Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Wine That Says "Let's Get Lost"

Poudre d'Escampette is an old French expression that loosely translates to "escape" or "take to your heels." I think in the context of this particular wine from Le Casot de Mailloles, the phrase is more like "let's get lost."

With just 5 hectares of vines, Le Casot des Mailloles is perhps the smallest domaine in the Banyuls region of Southern France. It was started in 1994 by partners, Alain Castex and Ghislaine Magnier. Today, the domaine has the reputation of being the greatest producer in Banyuls. Quite ironic since none of its wines carry the Banyuls AOC as they are humbly classified Vin de France--this despite all their vineyards being situated within the Banyuls appellation.

Work is done totally manually most of the year by just Alain Castex and Ghislaine. Their vineyards are planted with very old vines, close to 100 years old or more and have been fully organic since 1997. They vinify their wines using native yeasts and without any additives or addition of sulphites. The wines are bottled by hand without filtering. Production is an uneconomic less than 5,000 bottles a year. Clearly the domaine exists because they love what they do.

There are certainly more than enough wine lovers in France and elsewhere in Europe who buy out the domaine's production every year. Its wines have rarely reached the US, and if ever just in dribs and drabs. Last year, a handful of cases, probably no more than 6 cases were imported to the US. I'm wishing this year we would see more.

Meanwhile, I have a few bottles of their haunting 2013 Poudre d'Escampette. Let's get lost.

Vin de France "Poudre d'Escampette", Le Casot des Mailloles 2013 $28.00 (order here)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Man Who Changed Burgundy

The sad passing of Anne-Claude Leflaive last week also made me think of Jean-Claude Rateau. Rateau pioneered biodynamic viticulture in Burgundy in 1979 and was then only the fourth vigneron in all of France to practice biodynamics. His lecture on biodynamics a decade later drew many Burgundy producers including Anne-Claude Leflaive.

Since then most of the top Burgundy vignerons converted to biodynamic viticulture, including, Leflaive, Leroy, DRC, Lafon, Lafarge, De Montille, to name just a few. Amazingly Rateau still remains somewhat undiscovered today. I'm very pleased to help import his Burgundies to the U.S. His wines are not easy to find even in France, so I'm very happy for this new opportunity.

Jean-Claude Rateau is a native of Beaune. After completing wine studies at the Lycée Viticole, he went to train in Beaujolais, where he found out about biodynamics. On his return to Burgundy, he started practicing biodynamics on his vineyards in Beaune in 1979, the first one to do so in Burgundy.

But what differentiates Rateau from other vignerons that farm biodynamcially is that he is just as consistent in the cellar. He vinifies as naturally as possible with native yeasts and with very minimal sulfur. He never uses new oak and usually doesn't filter. The results are wines with obvious energy and transparency. They benefit from at least a few years aging to show their full potential, especially the premiers crus.

Hautes Cotes de Beaune Bourgogne Blanc, Domaine Jean-Claude Rateau 2013 $26.00 (read more)

Hautes Cotes de Beaune Bourgogne Rouge, Domaine Jean-Claude Rateau 2013 $29.00 (read more)

Beaune "Clos des Mariages", Domaine Jean-Claude Rateau 2012 $42.00 (read more)

Beaune Premier Cru Les Reversees, Domaine Jean-Claude Rateau 2011 $48.00 (read more)

Beaune Premier Cru Les Coucherias Blanc, Domaine Jean-Claude Rateau 2012 $54.00 (read more)

Beaune Premier Cru Bressandes, Domaine Jean-Claude Rateau 2011 $57.00 (read more)

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Bourgueil Stephane Guion -- Deals and Steals

This has opened up deliciously from just six months ago. If you drink it now you'd be happy. Or you can sit on it more and you'll be amply rewarded. The 2008 from magnum was glorious recently, but alas sold out.

From 40 to 85 year-old Cab Franc vines farmed organically since 1965. Vinified using natives yeasts, without additives and no addition of sulphites until bottling, when a small dose was applied.

We sell it for just $17! One of our Deals and Steals!

Bourguiel "Cuvee Prestige", Domaine Guion 2012 $17.00 (order here)

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Matsunotsukasa, Shiga

Shiga, a largely rural prefecture, borders Kyoto. Omi was its former name, and the prized wagyu that comes from Shiga is famously known as Omi-gyu. I didn't spot a grazing cow during my two winter visits here, perhaps the bovines are pampered indoors, which would account for the tender, fatty quality of their meat. Another local specialty is funa-zushi crucian carp, which is caught from Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan. Both these local gastronomic treats go perfectly with the locally produced sake.

I come to Shiga to visit the small, artisanal Matsuse Brewery which produces the Matsunotsukasa sake brand, one of the best sakes I know. On my way to the brewery from the train station what is immediately apparent in the flat landscape are the rice fields. Shiga is home to rice.

Each step in making Matsunotsukasa sake is done in small batches and by hand. It's back-breaking work. Last year I spent 3 days at the brewery helping make sake from dawn till dusk. I was hanging on to life by the third day. I can't imagine how the kurabito, including the toji, can work like this six months straight. At Matsuse Brewery the crew is only about 5 or 6 workers; they are constantly moving during the day. Rice waits for no one.

An ongoing internal project in the kura is brewing in an amphora-shaped clay vessel that was custom-made by an American pottery artist in Kyoto. It's an expensive way of making sake, the process takes a bit longer to finish it seems, but the sake shows extraordinary richness and depth.

