I am a lucky man. Blessed in many ways.  This is a something I cannot help but feel when surrounded by family and/or good friends, while drinking great wines together over a nice meal.  And luckily for me, many of my friends share a love for Barolo.  Here we had an outstanding set of three (on a night when we drank may other excellent wines too of course).

The wines were:  Conterno Barolo Francia 2011, Mascarello Barolo Monprivato 2010, and Gaja Sperss 1997.

All three from heralded vintages, top shelf producers, and great vineyards.  The younger wines were so pretty, floral, and quite feminine, while the Gaja was such a complete wine, with density in the mouth, but not heavy, and amazing aromatic complexity – at 19 years of age it was at a really good point of development, with still many good years ahead of it.

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Amarone della Valpolicella is a most unique wine style.  Valpolicella is in Northern Italy, in the Veneto region near Venice.  The key grape varieties used in Amarone are Corvina, Rondinella, and Molinara, with grapes being air-died after picking (traditionally on straw mats, but modern drying rooms are often used now), which helps concentrate the sugars and flavours prior to fermentation.  This method is know as appassimento, and results in very rich wines of quite high alcohol.

The style of wine is very interesting as the concentration of the grapes gives it an impression of extreme ripeness, but because the region is distinctly cooler climate some of the aromas and characters tend towards an impression of lower ripeness simultaneously.  If a wine like this was made in some other regions, it may (almost certainly would) be criticised as presenting both under-ripe and over-ripe fruit and be considered poor winemaking.  But what might seem to clash for some seems to be interesting and complex to others, and now the best Amarones are considered truly world class.

And when it comes to the best, there are two names in Valpolicella that rise head and shoulders about the pack – they are Guiseppi Quintarelli and Romano Dal Forno.  I’ve been fortunate enough to try a few wines from each of these producers, but never the same vintage and side-by-side.  Until now when a couple of my friends coordinated to each bring a bottle to dinner, the Quintarelli 2006 vs Dal Forno 2006.

What an interesting comparison.  Even though the Amarone style in itself is so unique, so too was each of these wines.  The Quintarelli was no doubt a robust and full bodied wine, but also a wine of delicate aromatics, as well as balance and poise on the palate.  By contrast, the Dal Forno was high octane – a tsunami of flavour and body as it passed through your mouth.  The alcohol was high, the fruit intense, the palate thick, and some oak noticeable.

The Dal Forno was a vinous slap in the face; in a good way of course.  But the Quintarelli delivered a balance and interest that made it more compelling.  You kept wanting to drink it as it revealed more and more of itself.  But they were both excellent wines and really interesting, and no doubt many people would find their preference to be the reverse of mine.

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I may have made this suggestion before, but it merits repeating.  When it comes to using truffles, keep it simple.  I find truffles come to life shaved over fairly plain pasta (eg with just a butter sauce and cheese), braised meats, grilled meats, pan-fried scallops, and seem to have a special affinity with eggs.

Truffles work well with fried or poached eggs, 63 degree eggs, all manner of baked eggs, and as I’ve found now, they work wonderfully well with scrambled eggs.  But not just any scrambled eggs; I strongly recommend using a bain marie cooking method.

I’m not sure whether he was the first person to do this, but Heston Blumenthal perfected the bain marie method for scrambling eggs and since the first time I tried it I was convinced.  The following recipe is not exactly Heston’s, but it’s reasonably close.

Recipe – 6 eggs, 50g butter, 50mL milk, salt to taste and a drop of sherry vinegar.

Method – combine/whisk the eggs, butter, and milk in a metal bowl and place on top of a pot of water (the bowl not touching the water), with the water temperature just under (or at) a simmer.  Now gently stir for the next 15 to 20 minutes.  That’s about it.  The eggs are ready when they reach a consistency you like.  They should be velvety smooth and not at all lumpy, like a really thick custard.  Season with salt, pepper if you like, and a drop of sherry vinegar to cut the richness a little.

It’s a very simple method and the results are outstanding.  You do have to spend the time stirring, but it’s minimal effort for the best scrambled eggs possible.  This recipe will provide 6 small serves, as per the picture below.  Adjust the recipe to suit the number of people and desired serving size.

Served here: bain marie scrambled eggs on tasted sourdough with shaved truffle.

