Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Donato Enoteca: First Look

My first dinner tonight at Donato Enoteca was a success in every way. To be fair the restaurant is just on its third day of opening, plus I invited some prima donna friends to come with me. Chef/proprietor Donato Scotti did not fail us with his pristine food, while the staff followed through with friendly, competent service.

The wine service, in particular, was overachieving. Seven of us brought half a dozen bottles, and, of course we wanted everything chilled, decanted, and served in individual Riedel glasses, pronto. No sweat. Wine director, Eric Lecours, was unperturbed, proceeding methodically and precisely with the corkscrew and glassware. Shinya Tasaki would be impressed.

The 1982 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs was magnificent with our antipasti. Steely, rich, nutty, with long, elegant flavors.

Calamari and white bean salad with baby spinach. The squid was tender, but the beans were still a bit firm; nevertheless, this was simple, light, and pure.

Prosciutto-wrapped pillow of puffed pastry. I've never had this combo before. Interesting, but the puffed pastry did little for me, it was the rich quality of the prosciutto that was mouthwatering.

Donato's signature Bruschetta di Cinghiale or braised wild boar, onion and Chianti vinegar spread on grilled bread. The Italian take on deconstructed pulled-pork sandwich. Tender shreds of tasty pork with a delicious, slightly tangy seasoning. This was devoured quickly. We should have ordered more.

My rustic plate of veal chop. Crusty, juicy, perfectly cooked.

1959 Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Pauillac. Like what you'd expect from a '59, really beautiful. Fresh currants and dark berries with cedary notes and lovely tannins. Muscular sweetness. Drinking perfectly now.

1981 Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia, Bolgheri. Earthy currant nose. Bright, earthy blackberries. Cool and fresh in the mouth. Precise, elegant, and high-toned. A focused wine that demands the right food, like a rare steak.

1996 Gaja Darmagi Langhe. A great wine with enormous potential. The fruit is dense, sweet, earthy, and mineral with layers of currants, figs, and spices. Velvety tannins. Powerful and persistent. This will evolve for decades! Amazing what Cabernet Sauvignon can do in Barbaresco.

1993 Ornellaia, Bolgheri. Superb. Drinking perfectly. I don't know much about the history of Ornellaia. I thought this was Merlot-based but I was wrong. This vintage is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with some percentage of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. No wonder it was fragrant with cedary currants and mulberry. Creamy, lush, earthy cassis and cherry fruit. Elegant and perfectly balanced.

Donato fired up his gelato machine and made us an assortment of refreshing gelati. A great way to finish the meal. Luxurious dense, creamy texture, with just enough air to float in the mouth and savor the intense, pure fruit taste. Most enjoyable gelati I've ever had!

Freshly-made gelato of wild berry and limoncello.

Freshly-made gelato of pistacchio, vanilla, and chocolate.

I shall be returning many times to Donato's Enoteca. Already the prospects for getting a great meal look very bright. Bravo!

Donato Enoteca
1041 Middlefield Road
Redwood City, CA 94063
Open everyday for lunch and dinner

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Ultimate Wine Book?

Thudding in at 8.21 pounds, 926 pages, the revised edition of Wine stops a door cold and doubles as a weight for deadlift exercises. It is a formidable use of paper.

Wine is also a great read. The concise, unassuming title is deceptive--unadorned with self-aggrandizing attachments as "Bible", "Encyclopedia" or "Atlas". Yet, few if any topic on wine escapes its pages. I never thought it possible but it rivals the two go-to tomes on my shelf: The World Atlas of Wine and The Oxford Companion to Wine--perhaps even surpassing both.

Want to know about French oak forests and barrel-making? It's there. Biodynamics? Yup. Grape varietals? Check. Wine tasting methodology? Covered. Viticulture, including pruning methods and grape ripening? Yes. Terroir? You bet.

But the meat of the book are the chapters detailing the world's winegrowing regions with visually illustrative maps and color photographs of vineyards and producers. Major and smaller wine regions are treated with equal passion. Mediterranean countries with long winegrowing histories--Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco--are discussed well, instead of skipped over as in other books.

But what I love most of all is pages are crammed with information. Sidebars highlight key topics as the confusing German Wine Law, obscure regions as the Coteaux de Pierrevert in Provence, acreage of each appellation in the Cote de Beaune and Cote de Nuits, and sustainable winegrowing trends in California.