Matsuse-San is a hands-on owner or kuramoto. He has a sensitive palate, an open-mind, and a generous spirit. The one thing that really matters to him about his sake is quality. He took the bold step of appointing a young toji to lead the brewery in achieving quality. His thinking was right. Today, the brewery sells out everything it makes and buyers are falling in line. Matsunotsukasa is the one sake I'm most excited in bringing to the U.S.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

2012 Aurélien Verdet Chambolle-Musigny

I started selling Aurélien Verdet's Burgundies from the 2007 vintage, only his second vintage, when it was first imported to the US. Verdet was a virtual unknown back then, and even today, he still flies under the radar. His wines appealed to me immediately for their brilliant purity and precision. Today, Verdet is one of Burgundy's rising star producers. His wines are starting to get recognized as some of the best made in Burgundy.

For example, check out the latest Wine Spectator reviews on top 2012 Burgundies below that was published online this week, 11th March 2015

Even when compared to far more expensive grands crus wines from luminary producers such as Roumier and Grivot, Aurélien Verdet's more humble single lieu-dit village Chambolle-Musigny "les Condemennes" rivals them!

Only in his early 30s, Aurélien Verdet produces marvelous wines from some of Burgundy's plush terrains, including Nuits-St.-Georges, Vosne-Romanée, and Chambolle-Musigny. In his late 20s he won the prestigious 2008 GJPV award (Group des Jeunes Professionnels de la Vigne) for best young talent in all the Côte de Nuits.

Verdet is one of the few producers in Burgundy that makes wines as naturally as possible and with minimum intervention. He farms organically and vinifies with native yeasts and without additives and chaptalization. He adds only a small dose of sulfites. 

In the much praised 2012 vintage, Verdet crafted a lovely single-vineyard Chambolle-Musigny from the Les Condemennes lieu-dit adjacent to the premier cru vineyard Charmes. This is amazing village Chambolle, at least as good as several premiers crus and even grands crus Chambolle wines from this vintage. An unmistakable, pure expression of Chambolle.

Our stock is arriving over the next two weeks, but I'm selling this now at a special pre-arrival price of $65 (regular is $75). And at less than $70, it is about half the price of a top producer's Chambolle-Charmes!

The Verdet family was one of the first wine growers in Burgundy to go organic in 1971. Aurélien Verdet carries on the work that his father started, farming all the vineyard parcels under the domaine organically. But that's not all. Overall, Aurélien's winemaking is "done by feel, by taste, by intuition, by the phases of the moon and as the wines from each parcel and from each vintage demand", or so he says.

This wine arrives over the next two weeks. Please respond by email to or voicemail (650.552.9530) and I'll try my best to fill your request. As always, full payment upon order. Thank you.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Kirei, Hiroshima

When I arrived with my friend on Miyajima Island it was almost midday. This was the start of a full day in Hiroshima, a region that feels laidback after escaping the bustle of Tokyo. The day was overcast and quiet, with a low tide. We both thought our timing was perfect to visit Itsukushima Shrine.

The island is one of the three most beautiful sites of Japan, commonly called the Three Views of Japan. Itsukushima Shrine is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its famous Otorii is unbelievably gigantic consisting of massive tree trunks as pillars. The vermillion structure dwarfs anyone that gets close to it.

The Shrine is painted in the same vermillion color as the torii. During high tide it is said to appear as if floating. I wondered how they figured the exact height to raise the shrine so it won't flood when the water rises. I don't see any watermarks above the stilts. I consider it one of the wonders of this place. But there was another wonder I was about to discover.

Tourists, of course, visit Miyajima all year round. Although I could use a good cup of coffee since I haven't had one all morning, I thought it was a blessing not to see any Starbucks anywhere even back on the mainland. But to my delight and surprise a third wave coffee purveyor was right on the island! Miyajima Itsuki Coffee looks like a hipster coffee shop you'd walked into in San Francisco's Mission District. Two young ladies were behind the counter. They were featuring single-origin Nicaraguan so I ordered a pour-over cup and my friend went for a latte. The coffee was good and strong. God I missed coffee. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area I'm used to finding a coffee shop on every street corner. Not in Japan, nor probably anywhere else in the world outside the US.

Hiroshima is famous for its style of okonomiyaki, and Miyajima, in particular, for its oysters. We thought it wise to have both for lunch while we're still here. Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is more of a sandwich than an omelette, which is what would describe the other okonomiyaki, the Osaka-style. The ingredients are piled in layers between griddled batters, instead of mixing the ingredients with the batter. What's in the okonomiyaki is pretty simple: a fistful of fresh shredded cabbage, fresh bean sprouts, and griddled yaki soba noodles. When put together by the master okonomiyaki maker and doused sparingly with the appropriate sauce (Otafuku) it's like a gastronomic miracle. Oishi, my friends!

The plate of oysters--it was probably griddled, too, because I can't see any other cooking appliance in the open kitchen--came with another fistful of fresh cabbage threads. They sure love cabbage in these parts. I scarfed down the plate quickly as we had to catch a train to Saijo about 40 miles north inland.

