Saturday, March 30, 2013

Beautiful White of Cinque Terre

One of my memorable wine experiences was stumbling upon a tiny, new Italian restaurant in east mid-town Manhattan during the mid-90s. Its name was Cinque Terre (Ruth Reichl later reviewed it for the New York Times in this link). There weren't more than ten small tables at the place.

The first time I sat down there for dinner I had a conversation with its enthusiastic proprietor, who showed me photos of the dramatic rocky cliffs of his native region where his New York restaurant took its name. The wine list was short but almost exclusively wines from the region that he mostly imports himself, as he said there was almost nothing available in the States. He pushed me to try the white with my seafood pasta. I immediately fell in love with it, that when I got back to San Francisco I tried to find a Cinque Terre wine but, alas, none were available.

Today, I stock the best Cinque Terre white available, it's a magical discovery that I love to share.

Cinque Terre, on the Ligurian coastline overlooking the Mediterranean, is famous for its rugged beauty. The high rock cliffs that make up the terrain are planted with vines on its dangerously steep slopes. Only winegrowers passionate about the terroir of this place carry on the tradition of winemaking started by the ancient Greeks.

Bisson, run by Pierluigi Lugano, has elevated the quality of Cinque Terre wines and, undoubtedly, makes the best examples today. He works closely with the local growers from pruning to harvest, and then he carefully vinifies the grapes.

Bisson's "Marea" is a white wine made from a blend of several traditional Ligurian  grape varieties: Bosco, Vermentino, and Albarola. The vineyards that produce these grapes are situated near Volastra in Riomaggiore, one of the Cinque Terre or "Five Lands", and also the heart of this breathtaking coastal region. It was aged on the lees for an extended period, following tradition, resulting in a rich, round, full-bodied wine, brimming with fruity, earthy flavors. Truly unique and delicious.

Cinque Terre Bianco "Marea", Bisson 2011 $29.00 (Click to buy!)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

White with Altitude: A Stunning Wine from Italy's Alps

Deep in Italy's alpine highlands is the winegrowing area of Morgex and La Salle planted at the foot of Mont Blanc in the region known as Vallée d'Aoste. This northern and altitudinal limits (vines are planted at almost 5,000 feet elevation) of European viticulture produce a magical white from the rarely seen Prié Blanc grape variety. This is the only white grape planted in the Alps and is remarkably hardy as it ripens late, seemingly impervious to cold and snow. Yet, the wine that emanates from this grape possesses refreshing delicacy and elegance.

Ermes Pavese established his wine estate in this region in 1999. He focuses exclusively on growing and vinifying Prié Blanc. Other than the local cooperative, the Pavese family is one of the very few producers of this wine. Production is tiny as he farms a mere 1.5 hectares (3.75 acre) vineyard. The ungrafted vines, planted on their own pre-phylloxera rootstocks, are trained in a low pergola to get good exposure. Apparently, the cool, high elevation Alpine terroir serves as protection to root diseases.

And so from the highest vineyards in Europe, Pavese produces something truly stunning. The very first time I tasted his wine I was captivated. Its beautiful fruit, freshness, and elegance are something you immediately want to take home with you: like the stark beauty of the Alps.

Blanc de Morgex et de La Salle Vallee d'Aoste DOC, Azienda Ermes Pavese 2010 $27.00 (Click to buy!)

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Wine of the Week: 2006 Monsecco Gattinara

I am absolutely thrilled to find this very lovely wine. There are only a handful of producers in the tiny Gattinara winegrowing region in North Piedmont, and rarely does one even make it to the US. I can’t blame anyone who thinks that only Barolo and Barbaresco make the best Nebbiolo. But if you ever taste Gattinara as good as this superb 2006 from Monsecco, then I am certain you would change your mind.

The northern location of Gattinara is considerably cooler than Alba, while the soils are granite, not clay-chalk as in the Langhe. The resulting wines are higher in acidity and greater in precision, and due to their elegant character, age very long and beautifully. Good Gattinara, one could say, is the epitome of Nebbiolo.

But I do believe that the 2006 Monsecco Gattinara kicks up the quality level a notch. Gattinara is in a privileged site in North Piedmont, particularly suited for Nebbiolo, where it ripens fully in most years unlike in neighboring villages. The 2006 vintage was blessed with a sunny and warm growing season, producing a great Gattinara with the full expression of Nebbiolo in this northerly region.

Rosenthal started importing Monsecco’s Gattinara with the 2005 vintage, which took a while to be released until it finally did in 2012. And now the 2006 vintage is out--an awesome Gattinara that brings back its past glory. Finally.

Gattinara DOCG, Monsecco 2006 $42.00

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Tender Crabs at the 'Loin

I've been obsessed with eating crabs since I was a child. Maybe it's instinct or perhaps I was an otter in a previous life. Whenever I hear there's good crab to be had some place, I'm there. Last night we were in a prime neighborhood for crabbing. San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood is crowded with Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Thai immigrants who also love eating crabs. It is reputed that  Kim Thanh Seafood Restaurant in the gritty neighborhood's safer reaches near Union Square serves the best crab in the city. I'm always suspicious of such claims, but my interest was peaked. Is this place crab heaven? I'd even settle for something close to it.

The wait for a table to free up was a tease. I lusted at the prodigious tanks teeming with mouthwatering crustaceans. The crabs looked ripped and moved about with grace. And my eyes widened even more at the sight of the large spot prawns floating behind the glass, their legs doing tiny scissor kicks. At that moment I knew the schlep to the Tenderloin was worth it.

