Tuesday 25 March 2014

The Beautiful Barolos of Giovanni Rosso

 Have the Italians taken over Singapore? Coming on the heels of last November’s Grandi Marchi tour, the Gambero Rosso Top Italian Wines roadshow saw a large turnout this March, especially for its masterclasses. Even Robert Parker’s much hyped stopover in Singapore during his Grand World Tour, also held in March, focused solely on Italian wines. A keen observer of Singapore’s fine dining scene would have noticed how many Italian-themed restaurants have popped up over the past few months - &Sons, Cicheti and Concetto to name a few.

If you can’t beat them, join them, and so it was that I found myself having lunch with Davide Rosso, owner and winemaker of Azienda Agricola Giovanni Rosso. Based in Piedmont in northwest Italy, the winery makes only red wines and is known for its long lived Barolos. Piedmont is somewhat of an anomaly in Italy. The pyramidical Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) system introduced in 1963, meant to denote quality, failed abjectly as producers rejected its rigid rules and chose their own path to quality. An example of this is the emergence of the Super Tuscan category, which used grape varieties that fell outside the system and thus the wines, when first released, were relegated to the common level of Vino da Tavola.

In Piedmont however, there has been a concerted effort to implement a cru system similar to the vineyards of Burgundy. Davide, who worked with Domaine Jean Grivot and Domaine Denis Mortet in Burgundy, is supportive of this system, saying that it works here because Piedmont has a history of crus unlike other parts of Italy. It is significant that Piedmont has never needed to implement the IGT system because its reputation for quality meant that a substantial proportion of its wine was labelled DOC or DOCG. In the village of Serralunga d’Alba where Giovanni Rosso is located, Davide bottles two single-vineyard wines from Ceretta and La Serra. In 2011, when Davide’s uncle Tommaso Canale passed away, part of the Vigna Rionda vineyard was inherited by Davide. This celebrated vineyard, composed of calcareous marlstone, was made famous by Bruno Giacosa’s Collina Rionda, produced until 1993. In his book Grandi Vini: An Opinionated Tour of Italy's 89 Finest Wines, Masterchef judge Joseph Bastianich writes that “when you have the good fortune of owning a cru like Vigna Riona, or even the fortune to be based in Serralunga, the way you view the world changes.”

The grape that reigns above all others in Piedmont is Nebbiolo, which along with Sangiovese is probably the best known and highest quality of the indigenous varieties of Italy. The name is thought to be derived from nebbia, the Italian word for fog that occurs frequently in Piedmont during the harvest period. Deceptively aromatic and floral, nothing can prepare you for the savage kick of tannins that the wine delivers. Like riding a wild stallion, the grape requires a steady hand to tame its ferocity and draw out its thoroughbred character. Davide likes long, slow fermentations for his Barolos, stating that “Long fermentations keep the bouquet and perfume of the wine, one fast fermentation for Nebbiolo doesn’t go well.” As much as possible is handled by nature – no fining or filtering, the use of indigenous yeast, spontaneous fermentations. Instead of installing temperature controlled tanks, he opens the cellar doors and lets in cooling breezes whenever the fermentation gets a little too warm.

Historically, most Barolos were aged in large Slovenian casks called botti, but Davide has decided to utilise French oak from the forests of Fontainebleau instead. “It is important to use the size and type of oak in synergy with the terroir,” explained Davide. “You must see the soil, the type of tannin and the type of grape. Slovenian oak has big and strong tannins that clash with Nebbiolo, which also has strong tannins. The use of Fontainbleau oak introduces oxygen that helps polymerise the tannins, making the wine more sweet and balanced.”

The challenge with Barolo is that in the past its harsh tannins and austerity demanded prolonged ageing, often more than a decade before the wine could be approached. Producers are now shifting towards making their wines more accessible in their youth, without compromising the ability of the wine to age and develop. The revolution is on-going. Davide says, “Our direction is to continue improving the quality every year – it is a task that can never be finished”.

