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 sales@vineyardgate.com 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.