Edited by Andre Domine, who has been a contributor to the Culinaria series, and authored by him and seventeen other wine writers, this is a masterful wine book that is hard to put down despite its heft.

Edited by Andre Domine
Published 2008 H.F. Ullmann $59.95

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Brachetto and Cherries

At the midweek tasting this week I am pouring an utterly gorgeous wine from Piedmont, the Brachetto d'Acqui DOCG I Ronchetti from Casa Martelletti.

Brachetto, a grape varietal native to the Piedmont region, produces a light, bubbly, sweet red wine prized for its fragrance and fruity, refreshing taste. Fashionable in the nineteenth-century, Brachetto almost disappeared in the twentieth-century, replaced in the vineyards by the more productive Barbera. Fortunately a handful of Piemonte growers stuck to it, and by the late twentieth-century a revival was on the way.

Yesterday, I was tasting the Brachetto with a group of customers, including my friend Ben, whose knowledge and instinct on wine and food have always inspired me. Brachetto ranges in flavors from light strawberries to a dark cherry and plum style like the I Ronchetti. We were all captivated by it and everyone left the store with a bottle in tow, including Ben (2 bottles). The fragrance was like fading rose petals. Its ethereal effervescence made the fruity flavors dance in the mouth. A really joyful wine.

I love sipping it as aperitif with fresh stone-fruits like apricots and white peaches. Ben suggested pairing with sauteed or poached salmon. I also like to drink Brachetto after a big meal. Light and low in alcohol, its pure, fresh flavors invigorate the palate.

The Brachetto made us think about the wonderful cherries in season right now. For the past few weeks I've been coming early to our local farmers' market to shop for cherries. If there were a cherry vintage chart, this year and last year would be 100 points.

My favorite are Bing cherries, named for an Oregonian Chinese-American who helped develop the cultivar. Large, plump, and sweet, Bings are the king of cherries. Ben said to put them in iced water to make them extra crunchy. When I got home last night I did just that. Immersed in iced water for twenty minutes or so, the Bings firmed up and crackled in my mouth as I bit into each one. The thick flesh teasingly released a sweet, refreshing juice that made me remember the cool glass of fizzy Brachetto I enjoyed earlier in the day.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Believing in Burgundy

"Burgundy is a gift that I have yet to receive." To paraphrase Robert Langdon, Angels & Demons

A roomful of us Burgundy believers turned up last Friday to eagerly partake of well-kept bottles from Burgundy's dismal years, as well as from better vintages that supposedly should have been consumed years ago. No problem, all the wines showed beautifully, perhaps even too beautifully as to be un-Burgundian in the case of one.

I think it's clear, the wine gods made Burgundy a matter of belief. Those who choose to believe in Burgundy's terroirs and producers, instead of depending on vintage charts and scores, are infinitely rewarded and go straight to heaven.

But what is the point of that old bottle of Jerez, er Sherry, atop the page if the topic of the post is about Burgundy? (No, that's not cooking Sherry!) Aside from looking really dainty on the kitchen counter next to a bunch of chives while dinner is being prepared, why none, except that we actually drank its contents during dinner.

Contrary to prevailing opinions, old and young Burgundy need to be decanted-- vigorously I must say--about seven to eight times (while mumbling prayers for assurance), then watch it bloom in the glass. Previously, I was in the pour-straight-from-the-bottle Burgundy camp, until I met Ben, the prophet of decanting. In the decanters above, the 1983 DRC Echézeaux and the 1984 DRC Grands Echézeaux.

Some caught a whiff of oxidation in the modest village 1985 Joseph Drouhin Chassagne-Montrachet right after it was uncorked, but fortunately I didn't when I arrived later. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Golden straw colored. Pronounced scents of lime, mineral, and nutmeg with slight petrol. Toothsome citrus and pastry crust flavors. Slick and fresh in the mouth with lots of energy still.

This bacon number is genius! Crisped, fatty bites that went perfectly with the Chassagne.

