Saturday, November 3, 2007

International Wine & Food Society Philippine Branch 25th Anniversary Dinner

18th October 2007, 7:30 pm, Metro Manila, Philippines.

Still jet lagged from a recent trip to France, catching up with work and leaving the next day for Macau, how could I miss the International Wine & Food Society Philippine Branch's (IWFS) 25th Anniversary celebration?


I trotted into the genteel environs of Old Manila at the Manila Peninsula just a few minutes past the appointed time, tugging at my collar, dressed in the required dinner jacket for the occasion. Greeted by smiling, familiar faces and a refreshingly bright and lively glass of Billecart Salmon NV, I eased myself into the mood of things. Chatting with Bill Stone, Daniel Go, Markus Ruckstuhl and paying my respects to members of the "Old Guard", Dong Puno, Fil Juntereal, Rene Fuentes and, of course, El Presidente, Bernie Sim, all the while greeting people as I entered, I almost missed out on the hors d'oeuvres.

That would have been a shame as the attractive parade of pâté de foie gras with muscatel relish on brioche, sesame-crusted tuna loin with beluga caviar, apple walnut jelly with Bleu d'Auvergne, Fin de Clair oyster shooters with cucumber mousse, and smoked salmon with buttered pumpernickel with lemon was not only very good, it also surely saved me from getting tipsy too early in the evening as the light, clean, scintillating champagne was just dangerously drinkable. I enjoyed the pâté with the champagne the most as the shooter's cucumber mousse interfered with the otherwise perfectly matched oysters.

Finally seated, I gazed at the menu with great anticipation. The first course of Fillet of Sea Bass on Celery Leek Ragout; seared Coffin Bay Scallop and Sea Urchin Beurre Blanc was precisely paired with Pouilly Fumé "La Demoiselle de Bourgeois" 2005 by Henri Bourgeois.

I always enjoy good sauvignon blanc based wines with seafood, and tonight was no exception.

The wine's dry, crispness brightened and cut the richness of the sea bass and urchin (a yin-and-yang as noted by Rene); it's clean citrus, mild gooseberry/guava tang and inherent white minerality giving a nice lift and tie-in to the dish as a whole; and, its faint celery nuance running with the fish's ragout.

I made short work of the wine and first course, enjoying every bite and sip, bite and sip. Left gazing at my empty plate, longing for more, I consoled myself in knowing that the evening's delights had only just begun.

Next came the Slow-roasted Magret de Canard with Seared Foie Gras, Pineapple-Pear Relish with 25 year-old Balsamico, indulgently paired with Chateau Léoville Poyferré 2001. A "gourmand's match", I call it, rich on rich, white on white. Yang-yang, as it were; and why the hell not? After all, if 25 years of wining and dining well isn't cause for indulgence, I don't know what is.

The round, velvety fullness of the wine's dominant sweetish cassis, unabashed dark chocolate, cocoa, licorice, vanilla/oak, mere whispers of leather and truffle, with intruiging dark cherry and raspberry notes flitting about, ran hand-in-hand with the foie and duck's natural fatty richness; leaving the job of cutting, brightening, contrasting and lifting to the pineapple-pear relish and aged balsamico.

I didn't envy them their tasks, Herculean as they were, poor things. They acquitted themselves quite well, however. Had they not put up such a gallant effort, I would have had to scrape my tongue on the carpet to ready it for the next gustatory salvo.

I took only one tiny spoonful of the Spiced Glühwein Sorbet and rinsed my mouth repeatedly with water. I rarely partake of in-between-course sorbets for fear of my palate being affected - one of my many quirks.

The third course was a traditional, yet, nonetheless, masterful pairing: Marjoram-Scented Venison Loin, Sliced Truffle-Parsnip Purée, Braised Red Cabbage, Chestnuts and Cassis Quince Glaze; with Hermitage "La Chapelle" 1996 by Paul Jaboulet Ainé.

Just looking at the ingredients, I imagine the main thrust was "earthy gaminess". Game: obviously the venison. Earthiness: truffle, chestnuts, and, to a small extent, the parsnip and red cabbage. The marjoram for a breath of freshness; the glaze and, in a second role, the red cabbage, for cut and counterpoint.

The wine, was more a study in intricate juxtaposition, and a fine one, I might add; as opposed to the Poyferré's swimming with the tide. "Intricate" I say because different facets of the wine play off and/or play with those of the food and in different ways.

For example: the mild roast meat nuances of the wine played with the venison's inherent gaminess while playing off the marjoram and cassis-quince glaze; the wine's earthy character played with the venison's, truffle's and chestnut's earthiness while its cherry notes simultaneously played off them, as well as off the venison's gaminess. The wine's and glaze's fruits playing with the red cabbage and off the venison's gamey and truffle's earthy richness.

All this going on on the palate proved most intruiging, intellectually challenging and entertaining; and, for that, I must applaud the pairing. I must mention, though, as an aside, that I did have to scrape off some of the glaze as there was a bit too much of it on my dish.

I used the interim before the cheese course to take some quick photos of those at our table. After, all, fine food and wine ring somewhat hollow without good friends to enjoy them with.

