Sunday, January 26, 2014

Chandon de Briailles, Where the Old is New

At Vineyard Gate we've been selling the Burgundies of Domaine Chandon de Briailles almost from the time we opened for business in 1998. Their Burgundies, both red and white, are the kind I love most: light, elegant, without the taste of oak, classic and firm, usually partially destemmed. It also helps a lot that prices have always been modest.

The domaine's parcels are usually in the best sites of the appellations and planted with old vines. Perhaps the flagship is the premier cru Pernand-Vergelesses Ile des Vergelesses, for which the domaine is best known for as it owns the lion's share of the vineyard. But there was also the previous parcel rented in Corton-Charlemagne situated near the crest of the hill just above that of Coch-Dury's in the "lieu Charlemagne" section.

Changes have been afoot at the domaine since the hiring of the young Aussie cellar master, Christian Knott, in 2009. I met him at a wine bar in Beaune last September and told him how much I admire the 2010 range. There was a depth, purity, and aromatics to the wines that I've not found before. Previous vintages tend to have a rustic touch. Above all the Savigny-Lavieres was the best I've ever had. He smiled satisfyingly, somewhat vindicated for changes he championed at the domaine to which both brother and sister proprietors, Francois and Claude de Nicolay, were in accord. We hit it off and the topic turned to food. I told him I probably had my best ever dinner in Paris at Bones, where there happens to be an Aussie chef in charge. It turns out he was also there for dinner the following night.

A few days later my friends and I took up Christian's invitation to taste at the domaine in Savigny les Beaune. We tasted from barrel mainly 2012s: Savigny-Lavieres, Pernand Les Vergelesses Ile de Verglesses rouge, Corton-Marechaude, Corton-Bressandes, Corton Clos du Roi, Pernand Ile de Vergelesses blanc, and Corton blanc. I can tell you that the streak he helped drive since the 2010 vintage continues. This is a venerable domaine that has found a way to take its wines to an even higher level.

Christian explained that sulphites have been reduced to a bare minimum and nothing is added before fermentation has started. They are more careful not to over-extract to keep the wines elegant. Exposure to air during vinification and cellaring is also avoided as much as possible to reduce the need for SO2, while this has also resulted in a more intense perfume.

Christian also engages in some extra-curricular activities in the domaine, as there is a sort of "skunk works" going on  there with some interesting wines that would probably not leave the domaine. Like a barrel of Pinot Blanc with 8 days skin contact and without addition of sulphites. It was terrific! I'll have to ask Christian to save me a bottle.

Meanwhile, I await excitedly the arrival of their 2011s. Let the wine press drum up attention now on 2012 Burgundies (obviously to hype up their newsletter subscriptions). The 2011s are very good and promising, and more modestly priced. Domaine Chandon de Briailles' wines also have new labels.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Year-End Dinners At the SPQR

I've established a personal holiday tradition that I now look forward to every year. Since it reopened in 2009 with a new chef, I've been coming to SPQR on Fillmore for a year-end dinner. Ostensibly, it's for the seasonal white truffle and to open great bottles of wine with friends, but mainly I believe Fall/Winter is when SPQR is at its best.

Last year--2013 that is--white truffle season started early and was reputed to be the best in recent years. I found time to book at SPQR only after Christmas and almost missed having the last of the season's white truffles entirely. Apparently Matthew Accarino has the best connections to Alba as he put tartufi bianchi on the menu that night when everyone seemed to have ran out of them. Though the white truffle is a draw, it is just icing for me. Matthew's fine cuisine, especially this time of the year, is why I come to SPQR. He is I think one of the most gifted chefs in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The fact that you can have a individually plated, multi-course fine dining experience inside the tiny, cramped space of SPQR with its puny open kitchen is a small miracle. I sit on a high chair at the chef's counter, or "table", facing the stoves. Usually we do away with the printed menu and leave it to Matthew to design the dinner and to hit us with his best shot, so to speak.

SPQR's wine list is superb. I always try one or two wines to learn something new. This night it was Nino Negri's Sassella "Le Tense", a red from Lombardy's Valtellina region made of Chiavennasca, the local term for Nebbiolo. A lively, fruity, very pleasing wine that seems to go with everything.

Next thing I know a large espresso cup materialized filled with thick mushroom soup. It had good "crema", and the intense savory aromas and tastes of pan drippings.

Matthew's take on a potato salad was a deconstructed palette of jig-saw shapes and colors.

I brought a bottle of 1999 Brovia Barolo Villero, the estate's flagship cru notorious for staying close for a long period. It is still youthful but smooth and relaxed, 'twas the right foil for the dishes to follow, especially the white truffle.

A fallish-looking plate of guinea hen terrine, sweet-and-sour brioche, liver mousse was both gorgeous and delicious.

Here is a most interesting plate. Tempura hen-of-the-woods mushroom, shishito peppers, and sliced prosciutto from a fire-engine red, hand-cracked $5,000 machine slicer.  Everything works.

It was definitely an all Nebbiolo night. With the Brovia, two seamless 1996ers. Oddero's Barolo Mondoca di Bussia Soprana was juicy and fresh with a still youthful firmness. Giuseppe Rinaldi's Barolo Brunate-Le Coste was big but well-behaved, still tight though its gorgeous fruit was showing.

Perhaps my favorite dish of the night, meyer-lemon spaghetti with abalone. Simple and amazing.

Sunchoke-stuffed ravioli with shaved white truffles. I asked our server what was in the ravioli, her reply, "love."

Mustard capellini with bits of guinea hen, savoy cabbage, and grated mimolette cheese. Wait... isn't mimolette cheese banned?

Smoked wild duck, off menu, a treat from Matthew. Smoked on premise and the smoke aromas were all over the restaurant.

A sort of deconstructed take on apple pie a la mode. Refreshing on the palate.

A holiday treat, toasted panettone, quince caramel and black truffled gelato! Great finish.