Tasting notes:

Giovanni Rosso Barolo DOCG Cerretta 2008 – The Cerretta vineyard has a thicket of trees at its base, which acts as a windbreak. It is located 360m above sea level, with calcareous clay or marl soils, producing wines that Davide describes as feminine. Aged in 25 hl Fontainebleau oak for 36 months. The 08 has a medium ruby robe with an orange rim (characteristic of Nebbiolo), showing notes of balsamic and violets on the nose. The palate has small red berries with dense, sinewy tannins. Alcohol is noticeable but integrated. An extraordinary length. Feminine perhaps, but more G.I. Jane than Anne Hathaway.

Giovanni Rosso Barolo DOCG Cerretta 2009 – More subtle on the nose than the 08, but palate displays broader definition and fruit, with red cherry and mandarin orange showing through. Delightful drinking now, but shows freshness and structure indicative of prolonged ageability.

Giovanni Rosso Barolo DOCG La Serra 2009 – La Serra is located at an elevation of 378m above sea level, where the soil is most calcareous. A pronounced nose, floral with intense notes of violets, cotton blossom, and red plums. Impressively fresh and pure, with chewy tannins and light vanilla spice on the palate.  Finishes clean and long.

Giovanni Rosso Barolo DOCG Vigna Rionda “Ester Canale” Rosso 2012 – A barrel sample of a production that runs only to 150 cases a year (less than DRC, jokes Davide). 2012 was described as a vintage of balance between acidity, fruit and colour. Intensely floral and perfumed on the nose, but brooding and closed on the palate, shielded behind a thick wall of tannins. Still very early in its development, showing lots of dark fruit and a savoury, umami character. Prepare to wait at least a decade for this flower to blossom.

Note: Berry Bros & Rudd are the worldwide distributors for Giovanni Rosso.

Friday 21 March 2014

Have Wine, Will Travel

Some time ago, a friend recently back from London called me sounding distraught. Her visit to a wine merchant, where she had picked up several bottles of rare wines, ended in disaster when just a few steps away from the shop her bags broke and the precious cargo ended up in pieces on the unforgiving pavement. A similar story was shared by another friend, who discovered that a trail of liquid at the baggage carousel led to a broken bottle of red wine leaking from his luggage. 

Travelling with wine has never been more fraught with peril, especially since aviation regulations have changed so that there are numerous restrictions on what can be brought on-board. It used to be that if you had a particularly treasured bottle you could hand-carry it to your destination, but no longer. Now it goes into the cargo hold while you keep your fingers crossed that it survives the journey. Of course, you could purchase wine at duty-free shops, but bear in mind that if you are transiting through another airport before your final stop, you may be subject to security screening when boarding your next flight and your bottles confiscated. Australia, India, Japan and Indonesia are countries in particular which enforce this rule. To be safe, if you want to buy duty-free, do so either at your final destination or at the airport immediately prior to that.

Fortunately, there are several ways to help your wines survive the journey in your checked-in luggage. The most convenient method is to wrap the bottle tightly in newspaper, and cover that with a layer of clothing (preferably dark coloured clothes that you wouldn’t mind getting stained). As an extra step, place the bottle in a plastic bag so that even if it does break, hopefully its contents will not leak out. The laundry plastic bags commonly supplied in hotels work well for this purpose.

A more secure way is to use custom-purposed packaging that is designed to prevent breakage. For single bottles, the Air-Paq, distributed by Extra Space, works a treat. Its series of adjoining air tubes have one-way valves, so that even if one tube is punctured, the rest of the tubes stay inflated. It costs only SGD1.80 and can be reused multiple times. A disadvantage of the Air-Paq is that it does take up a lot of space in your luggage. Also, the Air-Paq is not a sealed container, so in the event that the bottle breaks it is possible that its contents will leak out. In my experience this would be highly unlikely as the Air-Paq feels quite durable.

An alternative is the WineSkin, available from Fantastic Find (2 for SGD9.50) or Amazon (2 for USD9.99). Although more expensive than the Air-Paq, its advantages are that it is flat and it also comes with dual seals to prevent leakage. The seals are one-time use only; however you can easily use duct tape for subsequent uses or place the whole thing in a plastic bag. It does feel a little bit more fragile than the Air-Paq, but I haven’t had any bottles break while using either. Both the Air-Paq and WineSkin are designed for standard 750ml bottles only. 