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Our wine group recently enjoyed a private and very enjoyable tasting of back-vintages at Lakes Folly in the Hunter Valley.  Our group provided most of the wines, while Lakes Folly provided the venue (their fermentation room), a few more recent vintages, and the expertise of assistant winemaker Peter Payard, who has been making wine at Lakes Folly for decades, as well as cellarhand Roger Paterson, who has also been with Lakes Folly for many years. It was great to taste these wines, see how the wines have evolved over time, and to discuss them with Peter and Roger who have so much experience and insight.

We started with the two current Chardonnays, the 2015 Lake’s Folly Chardonnay and 2015 Lake’s Folly Chardonnay Hill Block. The regular estate chardonnay was true to style, a nice but not too subtle chardonnay showing plenty of fruit and oak. The Hill Block for my tastes was a real step up in class and elegance, but also had greater length on the palate and interest. It had lovely acidity and minerality, and will undoubtedly blossom and shine over the coming years.

We then tasted the first set of red wines, all cabernet based blends starting with the older vintages 1972, 1988, 1989, 1993 Reserve. The ’88 and ’89 were the real highlights here. Beautifully aged cabernets with resolved palates, so easy to drink but serious wines too, and lots of aged maturity to the aromas and flavours.

The next flight - 1994 Reserve, 1996, 1997, 2005 – was a little mixed for my tastes, with the ’94 and ’96 both showing some excessive brettanomyces characters, but the ’05 was outstanding. Still young but so delicious and complex and dense, but with lovely acidity and freshness too. It was my favourite of the whole tasting and a great wine.

We moved onto more recent vintages – 2009, 2010, 2011 – and at this stage the youthfulness of these wines made them a little harder to enjoy, but you could see the clear potential in each of them, especially the ’11. At 5-to-7 years of age these were still very young.

Next up we tasted two wines, served side-by-side but without revealing which was which. It was the 2014 under cork and the 2014 under screwcap. If there was a difference between them it was miniscule, with the cork sealed wine being a touch softer; time will tell whether they develop differently. We also tasted the 2015, which was a remarkably light and floral wine compared to the other vintages. 2015 was a difficult vintage but this wine, although very different in style, was nonetheless very enjoyable.

We finished with an interesting and enjoyable 1963 Lake’s Folly Madeira; a bit of a curio but in good shape and very drinkable.

These sorts of tasting, especially with winemakers discussing the wines throughout, offer such a unique opportunity to understand a particular wine through its history, both the oral history and the liquid history.

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My wife and I shared a beautiful lunch at Margan in the Hunter Valley. Beautiful in a number of ways – my company of course, plus the food and the scenery.

We enjoyed an outdoor table – right out on the grass and with such a lovely view.

And then the five course lunch rolled in – beetroot and goat’s cheese, cured salmon, pork belly, wagyu beef, and dessert.  Pictured below and everything tasted as good as it looks.  I’m not going to write detailed descriptions of each dish, but I will highly recommend the restaurant for anyone visiting the region.  It was one of the best restaurant meals I’ve enjoyed in a long time.

This is their vegetable/herb garden.  It was large and close by, and kitchen staff were regularly going back and forth to fetch these incredibly fresh ingredients.

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I love the wines of Soldera.  For me they are exceptional*.  While most Brunello is dense and tannic and brooding, the wines of Soldera are beautiful and pretty.  But they are also dense and tannic and brooding.

* Exceptional is perhaps an overused word.  And arguably somewhat misused.  What does the word mean?  Some people seem to use the word to mean something like “really good”, whereas I’d suggest it should be reserved for those times when something is “unusual or atypical”.  It perhaps has its strongest meaning when it is both unusual and really good.  And that’s what I mean when I describe the wines of Soldera as exceptional.

Soldera make Brunello di Montalcino, which is 100% sangiovese from the Montalcino region of Tuscany.  The wines from this region are considered by many to be among the finest red wines in Italy, and are in general far more structured, dense, and tannic than the sangioveses from Chianti and elsewhere.  They are often “impressive” wines.  But how often are they also pretty, and floral, and captivating, and complex even in their youth?  Not very often in my experiences.

Are there other Brunello producers making good wines?  Yes, of course.  But none seems to be close to Soldera both in style of winemaking and execution; Soldera retains the inherent structure of the grape and region but coaxes out of the fruit the most compelling aromas and flavours (eg florals, red fruits, tea leaves, spices, and more).  While many Brunellos are impressive, Soldera wines are beautiful.