Coincidentally, the La Paulee celebration was going on at about the same time in New York. To join the celebration remotely, I brought a white Burgundy, a modest 2010 Pierre Matrot Bourgogne Blanc made by the brilliant Thierry Matrot in Meursault, where the original La Paulee is held every November soon after the harvest. A perfect wine with the crab and all the other dishes we ordered. Sharp, mineral and bone dry, it has very good body and depth for a Bourgogne. At just $20 always overachieving, and perfect for a casual place like this.

Our whole crab order arrived on a large plate already broken down in pieces, even the tomalley was scooped out of the shell ready to just be put in the mouth. Seemingly crispy fried, the menu described the crab as salt-baked. Indeed there's no glistening oiliness. This is a well-cooked crab and very tasty, full of sweet meat. Flavorwise it is not on the same level as Thanh Long's but a much better value at about $30, compared to Thanh Long's almost $50 price for a whole crab.

However, the plate of garlic noodles we ordered was disappointing, lifeless with a dominating taste of cooking oil. A far cry from Thanh Long's famous garlic noodles.

Good restaurants have overlooked gems on their menu, overshadowed by the signature dishes. At Thanh Long's I find it's the New Zealand green-lip mussels served with garlic rubbed crostini. At Kim Thanh, on this night at least, the huge spot prawns outperformed the crab. This was the largest spot prawns I've laid my eyes on. I just had some a few days before, but I can't let the opportunity for these godzilla prawns pass us by. They may not be this size next time. I insisted on ordering just a half-pound sampler fresh from the tank. They were stuffed with juicy sweet, firm meat. Several sips of the Matrot white Burgundy went down beautifully with it.

Kim Thanh Seafood Restaurant
607 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Comtes Lafon 2010 Burgundies

Domaine Lafon is the greatest producer in both Meursault (sorry Coche) and the Maconnais and one of the very best producers in all of Burgundy. The 2010 vintage at Lafon is very much a repeat of 2009. Stupendous quality. All of Lafon's wines perform at the very highest level. His village drink like many producers' premiers crus and grands crus.

Alas, as always, the wines are some of the hardest to find. Our allocation, which all comes from Lafon's US agent in California, is tiny. We will receive them by end of this month.

Terms: Expected arrival is by end of this month of March 2013. Extremely limited availability. Full payment upon order. Please, no reservations accepted without payment. Limited to stock on hand. We reserve the right to allocate quantities. All orders subject to confirmation. To order email us or call 800.580.8588.


Volnay, Domaine des Comtes Lafon 2010 $90.00
A baby Volnay-Santenots as this comes from declassified young vines in that premier cru vineyard. In this great vintage, it shows overachieving concentration and the finesse of a true premier cru.

Volnay Premier Cru Santenots du Milieu, Domaine des Comtes Lafon 2010 $155.00
One of the top Volnays in 2009. Lafon's large parcel in this vineyard allows him the luxury of sorting severely and declassifying the rest to further improve quality. Plus the parcel is in the best part of the vineyard with rocky soils and high clay content that accounts for the richness of the wine. Poweful and with very good concentration, full of violets and cassis with a smooth, long finish. This will easily evolve over several years.


Meursault, Domaine des Comtes Lafon 2010 $115.00
Marvelous fat and richness with a crunchiness and minerality that's very lovely. A perfect blend of declassified premier cru and village fruit, it captures Meursault's power and tension.

Meursault "Clos de la Barre", Domaine des Comtes Lafon 2010 $140.00
From a vineyard surrounding the domaine with a base of solid calcareous rock that's penetrated by vines' roots. This is always brilliant and consistent in quality. Shows spectacular layers of fruit intertwined with nutty flavors and minerals. Seductive creaminess on the palate and finishes with extraordinary persistence. Like previous great vintages of this wine this offers outstanding potential. Wine critics usually underrates this Meursault because it's always tight and firm in its youth.

Meursault Premier Cru Charmes, Domaine des Comtes Lafon 2010 $218.00
Charmes is one of Lafon's top wines and typically rivals top grand cru white Burgundies. From this perspective it is a great buy and very highly sought-after.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Wine of the Week: COS 2009 Cerasuolo di Vittoria--Best of Sicily

2009 was a tremendous vintage in southern Italy. The vintage produced some of the best wines in Sicily, including the 2009 Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico from COS, the acclaimed estate co-owned by Giusto Occhipinti, Arianna Occhipinti's uncle and early mentor. COS has long been recognized as one of the greatest Sicilian wine estates. The Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico is their most classic release.

In search of adventure during their youthful days, Giambattista Cilla (C), Giusto Occhipinti (O), and Pinuccia Strano (S), formed COS in 1980 to make wine for pleasure. At that time the three Sicilians were Italy's youngest winemakers.

In Cerasuolo di Vittoria in the Sicilian province of Ragusa in the island's southern coast, the three friends rented their parents' vineyards and began harvesting, pressing grapes, and making wine under their own label. Operating with this independence of spirit, without an oenologist, basing winemaking decisions on experience, intuition, and imagination, COS became a lifelong project of expressing the terroir, passion, and culture of this part of Sicily in its most authentic form.

COS applies biodynamics to viticulture to maintain balance and harmony in the vineyard and to express its character. In the cellar, in order to not impart any characteristic flavors, cement tanks are used in the vinification and the wines are aged in neutral oak casks (botti) and clay amphoras.

Today COS is making wines that are the purest expression of Cerasuolo di Vittoria, the only DOCG appellation in Sicily. In their wines we discover that this particular area of Sicily has one of the greatest terroirs, producing wines with indigenous grapes that are as delicious and complex as any you would find from world's greatest vineyard sites.

The 2009 Cerasuolo di Vittoria, made from a blend of Frappato and Nero d'Avola is stunning, one of the finest vintages for this classic wine from COS.

Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico DOCG, Az. Agr. COS 2009 $31.00 (Click to buy!)