I like René Engel. The domaine's flagship is Clos de Vougeot but here we have two of its Grands Echézeaux, the 1988 and 1990. To my mind the domaine's style is somewhat rustic and certainly old-fashioned. The 1990 Grands Echézeaux has a touch of VA, but not too obtrusive. I really think 1990 Burgundies trade off some purity for a dark ripeness prone to funk. But Engel reined it in well enough so his 1990 is edible as always. Dark, ripe cherry fruit, with a touch of wildness that gets better and better on the palate. The 1988 Grands Echézeaux had a metallic, toasted caramel funky nose, but the flavors were vivid and luscious. I prefer the elegance and clarity of this to the 1990

What is wine without the proper food to match? Steve did a great job on this braised beef ribs with a side of polenta cheese. Beef and Burgundy, what a classic matchup!

Speaking of Clos de Vougeot, another wine we enjoyed with dinner was Jean Gros' 1994 Clos de Vougeot "Grand Maupertuis". Made by Jean's son Michel Gros. So youthful. With a cherry nose and bright, fruity flavors, offering lusciousness, balance, and depth. Bags of life ahead. Among the off-vintages--like 1991, 1998, 2000, 2001--1994 is the forgotten one.

The cheese spread was awesome. When you're drinking old Burgundy you gotta have a great cheese spread. We needed this for the venerable highlights of the evening.

Is there a wine critic that ever gave the 1984 DRC Echézeaux a chance? Yet, this has all the attributes of a fine Burgundy. Bright, fresh cherry scents, with rose petals and underbrush. Lifted but not angular. The brightness has a luscious fruit core capturing the wine's delicacy and marvelous elegance.

The 1983 DRC Grands Echézeaux is like a big brother to the '84 DRC Ech. Clearly broader, darker, and more muscular. Rosewood and black cherries on the nose. Sweet, potent, and powerful. Tasting of crushed cherries laced with sweet spices like cinnamon and cloves. Which one was better, this or the '84? I can't decide. I was lucky to be drinking both.

The "Lovers' Wine" according to Episode 2 of the Japanese wine drama, Kami no Shizuku, is Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses, perhaps the most seductive of all Burgundies. Its sweetnes is irresistible. The 1971 Comte Georges de Vogüe Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses is simply a sensational wine. Its rapturous cherry blossom fragrance intensifies in the glass, becoming almost overpowering as it blooms. I tasted the pure sweetness of a perfectly ripened cherry; it felt light on the palate, its delicacy like rice paper. This seemingly fragile wine radiates a prettiness that is just overwhelming.

Burgundians are uneasy with perfection. They don't like a wine that is too pretty. I remember Pierre-Henri Gagey, head of Jadot, make this remark when he was presiding over a tasting of 1999s, a great vintage like 1971 and 2002, the flawless vintage of Les Amoureuses in Episode 2 of Kami no Shizuku. In fact, this Burgundian psyche is well captured in Episode 2, where the preferred vintage of the great wine collector, Kanzaki-san, was not the flawless 2002 but the imperfect 2001.

"Heaven, Earth, Human"--together they create a masterpiece, according to Kami no Shizuku. The "Human" element signifies the labor required to make a great wine from a difficult year. Issei, the egotistical wine expert, picked the flawless 2002, but Shizuku, our unassuming hero, chose the winner, the imperfect 2001. I think this also illustrates how wine critics get it wrong. Life imitating art. Our imperfect 1983, 1984, and 1994 Burgundies were very charming and don't take a backseat to vintages like 1971, 1988, and 1990.

Done with the Burgundies, we go back to what I mentioned at the outset, the Gonzalez, Byass 1847 Solera Sherry. Gonzalez Byass still bottles an 1847 Solera Sherry to this day, but of course current bottles are not the same as this one we drank. Over time, very little of the oldest vintages dating back to 1847 go into later bottlings. Ben's 1847 Solera Sherry is a very old bottle, exactly how old, I don't know, but it's one of the early bottlings. A Cream Sherry, it is sweet with an intense caramel, balsam wood smell and delicious flavors of butterscotch, flan, and almonds that coat the palate for a considerable length of time. Sherry is one of the greatest wines, but why it's so overlooked, it's hard to say.

For a postre at the end, the 1994 Quinta do Vesuvio Vintage Port was a massive treat. Sensuous nose of violets, plums, and blueberries. Gorgeous flavors of sweet blackberries, cherries, and milk chocolate, compounded by a soft, velvety texture. Resistance was futile.