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The wine is the Sassicaia 1985, a cabernet sauvignon from Tuscany.  The Sassicaia is one of Italy’s finest Bordeaux inspired wines and a favourite of my wife and mine.  The 1985 vintage is universally heralded as a great wine and arguably an important turning point in the modernisation of Italian winemaking.  This is a wine I have been keen to taste and never really considered it likely that I ever would.  Fortunately, I have some generous friends (which people who have a passion for wine often tend to accumulate via the shared interest and sharing of bottles), and on this occasion one of them offered this wine for our group to drink.  My expectations were torn.  On one hand, I have read the reviews and know of its reputation.  On the other hand I know that few wines of such lofty reputations (and associated price-tags) can possibly live up to them.  It’s just fermented grape-juice, right?

Expectations can prime us for what is to come.  When our expectations are high and the experience delivers (whether we are talking about wine or just about any other experience in life), then we may be primed to get even more out of the experience than if we had no or moderate expectations going into it.  The high expectations focus us.  The opposite can of course be true.  An experience that fails to rise to our expectations can leave us disappointed; more-so than if we had no or moderate expectations.  Thus, an expensive and highly rated bottle of wine can often lead to either a) a great drinking experience or b) a massive letdown (and lamenting and wondering why we spend money on such things).

So the wine?  Superb!  Met expectations and a real pleasure to drink.  And I would say that my high expectations helped focus my attention on the wine; helped me discover lots of nuances and complexities in the wine that I might have missed if I had not known of its lofty reputation.  I was primed for it, and it delivered.

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Yes, those wonderfully fragrant little underground fungi are back on the menu.  It’s probably my favourite thing about winter: the arrival of the Australian truffle season.

What’s great now is that Australian truffles are readily available to the consumer directly and are increasingly being celebrated in our restaurants.  One restaurant that has been at the forefront of showcasing the Australian black truffle is Ormeggio at the Spit, which happens to be a favourite of my wife, who has a Northern Italian heritage similar to owner and chef Alessandro Pavoni.  Northern Italy also has a strong association with truffles and thus much of the cuisine is a natural match.

With a Saturday night free (a minor miracle) and a ready babysitter (a double miracle) we decided to treat ourselves to dinner at Ormeggio.  We opted for the degustation menu, which allowed for an upgrade on a couple of dishes to add shaved Tasmanian truffle.  The supplemental cost was quite reasonable, especially when the dish came out and we saw just how much truffle we received.

So much truffle I couldn’t see the dish underneath!

Ah, there it is.  Veal tonnato.

This was a great dish, and clearly this season’s truffles are of extraordinary quality.  In a few weeks my friends and I will put together our annual truffle dinner, and now I can hardly wait.

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My friend recently sent me an email about a Gaja Masterclass that was coming up.  No time to check the calendar - a few clicks later I was booked in.

Gaia Gaja hosted this masterclass.  She is the eldest daughter of Angelo Gaja, the man who brought this winery to prominence over the last couple of decades or so, and in doing so elevated the whole of the Italian wine community with it.  Angelo Gaja has arguably done more than any other person to establish Italy as more than just a country producing vast quantities of wine, but a country producing world class wine.  Angelo Gaja is a captivating speaker; a man with a true gift for public speaking and connecting with an audience.  I’ve been lucky to meet him a couple of times and he is charismatic and engaging.  As it turns out, his daughter shares those gifts.  During this masterclass, she held the room and made each person attending feel like the presentation was directed specifically at them.  Her engagement and ability to make momentary but piercing eye contact with each attendee was quite remarkable.

We started off with the Rossj-Bass Chardonnay 2012, which was a nicely balanced wine, with flavours of stone-fruits and spices and a harmonious mouthfeel.  There is 5% sauvignon blanc, which was not really discernible, but no doubt contributed some lift to the aromatics.

Next we tasted the trio of Brunellos from the Pieve di Santa Restituta estate; all three being the 2008 vintage.  The estate wine was very nice, but the two vineyard-named wines were a clear step up in complexity and character.  The Rennina had a lovely musky perfume and a fine, elegant palate, while the Sugarille was more rich and densely fruited, with a touch more tannin grip.  Both were lovely, and excellent examples of Brunello, but I generally preferred the pretty and feminine Rennina; others preferred the more impressively structured Sugarille.

Having tasted the Brunellos from Tuscany, our focus shifted north to Piemonte, starting with the Sito Moresco 2010 and Barbaresco 2011.  Sito Moresco is a blend of nebbiolo (35%) with merlot (35%) and cabernet (30%).  It is a pleasant and drinkable wine, but I tend to think the cabernet dominates too much and the more elegant nebbiolo characters are lost.  Still, it’s not a very expensive wine and offers good value.  Comparatively, the Barbaresco (100% nebbiolo) was very bright and pretty, with rose and cherry flavours.  It is a soft and open wine, already drinking well for a young nebbiolo.  This is not surprising, given that 2011 was a warm (and thus somewhat difficult) vintage, but perhaps this wine lacks the real depth and persistence that Gaja Barbaresco usually shows.  I would drink this wine relatively young.

