let me tell you, if you are not a devout fan of Brunello, this vintage is not going to turn you into one. Simple as that. While the wines are good, I am not sure they are better than 2006's or dramatically better than a string of several good vintages in Montalcino I have tasted in the past decade. If you already have plenty of Brunello in your cellar, I see no reason to over-stock on 2010. The possible incremental improvement in quality is just not enough, in my opinion, to make me want to back up the truck on this. Perhaps they are a touch more concentrated and darker (graphite, black cherry) than 2006's, more like 2007's but without the jamminess. Solid wines, but jaw-droppingly, amazingly thrilling? I think not. In my view, it's different from Burgundy, where in general I see less consistency between vintages and flavor profiles, and the highs and lows are insanely dramatic. The best thing about Brunello, in my opinion is - many are well-priced in around $40-60 range, and will provide enjoyable drinking over a number of years. They are easier to understand and probably more reliable (just like a California Cab) than Burgundy, Barolo, and Rioja, yet, with all due respect, will never provide the ethereal, haunting qualities those other regions are capable of. (Is it pretty clear where my personal preferences reside?)

My favorites

While none blew me away, there were a couple of stand-outs at the tasting, and in addition, many very good wines that one cannot go wrong with. (Note: I tasted about 2/3 of the wines before palate exhaustion set it, so I may have missed some highlights). The following two wines with nearly opposite styles were my absolute favorites at the tasting, very different yet equally compelling.

2010 Villa le Prata Brunello - dark, juicy, black cherries, spice, tobacco. Taut, focused, well-sculpted wine that is muscular and luxurious at the same time. Delicious! I also tasted the 2009 Brunello and 2007 riservas. The 2009 was softer, more pliant and less focused, with more obvious tannins, but still nice. The 2007 Massimo Riserva was a big impressive wine, more powerful than the 2010, with leather, mint, stronger tannins, black cherry, tar, a bit less focused and chiseled than 2010, but very good too. Overall, a very memorable showing by this winery.

2010 La Poderina Brunello - cakey, yummy nose. Soft, airy, beautifully fluffy and elegant wine (no perceptible tannins, though at that point I had just snacked on some cheese, which may have neutralized the tannins), spicy strawberries, hints of leather. I also tried the 2009 Riserva Poggio Abate - tannic, but still soft texturally, with more pronounced leather component, pretty good.

and the rest of the memorable upper echelon:

2010 Le Ragnaie Brunello - spicy plum, hints of animal, tobacco / leather, focus, fine tannins, not bad! They also had two single vineyard bottlings: Vigna Vecchia (old vines) and Fornace. The Vigna Vecchia was similar to the previous wine, but with slightly more balance and tannin. Good! The Fornace was even more yummy - sweet, cakey, spicy. Strong showing by Le Ragnaie.

2010 Il Poggione Brunello - juicy, nice focus, spicy dark cherries, velvety texture, some tannins. Nice! (That's Alessandro Bindocci, the winemaker of Il Poggione, on the photo below.)

2010 Caprili Brunello - very focused, graphite, spice, tannin, black cherry and plum, smoke. Nice!

2010 Castello Banfi Brunello Poggio Alle Mura - soft, spicy, beef jerky, velvety, cake, soft tannins. Nice!

2010 Canalicchio di Sopra Brunello - big structured wine, plums, black cherries, tobacco. Deeper, darker (as in graphite) and more concentrated than their 2006's, sleek and muscular, but I am not sure if I like it better.

2010 Uccelliera Brunello - leather, blood, spice, cream, very tasty!

2010 Col d'Orcia Brunello - plush, velvety, spicy cherry and spicy tomato, leather, tobacco. I also tasted the 2001 and 2007 Riserva Poggio al Vento. The 2007 riserva had slightly milky nose and palate, spicy, leathery cherry/plum, cured meat, smoke, quite nice. The 2001 riserva was yummy, with obviously some secondary development, bright with red cherries and strawberries, leather, spice, smoke, and still noticeable tannins. They also poured a fun 2010 Moscadello di Montalcino sweet white called Pascena, made from Moscato Bianco (white muscat).

2010 Lisini Brunello - nose: wood barrel, iron, spice. Palate: spice, raspberry tea, gentle tannins, quite silky. Not bad!

2010 Sasseti Livio Pertimali Brunello - nose: leather, spicy tomato, pepper, port. Palate: stronger tannins than others, borscht, spicy cherries and spicy tomato. Pretty interesting. Not bad!