Whichever method you use to protect your wine, it is a good idea to ensure that your luggage is full so that there is less space for the wine to roll around. Sandwiching the bottle between layers of clothes will help minimise the bumps as it goes through the maze of baggage handling systems. With some careful packing, you’ll never again need to worry about wine breaking in your luggage.

Monday 10 March 2014

Getting High in Amsterdam


As a frequent traveller, the monotony of visiting city after city can become dreary after some time. Identical skyscrapers, ever-present Starbucks and the same high street brands have robbed many cities of a unique identity. Which is why a visit to Amsterdam, capital of the Netherlands, is always a breath of fresh air. Its bisecting canals, lined with stately, compact houses, are a splendid way to while away some hours. Beyond the next corner, you may find a shop selling curious antiques, local cheeses, or even a cellar stocking ancient wines. 

A recent trip yielded another unique Dutch concept – getting high. High Wine that is, a variation on the high tea concept. The brainchild of chef Dennis Kuipers, High Wine is a tasting of four amuse-style dishes paired with four different wines served from 3 – 6 p.m. Michelin-starred Kuipers is the executive chef of The Dylan Amsterdam, a boutique hotel that is part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. The hotel’s history stretches back to 1618, when it was a wooden theatre called the “Duytsche Academie”. In an era when church authorities considered the practice of theatrical arts to be immoral, most of the academy’s profits were donated to orphanages in an attempt to mollify their affronted sensibilities. I wonder what those authorities would make of Amsterdam’s famed Red Light District now.

The High Wine menu changes around six times a year based on the seasonal availability of ingredients, so it’s likely that you will find something new each time you visit. There are also menus for special occasions such as Valentine’s Day last month which featured six wines (instead of the usual four) and a heart-shaped cheese paired with a Vereinigte Hospitien Piesporter Goldtröpfchen Auslese Riesling from the 2012 vintage. Wines are selected by in-house sommelier Gosse Hollander, and after that chef Kuipers creates the menu around the flavours of the wines. I have spoken to several food and wine experts and there seems to be a common agreement that wine pairings work best when the chef tailors the menu to match the wines rather than the other way around. An oft-quoted reason is that there are many ways to vary the flavours of a dish, while wine is fairly immutable once bottled.

Chef Kuipers specialises in modern French cuisine with an emphasis on light vinaigrettes and fish instead of heavy sauces. This was apparent in the first dish, a lightly smoked halibut with grapefruit, cucumber and Vadouvan mayonnaise. Paired with a similarly ethereal Domaine Octavie Sauvignon Blanc 2012 from Touraine, it was a combination that whetted one’s appetite for subsequent dishes. There seemed to be a carefully planned flow to the sequence of dishes; the next course also featured fish – sautéed gurnard with zucchini, fennel and piperade sauce – but here the firmness of the fish and its sweet taste produced bolder flavours that stood up well to an oak-influenced Milton Park Eden Valley Chardonnay 2012.

The bite sized portions meant that I still had plenty of room for the meat course, a veal sirloin with mushroom risotto, green asparagus and tomato, and sauce of Savora mustard. This was a real symphony of flavours; tender, milky veal, a hint of earthiness from the mushroom risotto, and nutty, vegetal accents from the asparagus. The wine selection was an exuberant Vignerons du Sommiérois “Les Romanes” Coteaux du Languedoc 2012 made from a blend of Syrah and Grenache. Rustic and uncomplicated, this pairing was comfort food for Amsterdam’s cold winter months. A dessert of banana-nut cake with black pepper ice cream, served alongside a glass of René Favre & Fils Sauvignon Blanc Moelleux 2010 from Switzerland, ended the meal with a flourish. The wine added notes of stewed pineapple and sugar cane to the already delicious dessert.

What put a nice touch on dining at The Dylan was its great team of service professionals, who could describe each course and wine down to its smallest detail and were friendly without being intrusive. The selection of wines was food-friendly and complemented rather than competed with each dish (no high-alcohol fruit bombs here!). High Wine is a simple concept, yet the ambience, level of service and quality of cooking elevate it to a unique treat for the senses. My fingers are crossed that restaurants in Singapore will take note of this idea and bring it to our shores. Could there be a better way of spending a relaxing afternoon?