Saijo is Hiroshima's famous Sake Town. The locals have been producing sake here since the 17th century. Eight breweries are tightly clustered together along the main street, with their chimneys breathing down each others neck. For example, the building walls of Kirei and Kamotsuru are separated only by a gap of about a foot. What accounts for this crowding is water. Saijo is surrounded by mountains, which create an environment with ideal low temperatures during fall and winter for making sake. Water from the mountains flows down to Saijo like a basin, with the purest water concentrated on a narrow strip of land. Hence, everyone wants to be right on top of that water source.

Despite its history of being a sake capital, Saijo feels sleepy even in the height of winter's sake making season. The truth is the town's famous brewers squandered their fortunes by depending on high volume, low quality sake. Demand for this kind of sake has been declining. Walking by the kura of such prestigious brewers as Kamotsuru and Kamoizumi in the middle of the day we stopped to listen, there was no sound of activity. Is it too late to reverse the trend? I'm not sure, but the one exception though is Kirei Shuzo, above.

Kirei's name is a reference to the turtle's longevity, which is to suggest that drinking Kirei's sake helps in living a long, full life. Well, Kirei was totally alive when we entered the kura. The workers were busy washing rice in preparation for steaming.

The toji, Masahiro Nishigaki, a stocky, tough looking dude, is doubtless in command of the kura. He and Kirei's sales manager, Ueda-san, spearheaded Kirei's focus on making high quality sake. A wise move because as Japan's sake market has fallen, demand for the best quality sake has not wavered.

At a local restaurant we enjoyed two of Kirei's popular sake, a junmai ginjo and a daiginjo. The dishes were pretty much all seafood and they went great with the sake. Of course, we had oysters, but something more unusual was this flaming conch shell bubbling in its broth on a bed of salt. I couldn't wait to get my hands on them. You don't see conchs in sushi joints anymore in the States. Last time I ordered one was at Sushi Sam's in San Mateo, but that was over a decade ago. Another all-time favorite app is shiokara, raw ika innards marinating in its own juice and probably some dashi. It's a sake drinker's best friend.

Of the two sake that we drank, the junmai ginjo was my preference. I really seldom prefer daiginjo because it's too gentle and soft for my taste. I want to feel the sake in my mouth.

Next morning we were back at Kirei's kura for a tour of the facility and a quick tasting of some new sake. The main street of Saijo was quiet, you'd never know you're standing on one of the sake brewing capitals of Japan.

Perhaps Saijo is more serene now for this Zen meditation center we passed by.

The two new sake to taste were still in sample bottles--a junmai and a daiginjo. They were both really good. The daiginjo, aromatic and refined; while the junmai, more natural tasting and textured. I like the junmai more. I think the consensus was we all liked it. This is the one I would like to bring to the US, especially if they can bottle it in 500ml. For American drinkers, I believe 500ml is just the right sake bottle size. 300ml is too small, especially if there's two of you drinking, while 720ml is a bit much for casual sake drinking. While busy with these thoughts, I remember Ueda-san can put down four 720ml bottles in one sitting.

Standing outside of Kirei's building with Ueda-san, general manager and chief strategist at Kirei. He's a modest man with a ton of self-confidence. He could probably outdrink anyone I know.

This visit to Hiroshima and Saijo was eye-opening. Over the past centuries many have traveled here to drink their famous sake. I'm excited to introduce Kirei's sake soon in the States so fellow Americans can experience real Hiroshima sake made from the pure waters of Saijo.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Noella Morantin Touraine Gamay

A few days ago I got together with friends for a terrific meal at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant. I brought a newly released Gamay from the Loire because no red goes better with Chinese (Cantonese in particular) cuisine than Gamay. Gamay's tartness and fruity sour cherry flavors go with practically any Chinese dish, including steamed fish! Yet, I have a weakness for pork so I ordered barbecue pork cheeks. The sweet tender slices were heavenly with the Gamay.

The particular Gamay I drank was Noella Morantin's 2013 Touraine Gamay "La Boudinerie", which was fitting since she made this as a vin de soif to go with cochonailles. "Boudinerie" is the name of the farm she rents where she has her cellar. Perhaps they used to make blood sausage there, too.

After years working at Domaine Les Bois Lucas, in 2009 she jumped on the opportunity to lease a good chunk of vineyards from nearby Clos Roche Blanche, which was downsizing and now totally retired. She is helped by Laurent Saillard, who used to operate a restaurant in New York, then decided to go back to France to work at Clos Roche Blanche, then at Noella Morantin's domaine. Laurent is also leasing vines from Clos Roche Blanche and has started to produce wines on his own.

Noella's Gamay is beautifully crafted. I'm not sure how old the Gamay vines are but they probably have some age since they were from Clos Roche Blanche. Noella does partial whole cluster fermentation--maybe 60%--and vinifies with natural yeasts and no additives. She adds minimal sulfites during the one racking but none at all afterwards even at bottling.

This 2013 Gamay has a fresh and wild expression, a rawness for sure, and an edge. It would be interesting to see how it ages, but for now I love its savage charm--goes well with the bbq pork.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The New Alsace

Lately, I've excitedly introduced a slew of Alsace wines. At the risk of sounding shrill, please allow me to pontificate more. If you already drink a fair share of Alsace wines, my apologies. But if you haven't had any Alsace wine in recent memory, or none at all (God forbid), then I urge you to wake up and consume some of the most satisfying and affordable wines in the world.