Update: Canalicchio di Sopra and Valdicava

A few days later, a local wine shop conducted a more in-depth tasting of two of the coveted producers - Canalicchio di Sopra and Valdicava, who presented their 2010's side by side with the 2006's. This was a fantastic way to contrast the two exalted vintages. Tasting them together made it very obvious (to me) that comparing which vintage is "better" is kind of a futile exercise. Both vintages are excellent, the 2010 is darker with more graphite / tarry quality, and perhaps slightly silkier (less pronounced) tannins. 2010 didn't come across as more powerful or heavier by comparison. Both possess balance and precision. 2006 is showing redder fruit and more sweetness at the moment, I think partly due to some development from age. The alcohol levels are comparable. It was also interesting to note that Riserva's were indeed an obvious step up from the main bottlings. Not only are riservas aged longer, but also they are made from specially selected best grapes, and it shows in the finished wines.

Francesco Ripaccioli of Canalicchio di Sopra in the photo below was very confident about both the 2006 and 2010, as well as the "under the radar" 2008, which he believes will prove its worth over time as well. That said, there was no riserva in 2008 and 2009, which speaks for itself. While both the 2010 and 2006 Brunello were excellent, the 2006 Riserva is even better, a fantastic wine. He noted that he prefers his Brunello at around 20 years of age.

Vincenzo Abrusezzi of Valdicava (in the photo below) said the 2010 is a step up in quality for the winery, a vintage that according to him, has "everything" - and establishes a new standard. The 2010 was delicious and elegant. Dark, tarry, full of graphite, black cherry, hints of black pepper and mushroom. Powerful but at the same time not opulent, jammy or overdone. James suckling awarded it 99 points, while the 2006 Valdicava Brunello received 97. Interestingly, the 2006 has more pronounced tannins even now, which is a testament to the refinement of 2010, I suppose. The 2009 Madonna del Piano Riserva (white label) was also quite good, although less concentrated and focused than 2010 and 2006, and with more drying tannins. The 2006 Brunello Madonna del Piano Riserva was the best of the line-up - smoother and richer, but still supremely elegant and structured - it got 100 points from James Suckling. Excellent wines with great structure, focus, acidity and balance, slightly darker and silkier than Canalicchio di Sopra, and also costing 50-100% more. Vincenzo was somewhat dismissive of the Benvenuto Brunello event, and Tre Bicchieri / Gambero Rosso, for that matter. He considers Valdicava in an elite class, and doesn't want to get "bundled" with tons of other wineries at a big tasting. Regarding critics' influence, he mentioned that Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, and James Suckling have the power to "move the bottles", everyone else is "just talking" (I wonder if he just forgot Antonio Galloni). Vincenzo commented that he enjoys drinking Valdicava starting at 3 years from release up to 25. Beautiful packaging for Valdicava, by the way, both their regular and their riserva, very classy.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Robert Chevillon Nuits-Saint-Georges Village Vertical 2002-2012

Domaine Robert Chevillon is considered by many the top producer of Nuits-Saint-Georges in Burgundy. Certainly not the only one, as Henri Gouges, Faiveley, Leroy, Comte Liger-Belair, Meo-Camuzet and others make admirable wines there, but the sheer breadth of vineyard holdings combined with long-term track record of Chevillon puts them into the highest bracket. Recently I was able to taste a vertical of his village vieilles vignes (old vines) bottling, which is always a very good representation of the village, domaine's style and vintage.

The Wines

2002 Domaine Robert Chevillon Nuits-Saint-Georges vieilles vignes - 30 min after opening. Nose: wow, great nose, great maturity and complexity, medicinal herbs, licorice, meat / game. Palate: almost silky, sweet, long, medicinal licoricey slightly bitter-sweet finish, yummy, still a little tannic, touch of rusticity, fragrance of flowers / stems, hints of tomato paste and beets, game, distant campfire, salty mineral bath, champagne-like aftertaste (in a red!). Great food wine and feels like this is what Burgundy is all about - complex, imperfect, delicious, absolutely awesome with food! (duck? oh yeah!) My favorite from all the vintages of this wine this century. From how great this is tasting, I can imagine that 2002 1er's must be spectacular.

2005 Domaine Robert Chevillon Nuits-Saint-Georges vieilles vignes - this is probably objectively Chevillon's best village wine of the century, but it still needs more development time to come together and mellow out. Not as meaty as the 2002, this has a lot of everything - density of material, acid and tannin. Almost chalky, with long, bright finish that spreads and lingers in your mouth, a slightly creamy / cheesy flavor, cherries with a hint of orange peel, with real energy and lift. Give this at least 3 more years.