Next was the real highlight of the masterclass, which was a set of the six single vineyard wines from the 2000 vintage.  It’s always a treat to drink any one of the Gaja single vineyard wines, but to taste all six at once was an amazing opportunity.

We started with the three single vineyard wines from Barbaresco: Costa Russi, Sori Tildin, and Sori San Lorenzo (strictly, these wines can’t be labelled as Barbaresco, because they are not 100% nebbiolo; Gaja chooses to blend in ~5% barbera).  These wines were wonderful.  I can’t express adequately in words the complexity these wines showed, and it was a real treat to try them together and see how they differed.  And they were quite different in their flavours as well as structurally.

The Costa Russi was the lightest of the three, but I think also the prettiest.  I found this wine quite remarkable in the way it filled every corner of the mouth (and nose) with a persistent potpourri-like perfume that seemed completely weightless.  The flavours persisted long after the liquid was swallowed.  The Sori Tildin was a step up in palate weight and was very classically nebbiolo, with herbs and roses and a strong orange-peel character.  It had a richer and more persistent fruit flavour.  The Sori San Lorenzo was a step up in weight and fruit character again, being more dark-fruited and brooding.  It showed flavours of truffle, small-goods, and cherry-liqueur.  I can certainly see why this is often the most lauded of the three, as it is supremely impressive.  As I kept sipping at these three great wines, I was more and more enamoured of the Costa Russi and it was my favourite of the three, but they were all superb wines.

The next set comprised the two wines from Barolo – Sperss and Conteisa – and the estate cabernet sauvignon called Damargi (as with the wines above, the Barolo wines cannot be labelled Barolo due to the small addition of some barbera).  These wines suffered a little coming after the single vineyard Barbaresco wines, but the Sperss and Conteisa were both enjoyable in their own right.  The Sperss was the most closed of the six wines from 2000, showing a good spine of tannin and fruit and probably holds the most potential for extended cellaring.  The Conteisa was much more open and approachable, and an enjoyable wine for drinking now.  The Damargi was somewhat challenging, showing the sorts of characters that cabernet can show in more marginal (ie cool) climates.  It was a bit too herbal and green-vegetable like for my tastes.

We finished the tasting with a trio of wines from Gaja’s most recent project, the Tuscan estate of Ca’ Marcanda.  The wines here are focussed on the Bordeaux varieties of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc, while a few other grapes are used for blending such as syrah and sangiovese.  The wines we tasted were the Promis 2011, Magari 2011, and the flagship wine Ca’ Marcanda 2010.  These were pleasant wines, well made and generous in flavour, but it’s hard to get excited about them following what we had just drunk.

Having reached the end of our masterclass, I was left with a few lasting impressions, which are really just confirmations of impressions I already held.  The Gaja family are master winemakers.  The Gaja family are master marketers.  The three single vineyard Barbaresco wines – Costa Russi, Sori Tildin, and Sori San Lorenzo – are among the best wines being made anywhere in the world and are right towards the top of the tree if I’m ever pressed on choosing my favourite wines.

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One of the great advantages of sous vide cooking is the level of control over the internal cooking of meats.  Rather than playing a guessing game as to how long to sear your steak for, and pressing at it with tongs to feel for doneness, you can leave the meat in a bath and be confident that at the end of cooking time it will be cooked exactly as you planned.

With that in mind, I bought an impressive 850g single piece of Wagyu sirloin from my local butcher.

Look at all that flavour (OK, fat) ready to be rendered into the most juicy steak imaginable.  The preparation for this was uncomplicated – vacuum sealed in a bag and straight into the water bath at 45 degrees for 2 hours.

Here is the meat upon extraction from the bath.  Not quite appetizing yet, but you can see how the marbled fat has nicely rendered.

The remainings steps are to season the meat, very liberally since it is a large and thick piece, and finish it off by searing in a raging-hot pan.

Now the meat is ready for eating.  It doesn’t even need to be rested, as the internal temperature is perfectly even.  Some may look at that and think it’s a bit under for your liking, but that is easily rectified by choosing a slightly higher temperature for the water.  But this level of doneness is spot on for my wife and me.

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