Almost as long as I've been drinking wines, I've been drinking Alsace wines. The bright yellow label on tall green bottles of Hugel and Trimbach first caught my eye. I also fell hard for Leon Beyer, then Marcel Deiss, Zind-Humbrecht and Ostertag.

But more recent discoveries like Marc Tempe, Sylvie Spielmann, and Laurent Bannwarth have made me love and drink Alsace wines even more. These wines are made with little intervention, and their flavors have a depth and purity of expression that I find only in a few wines.

In Alsace they eat everything--pigs and cows nose to tail, vegetables and mushrooms, duck and seafood--which doesn't surprise me because these wines go with everything. They are a source of comfort in winter and a thirst-quenching refreshment in the summer.

Experience the joy in wines even more, drink Alsace wines.

Alsace Riesling Zellenberg, Domaine Marc Tempe 2010 $27.00
Selection from various parcels in the Zellenberg commune where Tempe is based. The vines are biodynamcially farmed and average 50 years-old. The grapes are vinified and aged in foudre with native yeasts, without additives and with just a minimal dose of sulfites. Yields were low in 2010 but quality is superb. If you love dry Riesling, then you will find this structured 2010 Zellenberg brilliant. And like some of Alsace's greatest dry Rieslings like the Frederic Emile and Clos St. Hune, this Zellenberg benefits from aging. A great buy.

Vin d'Alsace White "Envol", Domaine Sylvie Spielmann 2010 $19.00
This unique dry Alsace white shows the greatness of field blends. In 2008 Sylvie Spielmann took over a neighbor's plot situated between her two vineyards that is planted to Sylvaner, Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and Riesling averaging 30 years-old. She immediately converted it to biodynamic farming to invigorate and awaken the vines, producing a wine with intense flavors that have balance and harmony. All the grapes are vinified together with indigenous yeasts, without additives, and with just a small dose of sulfites. A complex wine that will continue to evolve over the next decade.

Alsace Gewurztraminer "Qvevri", Domaine Laurent Bannwarth 2011 $48.00
100% Gewurztraminer from biodynamically farmed vines. Following the Georgian winemaking approach, the skins were macerated with the juice to extract as much flavor from the skins. It was vinified naturally, using native yeasts and without addition of sulfites or any other additives. Then the wine was aged in terracootta Kvevri for at least a year and bottled unfined and unfiltered. Along with the deeper color, the flavors offer fantastic depth and richness with lovely tannins. This is immediately new and strange and very likable.

Alsatian Riesling "patience...", Domaine Laurent Bannwarth 2009 $35.00
This was vinified for at least 24 months on its lees before completing development and arriving at peak--on its own, using natural yeasts, without temperature control, without additives, and without added sulfites. After vinification the wine was allowed to settle and rest for at least another 12 months before being bottled unfined and unfiltered. I've never had Riesling like this that offers such broadness and depth of flavors. Instead of being laser-focused, it is a full-blown, harmonic ensemble.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Weekend Tasting: 6th and 7th March 2015

A couple of new Gamays just arrived, one from the Loire and the other from Beaujolais. Come and taste these new arrivals this Friday and Saturday, Mar. 6th & 7th 12pm-5pm. Tasting is complimentary.

Simon Tardieux worked with Catherine Roussel and Didier Barrouillet at Clos Roche Blanche in the Touraine region of the Middle Loire. Without any vineyards, he teamed up with Alain Courtault who was just in the process of converting his vines to organic farming. Together these two are crafting delicious, unpretentious thirst wines or vin de soif at very affordable prices. The 2011 Gamay is made naturally, with native yeasts and without additives and just a small dose of sulfites at bottling.

Nicolas Testard trained at Domaine Prieure-Roch and with his close friend, Frederic Cossard, two of the very few natural wine producers in the Cote d'Or. Prieure-Roch is owned by Henri Roch, one of the co-owners of DRC and a nephew of Lalou Bize-Leroy. After his Burgundy stints Testard went back to Beaujolais and started his own domaine making affordable thirst wines or vins de soif with little intervention: no additives and no added sulfites. The 2014 Beaujolais-Villages Primeur is a Nouveau wine released late last year for immediate enjoyment.


Beaujolais-Villages Primeur, Nicolas Testard 2014 $14.00

Touraine Gamay, Domaine Courtault-Tardieux 2011 $16.00

Terada Honke

After a week humping on planes, trains, taxis, and buses through much of Japan's main island of Honshu visiting sake breweries, I arrived on a crisp, sunny morning in Kozaki in Chiba Prefecture, a rural town near Narita. I'm here to visit Terada Honke, a unique sake producer that calls itself "The Natural Organic Japanese Sake Brewery."

Owner and toji, Masaru Terada, welcomed me and my friend at the company office and offered us black tea. Masaru-san is a smiling, friendly chap. He has a curious mind, and he asked me questions about how long I've been selling wine, my interest in sake, what kinds of wines I sell, and the intricacies of buying and selling alcohol in the US.

Masaru-san is the 24th generation head of Terada Honke, which was founded 330 years ago. He worked as a kurabito in the brewery for some years, married the boss's daughter, and succeeded his father-in-law when he passed away three years ago. It was his father-in-law who established the brewery's unique, natural approach to sake during the 1980s. Masaru-san has continued making sake this way with much success, even exporting to Europe and becoming the preferred sake at Noma.