2006 Domaine Robert Chevillon Nuits-Saint-Georges vieilles vignes - drank this over three days. Showing signs of maturity, secondary flavors quite developed, but still with some mild tannins present. Sweet medicinal spicy berries (cherries, strawberries), caramelized root veggies, menthol, pine, flower pollen, Asian spices (almost like Sichuan peppercorns and star anise), hibiscus tea and bright orange (peel) flavor, and also a little bit like a grape bubble gum. Not as concentrated as the 2002 or 2005, but overall, an enjoyable wine in a good spot on the maturity curve.

2007 Domaine Robert Chevillon Nuits-Saint-Georges vieilles vignes - had this several times in the past year - a light, more elegant vintage, this wine is at or slightly past its prime, it has been oscillating between being ethereally nuanced, with elegant aromatic sweet root veggies and licoricey tones and slightly hollow, light/thin uncomplicated maturity. Can't quite decide.

2008 Domaine Robert Chevillon Nuits-Saint-Georges vieilles vignes - tasted as a part of the Chevillon 2008 horizontal a few months ago (documented here), this wine was the weak link in the otherwise very impressive set of Chevillon's 2008's. Nose: hibiscus and herbs, at the peak. Palate: good chocolate and spice flavor but finishes very short as flavor fades almost immediately, this is light and savory without enough substance. Uninspiring.

2009 Domaine Robert Chevillon Nuits-Saint-Georges vieilles vignes - drank over several days. Imagine rich "melt-in-your-mouth" beef short ribs, with roasted veggies, and pomegranate glaze. That's what this wine tastes like! Nose: roasted coffee, game / paté, bay leaf, and zesty brown (allspice?) spices. Palate: smooth, velvety, "pomegranate meets chocolate" accents. I have always loved Chevillon's impactful 2009's, and this wine was no exception. Somehow the richness of the vintage goes well with the "beef stew" meatiness of the Nuits-Saint-Georges village, sprinkled with zesty spices. Very good, slightly darker than other vintages, with coffee and bitter-sweet herb nuances, tobacco, leather, beef stew (or short ribs), echos of sweet stewed carrots, and softly tannic velvety palate impression. Also perfect with Chinese chicken stew (infused with soy, sugar, black vinegar, star anise, cinnamon, and Sichuan peppercorns, see photo below). The mouth is left tingling with gentle spices for minutes. The 2009's have been enjoyable from the get-go, and this seems open for business, and should continue so for many years with no signs of shutting down.

2010 Domaine Robert Chevillon Nuits-Saint-Georges vieilles vignes - had this wine 3-4 times in the past year with consistent notes. Very charming, pretty, subtly honeyed red berries, hibiscus tea, distant herbs, this is drinking great already and will continue for several years at least. Very well balanced wine, the only detractor being consistently medium-short finish, which puts this behind few other vintages in this lineup.

2012 Domaine Robert Chevillon Nuits-Saint-Georges vieilles vignes - drank this over several days. This was my least favorite. Perhaps due to its youth, but I suspect the vintage has much to do with it. This wine is fluffy and vacuous, lacking shape or depth. Nose: smoke and pomegranate, fresh cut flower stems. Palate: tart, smoky cranberry / cherry fruit salad, very young and primary, slowly building tannins, stemmy woody spices, doesn't seem to have focus or depth of material, finish is medium-short, with sour aftertaste. Maybe time will allow structure to reveal itself and the fruit to deepen, but right now, it's unformed, mellow, somewhat hollow / shallow, oaky berry/stem compote, and quite unpleasant and cheap-tasting.

2012 Domaine Robert Chevillon Nuits-Saint-Georges vieilles vignes blanc (white) - nose: yummy, sweet, ripe, grapey. Palate: tasty, good substance, fleshy, grapey, lemon marmalade, spiced peach. On the other hand, a bit thick, ripe and not too fine. Overall, not bad, but lack of minerality makes this come across thicker and new-worldly. Decent acidity though, if one tries to compare to California. Should be a crowd pleaser, especially for new world Chardonnay drinkers who are transitioning to white burgundy. Creamy, buttery aftertaste. This is a relatively rare wine, hence the price is rather high ($70-100), and I while I appreciate it, I don't think it's worth the $$.

