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.

Posted in Cabernet Sauvignon, Italian Wine, Tuscany | Comments Off

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.

Posted in Barbaresco, Barolo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Tuscany | Comments Off

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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As you may know, I love Barolo.  It’s a wine style that’s not to everyone’s liking, with firm tannins that challenge many wine drinkers – casual or enthusiastic alike.  Many people who enjoy Barolo think that you simply can’t (well, shouldn’t) drink them young, and depending on the producer, subregion, and vintage, they suggest that nothing short of a decade in the cellar ought to be the norm before you start drinking them.

Well, I say have at them.  With a few exceptions, I tend to believe that great wine is usually great at many stages of its evolution in bottle, including from the very start.  The problem of tannin, which yes can be confronting, is not insurmountable when young Barolo is enjoyed with appropriate food.  And appropriate food for calming tannin is just about anything that has a high protein content (red meat and cheese being the most typical choices).

So here were are, drinking a Sandrone Le Vigne 2010, alongside a Vietti Rocche 1997.  And what did I think?  The Sandrone was stunning.  And generally the table (about 12 of us) agreed.  The Vietti, on the other hand, seemed a bit awkward, even being from a great vintage and a great producer.  It should be singing, but just fell flat.  So, to those of you who shy away from drinking Barolo while it’s young, again I say have at them.

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As posted recently, I received a sous vide cooker for Christmas and have been playing with it like any excited child does with their new toy.  Here is a quite basic recipe for teriyaki salmon.

Firstly, the sauce.  I wanted to keep this very simple, so it was just one cup of soy sauce, half a cup of mirin, half a cup of sugar, and a tablespoon of sesame oil.

Then the salmon, pin-boned but skin on, was placed in the sous vide bag with some teriyaki sauce; not much is needed per piece of salmon.  The bag was sealed, and then place in the water bath at 50 degrees for 2 hours.

After removing from the bag, the skin peeled off easily and I put it in a hot saucepan to crisp up, which it did nicely.  The sauce from the pouch was used to dress some lettuce.  And that’s it.  Simple cooking, but delicious.

And one of the great advantages here is that once you know the temperature you prefer to cook your salmon – or whatever – at, then it’s essentially an idiot-proof process.

Posted in Fish, Food | Comments Off

So this is my wine and food blog.  Maybe I need to change it to my wine, food, and whisky blog, because I’ve recently rediscovered my love for fine whisky.

I’ve always enjoyed whisky, but haven’t been drinking much of it for a long time now.  For over a decade I have barely drunk more than a nip here or there, as my wine passion has run rampant in the realm of beverage choice.  But a friend’s brother, who I now call a friend also, has a strong interest in whisky and has rekindled my own interest recently.  And I’ve reminded myself of two compelling facts in favour of drinking more whisky.  Firstly, I love good whisky.  Secondly, even quite expensive whisky is relatively good value on a per-standard-drink basis compared to wine.  And that’s important, because as much as I love fine wine, I can’t afford to drink great wine all the time.  The cost of those great bottles of wine needs to be offset with less expensive wines, or as I’m exploring, drinking the odd glass of whisky helps too.

I was recently in Hobart for a quick visit and stumbled upon the Lark Distillery.  I had visited lark before, but some 14 years ago, and thankfully my wife was kind enough to indulge me in buying a sampler of four lark products to taste, comprising their Classic Single Malt Whisky (43%abv), Distiller’s Selection (46%abv), Cask Strength (58%abv), and a proprietary liqueur.

This was great fun and the three whiskies were excellent.  Interestingly, my wife and I both enjoyed the classic more than the other two, but all three were lovely.  The liqueur didn’t hit the spot for me.

Australia clearly makes world class whisky now, with this and Sullivans Cove leading the way, but the pricing has become world class too.  A 700mL bottle of the Lark Classic Single malt will cost ~$150.  I’m not saying it’s not worth it.  That’s for people to decide for themselves.  But I do think the product sits comfortably alongside the great Scotch, Irish, American, and Japanese Whiskies.

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I received a new toy for Christmas – a sous vide cooker (which is a fancy name for a water bath).

Yes, it’s a water bath.  Essentially, you heat water in it, and hold that water at a constant temperature.  You can then cook food in it, and the key point is that the internal temperature of the food will reach the temperature of the water and never rise above that temperature, thus ensuring even cooking and a level of cooking that is controlled.

The term sous vide means “under vacuum”.  This refers to the preparation of foods to put into the water bath.  Most commonly, you put the food (meat, fish, vegetables, whatever) into fit-for-purpose plastic bags, which are food and temperature safe, and then seal them under vacuum (there’s another machine needed for this function).  This ensures that whatever goes into the bag stays in the bag, so you can flavour the food however you like, with herbs, sauces, etc.

I’ve driven my family nuts for the last week, with just about every meal prepared sous vide.  Naturally I need to experiment a lot more on certain recipes, but it’s been fun so far and I’ll post a couple of meals up over the next few weeks.

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My friend – well, many of them actually – stores his wine in professional climate controlled storage.  He occasionally asks some friends to join him while he is stocktaking and sorting out his wines, to keep him company and share a drink or two.  Apparently the storage company doesn’t mind us doing this.  We pull up a few chairs, turn some boxes into a makeshift table, and shoot the breeze for a while.  Some cheese, prosciutto, and other antipasti makes for an acceptable meal.  It’s a bit chilly (~16°C), but that’s an excellent temperature for drinking most red wines, and some whites.

We drank several nice wines this night, but my eyes lit up when my friend pulled out a bottle of Gaja Costa Russi Barbaresco 1990.  Wow, what a generous offering on this humble occasion.  And the wine lived up to and exceeded my expectations of it.  It was superb.  I could not have enjoyed it more had we drank it at a three-hatted restaurant in lavish surroundings.  A great wine shared with good friends is always a sufficient occasion in itself.

Our makeshift table (boxes) and dinner (cheese and antipasti) seen in the dimly lit background here.

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Continuing the celebration of my friend’s 50th birthday, our Sunday lunch was at The Argus Dining Room in Hepburn Springs.  This was a wonderful lunch, with inventive and well rounded cooking.  One dish in particular was sublime.

Here is the dish (below) that really excited me.  One of the best restaurant dishes I’ve eaten in a long time; or let’s just say one of the best ever.

It’s leek and potato foam over egg yolk, smoked eel, and braised vegetables.

It’s often hard to put your finger on why you like something.  Words seem to fall short.  But I think at this level of cooking, a great restaurant dish is often both rich and refreshing.  There are some exceptions, but this balance usually seems important.  This dish was wonderfully flavoursome, and indulgently creamy, but was not so heavy on the palate as to fatigue, with the vegetables playing a subtle but important role.  Many years of ubiquitous cooking shows on TV have emphasised to us the importance of balance of tastes/flavours in any given dish, and when a chef (or even a home cook) gets this right, the result is a thing of beauty.

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