In sake making, nothing is more important than rice. How rice is used for its sake production is what makes Terada Honke unique among breweries. Only local organically farmed rice is used. Its own hectare and a half of rice fields supply about ten percent of its needs. The rest of the rice it uses is sourced from fifteen contract rice growers in the local area.

While modern sake has emphasized rice polishing ratio (seimaibuai) Terada Honke treats this with the least importance. Masaru-san says that before modern technology sake was made with more modestly polished rice. He believes that the character has changed from traditional sake and that key flavors are stripped out by over-polishing. He pointed to a pallet of rice sacks with a polishing ratio of just 90% (only 10% was removed). This seems almost a joke because sake brewers today, like Dassai, crank out sake with rice polished down to such astonishingly small levels as 35% or less. Terada Honke uses rice with a seimaibuai ranging from from 70% to 90%.

The impressive wooden rice steamer dominates the space of this small kura. After being hand-washed, the rice is steamed then allowed to cool off naturally. Every work in the kura is done manually.

In the koji room, the cooled, steamed rice is sprinkled with koji spores, then tumbled by hand periodically by the kurabito team to ensure the koji develops evenly over the rice. It's noticeable how large the grains are because of the minimal polishing. Koji-making takes a bit longer at Terada Honke. I tasted some grains that were almost ready, they taste sweet, of course (akin to grapes ripening in winemaking), as the starches have converted into sugar. They also look and feel more like table rice, softer to the touch than the usual koji rice I've handled.

The main magic at Terada Honke happens during the development of the main mash that starts fermentation. In nearly all sake making today this process takes a couple of weeks using added bacteria and cultured yeasts. But back in the old days before these additives were invented, the process took longer because sake makers have to induce and wait for native bacteria and yeasts to develop in the mash and do their trick. It's a slow and labor-intensive. But at Terada Honke they love doing things the ancient way. The Kimoto way.

Although not the same thing, the closest parallel of the Kimoto method in winemaking is pigeage. In fact some Kimoto practitioners stomp the rice mash with their feet. But the more typical practice and the way it's done at Terada Honke is by using poles with a flat head to mash the koji rice in the wood tub until lactic acid bacteria develops allowing native yeasts to grow. Two or three workers stand around each wood tub with poles mashing the koji rice for about 30 minutes three times a day over several weeks. It's monotonous and tiring work. So they sing work songs to lift their spirits and help them coordinate their efforts. When I inquired about it, Masaru-san called a worker for a brief enactment of their Kimoto practice. This is how all sake is made at Terada Honke.

Singing The Blues At The Kura from Vineyard Gate on Vimeo.

As I watched them perform the singing eventually rose and gathered power. I felt the energy generated by their singing and imagined how this transferred to the rice being mashed to start fermentation. Nature and workers creating magic, I thought. At the end of the performance we clapped and the worker laughed and shouted to us, "Japanese Blues!" I can't think of a better way to call it.

Once the fermenting mash is developed it is brought to a vat, usually enamel coated steel tanks, but at Terada Honke I noticed they also use wood fermenters. More koji mash and rice are added to the vessel while the fermentation goes on. After a month the fermented mash is pressed and the juice is allowed to settle and aged for a year before bottling.

 The Gonin Musume is immediately appealing, with polished rice of about 60%-65%. Vibrant and only slightly sweet. It's a friendly introduction to Terada Honke.

Above is the most funky tasting sake from Terada Honke. It is pungent and quite dry. It is the first sake I tasted from them on a previous night at a restaurant in Shibuya, Tokyo. I can't say that I liked it immediately but it grew on me and I started to enjoy it with the food.

I like the old labels of Terada Honke such as the two ones above. I can't recall if Masaru-san said that they were drawn by a relative. The top one called "Fifth Daughter" is made from their own rice polished at 70%. It has a lovely fruity taste, soft textured, with a long finish.

The Katori above is polished to just 90%, unfiltered. Floral with delicious fresh, fruity flavors.

The above bottle of Hanahiraku is a koshu made from rice polished to 80%. I believe the sake was aged in bottle for 12 years. It reminds me of a sweet oloroso with its dark amber color and earthy, caramel flavors. I mentioned to Masaru-san that it would be delicious with a Parmigiano-Reggiano. On second thought it might be best as a meditative sake. I believe there should be sake that you don't have to fuss about with anything else. It's complete and it would be just for contemplation.

Masaru-san offered us a ride back to the train station in his old mini-van. As he was pulling out, I asked him to stop so I can take a quick shot of a statue of Guanyin (Kannon), the Bodhisattva of Compassion, which stands serenely in the middle of the kura grounds. It is said that the merciful deity listens to all the cries of the world. I'm sure it hears the kurabito singing the blues as they pound the rice. wy

Drink sake and check out our excellent sake selection at Vineyard Gate here.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Clos Roche Blanche 2013

I have long been obsessed by the wines of Clos Roche Blanche, which are produced in the Touraine region in the middle Loire. I first discovered their wines fifteen years ago. It was the first wines I bought imported by Louis/Dressner Selections, which were then locally distributed by Bock Vines. It was hard to find these wines in the West Coast and hardly anyone knew about them.