Village-level wines of Nuits-Saint-Georges (NSG) are expected to have some rusticity and meatiness, especially if compared to the more prestigious villages of Chambolle-Musigny and Vosne-Romanee. Chevillon's Nuits-Saint-Georges in particular are full of spicy cherry, herbs, earthy veggies, licorice, and beefy / gamy, smoky food-friendly goodness, more so as they age. They always strongly reflect personality of a vintage, combined with the relatively (un)refined style of the domaine, though they never seem to have the polish of the more boutique producers like Leroy, Meo-Camuzet, or Comte Liger-Belair. They are tasty, with medium-short finish (being the main detractor for me), except for the very best vintages (like 2002, 2005, and 2009). Although they obviously do not approach the heights of Chevillon's tremendous 1er cru's (Les Saint Georges, Cailles, Vaucrains, etc...), they provide plenty of pleasure for what used to be a great bargain. Alas, not anymore as prices have kept climbing, especially if purchased via the official importer Kermit Lynch - the 2012 village wine is nearly $80, and it is my least favorite vintage in the line-up so far. You can still get older vintages for ~$50-60, they are better and readier to drink, and have a whole lot more attractive looking labels (than the one they adopted in 2011).

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Benu - 3 Michelin Stars

Benu restaurant in San Francisco has recently been promoted to 3-Michelin-Star, an elite designation of top restaurants in the world. In the Bay Area, we only have four: The French Laundry, The Restaurant at Meadowood (both in Napa Valley), and the newly promoted Saison and Benu, both in San Francisco.

I headed over to Benu, for my inaugural visit, to find out for myself what the fuss was all about. A fixed menu of numerous bite-size courses, Asian-fusion style, with an incredibly light touch, was impressive. Almost every decadent ingredient one can think of was somehow represented. The wine list was fairly impressive and versatile as well, with aged bottles of DRC at prices not far above the retail prices of current releases (so relative "value", one might say). Based on a recommendation of a wine guru friend and a Benu regular, I brought a bottle of white burgundy which I had been cellaring for a few years, and indeed it worked very well with the menu. Master Sommelier - Yoon Ha - one of a handful of Food and Wine Magazine 2013 Sommeliers of the Year - started us off with a tasty bubbly - an off-the-beaten-path glass of Cremant du Jura. He then did an expert job with his commentary on my grand cru. The "Montrachet" style wine glasses were perfectly suited for our 2006 grand cru Batard-Montrachet from Bernard Morey - his last vintage before the famed domain was split between his two sons - Vincent and Thomas - who, in my opinion, are yet to reach their dad's level of quality.

The Wine

2006 Bernard Morey Batard-Montrachet. Gorgeous. Vanilla bean, more pear than apple, spice, coconut shavings, creme brulee, smoke, some well-integrated oak, butter cream, hint of mint, luxurious viscous texture, weighty, medium acidity, luxurious long finish, no signs of decline, better than a year ago, seamless and endlessly complex, and could probably continue to improve for years. Was a great match for the Asian influenced menu of Benu.

The Dishes (displayed in the order they were served)
All dishes were well executed, in my opinion, with great attention to textures and quality of ingredients. Every bite left me wishing for one more, but I put a star (*) next to my favorite dishes that I wanted ten times more of (!).

Thousand-year-old quail egg, potage, ginger

Oyster, pork-belly, kimchi (*)


Fluke, sesame leaf, daikon (*)

Smelt, mayonnaise, mustard (*)

Monkfish liver, trout roe, perilla (*)

Lobster xiao long bao (Shanghai-style dumpling, with lobster broth inside)

Bread with honey butter (*)

Grilled abalone with chicken liver (*)

Eel, porridge, pine

Frog leg, mountain yam, celtuce

Horse mackerel, kohlrabi, charred scallion

Chestnut bun w/ black truffle duck mousse (*)

Roast quail, chard, chestnut, aged tangerine peel

Braised beef in pear juice

"Shark fin soup", dungeness crab, Jinhua ham custard



Sake lees sherbet, persimmon, yuzu (*)

Fresh and dried yuba (tofu skin), almond, white chocolate (*)

More Asian inspired snacks (seaweed-like), chocolate and crackers


The opinions of the meal were somewhat split between my wife, our friends, and myself. Personally, I loved the food, and thought that five or six dishes were absolutely phenomenal. I am not a big fan of fusion food in general and Asian fusion in particular, as I prefer authentic cuisines. That aside, Benu's rendition was the best I had ever had. The decor / atmosphere at the restaurant was classy and comfortable. The rest of my group - all foodie Chinese - found some of the flavors perhaps either too familiar (for instance, Gochi deliver some of the similar flavors) or not quite as tasty as the original, authentic version (they were not too impressed by the lobster dumpling). But they too remarked on a number of dishes that wowed them. A couple of small nits that I didn't appreciate - our request for more bread was ignored and the request for a (empty) box for the cookies was denied. In the end, as a group, we thought 2 Michelin Stars - for sure! 3? Perhaps.

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