The vintage of Clos Roche Blanche I started selling was 1998. A terrific vintage. I bought several cases of both the Sauvignon Blanc and the Cot. I was naive to think in the late 1990s and early 2000s that people are going to like the taste of unmanipulated wines like Clos Roche Blanche and that people would get excited about wines costing just $10 a bottle. Thus, the wines gathered dust on the shelf. The Sauvignon I almost managed to sell through because it was easier to understand, but the Cot--made from vines over a century old--was a hard sell. It had tannins and high acid, the very antithesis of fruit bombs. I pulled the remaining 1 case of Sauvignon and 2 cases of the Cot and put them in our temperature-controlled storage.

Six years later Louis/Dressner Selections had become a celebrated importer and many of the wines they bring in, including the Clos Roche Blanche, have developed a cult following. I put the 1998 Clos Roche Blanche back on the shelf and, of course, they sold out like crazy. They both tasted pristine. People never even think of aging these wines because they're not expensive. Well, these Sauvignon and Cot from Clos Roche Blanche showed that price has nothing to do with quality or ageability.

My long love affair with Clos Roche Blanche is coming to an end soon. 2014 will be the last vintage to be released by the domaine, as the owners, Catherine Roussel and Didier Barrouillet are retiring. Much of their vineyards have already been leased out or sold. Thankfully, we still have the newly released 2013 wines, as well as the 2014 wines to look forward to.

Clos Roche Blanche was started by the Roussel family in the 19th century in the Touraine hills next to the Cher river. Three generations later the estate was taken over in 1975 by Catherine Roussel, who was soon joined by her husband, Didier Barrouillet. Since 1995 the vineyards have been farmed organically and some biodynamic treatments were also applied. In the cellar, vinification is done with native yeasts, without additives, and no added sulfites (except on rare occasions) even on bottling. Instead, CO2 is applied to protect the wine.

If you are any kind of wine lover, you owe it to yourself to discover the brilliant wines of Clos Roche Blanche while there's an opportunity to do so.

Touraine "Sauvignon No. 2", Clos Roche Blanche 2013 $20.00 (order here)
100% Sauvignon Blanc from vines planted on one of the great terroirs in the Loire, the Touraine hills above the Cher river. The grapes are macerated for 48 hours and the wines are aged on the lees. Fermented with native yeasts and vinified without additives and no addition of sulfites. Instead, CO2 is used during bottling to protect the wines.

Touraine Rouge "Pif", Clos Roche Blanche 2013 $18.00 (order here)
A blend of about two-thirds Cabernet Franc and one-third Cot from organically farmed grapes above the Cher river. The bunches were destemmed and vinified with native yeasts, without additives, and no addition of sulfites. Instead of sulfites, CO2 was used in bottling to protect the wines.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What Happens When Burgundians Make Grenache From the Rhone?

Rhone from Burgundy? Yes, that's right. Burgundy producers Jean-Pascal Sarnin and Jean-Marie Berrux apparently love wines from the Rhone that they decided to bring up organically grown Grenache grapes from Ardèche to the Cote d'Or! One is not supposed to do this, otherwise worlds collide and the AOC doesn't like that. But they did it anyway.

The fruit came from Gérald and Jocelyne Oustric of the highly regarded Domaine Le Mazel. Sarnin and Berrux vinified the grapes at their winery in Monthelie, as usual with natural yeasts, no additives and no added sulphites, except for a small dose at bottling. The result is as brilliant as any of their highly touted Burgundies. Yet there's a fun factor, too: the fact that you're drinking great Grenache made in Burgundy!

Vin de France "Les Muriers 2", Sarnin-Berrux 2012 $27.00 (order here)

Monday, February 2, 2015

A Day With FiFi

Fifi. What can I say. Only worthy dudes are known by just one name.

Fifi will always be associated with the Ten Bells wine bar in New York that he founded, but he's moved on to other pursuits lately. He opened a tiny wine store two years ago in Brooklyn called Passage de la Fleur, then more recently he launched his import business called Fifi Imports. He imports wines, of course, but he also added the magnificent Perceval knife selection.

I'm elated to collaborate with Fifi in introducing more great natural wines to San Francisco Bay Area wine lovers. Since starting Vineyard Gate 16 years ago, I've been keen on carrying wines made without junk. I was one of the first to sell in the Bay Area wines from Yvon Metras and Clos Roche Blanche back in 2000, then I brought in the West Coast for the first time the wines of Domaine l'Octavin and Jean-Marc Brignot. While I would've loved to carry more natural wines from the outset, unfortunately, their availability in the States was tough, as there were very few sources even in the East Coast.

Today, finding natural wines in the US has gotten a lot better, especially with Fifi entering the scene with a terrific portfolio of producers. While most natural wine producers we've seen are from Beaujolais, the Loire and, the Jura, what's unique about Fifi's selection is that he's scoped out some of the best producers in the South of France. Vineyards along the Mediterranean, from Provence to the Sud-Ouest, is now the hotbed of rising natural wine producers in France. Land is cheap and plentiful. The weather is warm and sunny, which makes it easier to producer natural wines.

Fifi flew to the West Coast last November to launch his import selections. He hit the road touring Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. We kicked off his San Francisco visit with a store tasting, then a wine dinner at Belcampo in San Francisco.

We made Bacchus proud as we opened over 30 different bottles that one night. Everyone who attended were charmed by both Fifi and all the wines we drank. These wines were all new and unknown in the States. It was an eye-opening experience. Not only have natural wines come a long way from the days of experimentation, but drinkers are starting to appreciate the good ones for what they are, delicious and expressive in character.

Here are some of the wines that we stock from Fifi's Imports. Give them a try!

Vin de France "Alfred & Leon", Les Vignes Herbel (2012) $20.00 (order here)
A 50-50 blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, it was vinified naturally without additives and no added sulfites, except for a small dose at bottling. Medium-bodied, with charming earthy black fruit flavors

Vin de France (Anjou White) "Fragile", La Grange Aux Belles 2012 $25.00 (order here)
100% Chenin Blanc. Vinified without addition of sulfites. Bone-dry. Intense and layered flavors.

Vin de France "Brise d'Aunis", La Grange Aux Belles 2013 $22.00 (order here)
Pure Pineau d'Aunis from vines in Anjou. Bright and lovely.

Vin de France "Akoibon", YoYo 2013 $40.00 (order here)
All Mourvedre from the micro-estate in Roussillon of Laurence Manya Krief. She always vinifies whole-cluster using carbonic maceration. No additives and sulfites are used in the winemaking. Elegant and juicy.

Vin de France "Chime-R", YoYo 2013 $40.00 (order here)
A delicious complex wine from a blend of 40% Grenache Noir, 40% Grenache Blanc, and 20% Mourvedre

Vin de Table "Plus noir que rouge", Domaine Les Sabots d'Helene 2013 $29.00 (order here)
Without "junk" is how vigneron Alban Michel simply describes how he made this special cuvee from 85 year-old Carignan vines. Vinifed without additives and no added sulfites, it has the delicious warmth and power of a Southern France wine.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Mikkeller Mission Chinese Food

Mikkeller, based in Denmark, is one of the greatest brewers in the world. They constantly create bold new flavors that surprise and delight, as well as expand the notion of beer. For a wine lover like me this is totally exciting!

Here is one of Mikkeller's latest creations, a collaboration with the highly celebrated San Francisco pop-up restaurant, Mission Chinese Food. Brewed in Belgium, it is a pale pilsen flavored with Sichuan peppercorn! At 4.5 ABV, it is ight in body and alcohol but intense in taste. Not quite fire-breathing but gently spicy with subtle herbal notes that enhance its refreshing taste. A great beer with appetizers or small plates, perhaps with some fried garlic or a bowl of wok-tossed mussels with Thai chili.

Mikkeller Mission Chinese Food 330ml $5.85 (order here)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

La Grange Aux Belles (Anjou)

Young vignerons Marc Houtin and Julien Bresteau formed their small domaine La Grange Aux Belles near Angers in Anjou in 2008. Production is tiny and their wines sell out fast mainly in Paris natural wine bars, and in a few cities in Europe. The winery's motto is: Des vins de plaisir sans artifices. Their wines are made for pleasure, without additives or tricks. The grapes are grown organically and the wines are vinified with natural yeasts and made without additives and little, if any, addition of sulfites.

The "Fragile" is 100% Chenin Blanc from 20-40 year-old vines planted in clay-limestone and schist soils. The fruit for this cuvee is harvested late with 5%-10% botrytis. Of course, the wine is fully fermented, bone-dry with less than 2 g/l residual sugar. I've always believed that the best dry Chenins are harvested with a bit of botrytis, as the wines offer Chenin's full potential. The wine was barrel-fermented and aged in second and third-year barrels using native yeasts and without any additives and no addition of sulfites. The flavors are sharp and intense, well layered, and getting deeper and deeper on the palate.

An incredible Pineau d'Aunis is the Brise d'Aunis from La Grange Aux Belles. Aptly called "Brise" (breeze) for that's the sensation I feel drinking it. It's a clever tongue-in-cheek, of course, since it's a Vin de France, hence Marc and Julien can't put the varietal on the label, as well as the vintage. Kudos to their creativity and to the lusciousness of this wine! Bright, intense flavors. So good to pair with any food.

Vin de France (Anjou White) "Fragile", La Grange Aux Belles (2012) $25.00 (order here)

Vin de France "Brise d'Aunis", La Grange Aux Belles (2013) $22.00 (order here)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Milkman Cometh: Frédéric Cossard's Burgundy

A native of Burgundy, Frederic Cossard doesn't come from a family of winegrowers. Instead, his family background is the milk trade. He went to milk school and worked in the milk trade for ten years traveling around Burgundy where he met many vignerons and got interested in what they do. He decided to change jobs and established his domaine in Saint-Romain in 1996.

Today, Frederic Cossard is one of Burgundy's small generation of young winemakers bucking the modern, conventional way of winemaking that's dependent on intervention and chemicals. He goes way back to the roots of how wine was made in Burgundy before chemicals, additives and sulphur got introduced. To do this today is not easy because one has to almost re-learn winemaking, but Cossard's background in the milk trade has helped him a lot. He equates making unpasteurized raw-milk cheese to making sulphur free and chemical-free wines.

But what is Cossard's point to all of these efforts? Just like any true Burgundian, Cossard aims to make authentic wines that express their terroir as purely as possible. He starts, of course, with fruit from a great site farmed organically. His 2010 Nuits-St.-Georges Premeir Cru Les Damodes is a fine example.

Les Damodes is a very interesting terroir as it combines Nuits' power and generosity with the elegance of a Vosne. The Les Damodes vineyard lies at a high slope bordering Vosne-Romanee to the north and Boudots, Cras, and Richemone on the Nuits side. The terroir has a lot of Vosne in it and Cossard's 2010 shows that in its firmness and more upright character compared to other Nuits. The vintage offers very good richness and concentration, and all through the finish there is vibrant minerality and energy.

Nuits-St-Georges Premier Cru Les Damodes, Frederic Cossard 2010 $105.00 (order here)

Les Caprices de l'Instant

I learned late last year that Les Caprices de l'Instant was sold by its longtime owners. Situated in the Bastille-Marais neighborhoods of Paris, I was taken there one afternoon three years ago by a good friend from Japan. There we found Roberto Petronio, photographer and writer for La Revue du Vin de France, sitting at an office desk in the corner of the cramped floor minding the shop. Perhaps he took me for a high-roller Japanese wine collector so he showed me the backroom and the basement, which were stacked floor to ceiling with cases of top labels of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Chateauneuf du Pape. He mentioned they stock more wines at a storage in Bordeaux. This made me wonder.

After the tour, Roberto attended to some customers, while I perused a thick catalog of reserve wines they stock. I noticed there's no cash register, computer or any electronic gadget in the store. Presumably, there's a telephone at least somewhere. But clearly, business here is conducted personally and concluded by handwritten receipts.

Now, I wonder how things would change at this shop with the new owners. I do wish they don't change the name.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Brews for Wine Lovers

Brews for wine lovers. I like this description for our growing selection of specialty beers. While the trend in craft beers right now is dominated by heavily hopped IPAs with high ABVs, I go the other way. I do like the complex and food friendly taste of bitter ales, but I favor maximum flavor power with minimum alcohol. I love beers that don't go much over 5 ABV but with a richness of funky infusions that produce layers of taste sensations, which I could only compare to wines. Not least of all, these kinds of beer scream for food.

I urge you to try out our unique beer selection. If you are a wine lover, then chances are you have an adventurous palate. You would love these creatively-made beers that I've selected, which are disruptive in the beer world. My credo is there's always a wealth of taste waiting to be discovered.

Mikkeller, based in Denmark, is widely praised as one of the greatest brewers in the world. In Denmark, with over 11,000 brewers, Mikkeller has been awarded best brewery, and routinelty many of its beers are rated best in the world. It owes its success for pushing the envelope on tastes, coming up with new and surprising flavor profiles. One of its latest beers is a collab with San Francisco's (though more like New York lately) Mission Chinese Food. It is a pale pilsen brewed in Belgium, flavored with Sichuan peppercorns! Not quite fire-breathing, but gently spicy with subtle herbal notes. 4.5 ABV. It is a great beer to start off a meal before imbibing wine, perhaps with a bowl of fried garlic or wok-fried mussels with Thai chilis.

Mikkeller "Mission Chinese Food" 330ml $5.85 (order here)

Baird Brewery is in Izu, right on the banks of Kano River not far from Mt. Fuji. The brewery has a small farm, where it grows its own hops, as well as fruits and vegetables. It crafts beer in small batches and always unfiltered and allowed to go through a secondary fermentation in bottle to produce a natural carbonation. The Rising Sun Pale Ale is 5.1 ABV made with dry hopping for a slightly bitter, hoppy taste that's exquisite combined with the spicy flavor extracts. Perfect with a bowl of edamame and pickled vegetables. Kanpai!

Baird Brewery "Rising Sun" Pale Ale 12oz $5.45 (order here)

Sansho Herbal Ale is wine lover's beer. It's not a big beer like an IPA, no, it's more delicate than that. Plus, it offers complex herbal and spicy flavors that have more similarity to wine, and that make it perfect to enjoy with many dishes, particularly seafood and spicy cuisine. The Sekinoichi Shuzo brewery uses only local ingredients (except for the hops) to produce this beer. The water they use is a source of local pride, coming from the mountains and gorges that surround the city of Ichinoseki in the Iwate Prefecture.

Iwate Kura Beer Sekinoichi Shuzo Japanese Herb Ale "Sansho" 11.5oz $7.00 (order here)

Among the geekiest beer enthusiasts Drie Fonteinen, along with Cantillon, are the cultiest of all. Based in Beersel in the outskirts of Brussels, Drie Fonteinen specializes in crafting blended lambics known as gueze. These sour beers are made with organically grown ingredients, using spontaneous (indigenous yeast) fermentation and are unfiltered and unpasteurized. The Beersel Lager is a pilsner made in the lambic style, using the same lambic ingredients. It is unfiltered, unpasteurized, and allowed to go through a secondary fermentation in the bottle. This has a deliciously slight bitterness and a really pure taste. Says brewer Armand Debelder, "Beer is our passion, Beersel is the result."

Drie Fonteinen Beersel Lager, Drie Fonteinen (Belgium) 330ml $5.40 (order here)

Brasserie de la Senne based in Brussels is one of Belgium's smallest breweries with a fierce dedication to tradition and quality. Its beers are unpasteurized, unfiltered, and free of any additives. One of its most celebrated beers is the Crushable, a collab with Tired Hands Brewing in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. The latest version is this Crushable de Table, a true farmhouse ale. 4.2 ABV. Bright bitter flavors with a round refreshing body. A favorite of serious beer enthusiasts, scoring 97 points overall in But wine lovers would find this equally alluring for its freshness and bright herbal, bitter flavors. A stunning all-around beer.

De La Senne "Crushable de Table", Brasserie de la Senne (Belgium) 330ml $5.45 (order here)