Meanwhile, the founding members were recognized, Distinguished Service Awards bestowed, the History and Purpose of the Society recounted and stories of far gone dinners and wines shared. Naturally, an anniversary toast followed. Being a comparative Johnny-come-lately to the Society, I did enjoy listening to the old stories.

Back to wine and food.

Another classic pairing of Roquefort and Chateau d'Yquem 1999. I must say that when I opened a bottle of this wine almost a year ago, I didn't really think too much of it. Don't get me wrong, it was very good, but after having the 1967, 1986 and 1997 not too long before that, the strength of the mentioned years stuck in my mind. Perhaps it was because I opened my '99 at another Blind Bordeaux Challenge that I failed to win. Who knows?

In any event, this '99 Yquem was much better than mine: fleshier, the botrytis tanginess more apparent, more floral, with much more of a middle and better heft. That night, I drank it as a dessert in itself to enjoy; taking only a few nibbles off the cheese and dried fruit to keep things interesting. By the time dessert of Iced Nougat with Raspberry Coulis was served, my glass was drained.

I recall Bernie asking me how I found the Yquem with the dessert, and I told him I didn't get the chance. I briefly considered trying to steal Rene Fuentes' glass while he was genuflecting before the bottle of Yquem, but thought better of it after having learned both he and his buddy Fil Juntereal used to work out at the gym. "Mahirap na", I thought to myself.

The prized bottles were then raffled off and Jojo Madrid won an '82 Ducru Beaucaillou. He was so happy, the lucky guy.

I, on the other hand, won nothing. I tried to console myself by telling Jojo that, considering he donated a 100-pointer las Cases, he lost money on the deal; but he just laughed off my spitefulness.

Kidding aside, I was happy for him since I'll likely get a taste of that bottle anyway.

After a double espresso and a quick Cohiba mini with Bernie and Jojo, Edouard and Sevrine joined us at the smoking area.

We congratulated Bernie and Oscar for an incredible evening, said our goodbyes and headed off for home.

From the look of Edouard, I was glad I wasn't riding with him.

Best Bistro in Beaune.

There is no lack of good restaurants in and around Beaune. From the Michelin starred Jardin des Remparts, Lameloise, Le Montrachet, Bernard Morillon, etc., and "down the line" in terms of recognition and fame. I do enjoy those kinds of restaurants, but, at the end of the day, I crave good, hearty, simple, honest French country cooking. This Ma Cuisine delivers in spades and consistently.
I first tried Ma Cuisine last year. I ate there twice again this year; and would have done so a third time if time permitted. Last year (June 2006), Jerome Francois, who runs Francois Freres SA (one of the biggest wine barrel manufacturers in France) and whose family hails from Burgundy, told me to make sure to eat there. "The wine makers of Burgundy eat here", said he. That was all I needed.

Ma Cuisine is an unassuming, relatively medium-sized bistro located in the old town of Beaune, owned and run by the spouses Escoffier, Fabienne (the chef) and Pierre (he runs front of the house). They are also most accommodating. Having tried the roast pigeon last year, I was dismayed not to see it on the blackboard when I returned last month. I told Pierre that I came back all the way from Manila just for that. He took a few seconds in the kitchen and returned saying "For you, we will make it!" Fabienne did not disappoint. It was every bit as succulent and richly flavored as I recalled.

Prices are moderate. My favorite dishes there were the sublime truffles and eggs (26Euro), the traditional escargot (around 12Euro for a dozen), the succulent roast pigeon (28Euro) and an excellent veal entrecote (around 28Euro).
The desserts are likewise excellent. Fabienne puts out a table of a handful of freshly baked pies: tart tatin, fig, tart citron, chocolat, etc. I was not able to try the chocolat, but everything else was excellent. The fig pie was the best.

They have their own cellar and it is, as expected, laden with Burgs. Surprising, though, is how deep their cellar is considering how simple the restaurant looks. The very best are there in all the famous vintages one could wish for (or afford). The restaurant displays empty bottles of some wines from its cellar. They speak for themselves.

I love this restaurant. Everyone who visits Beaune should eat here as often as possible.
Addendum: When my wife and I returned to Beaune in October 2007, we had lunch here twice, and it was excellent as ever. Always great meals at Ma Cuisine.

Pairing Quail, Foie Gras Stew w/ Pinot Gris.

In connection with previous musings on my awakening to pinot gris' pairing versatility, wherein I stated that, until recently, I used to pair those wines only with Chinese and Thai cuisine, I recall my most memorable dish in Alsace. I ate well in Alsace, tried virtually 3 different restaurants per day for 9 days in Metz, Strasbourg, Obernai, Marlenheim, Riquewihr, Ribeauville and Gerardmer. This included, among others, Le Cerf (Marlenheim, **Michelin), Table de Gourmet (Riquewihr, *Michelin), etc. The dish that stuck most in my mind, though, was a simple, hearty peasant dish - a spin on the traditional Baeckeoffe - that used quail and foie gras instead of the usual pork/beef/lamb. Had it in Riquewihr at Le Tire Bouchon. Absolutely excellent, unpretentious, inexpensive and heartwarming on a cold, rainy night.
I would have thought before that this dish would have done better with a pinot noir (not that I found any Alsacien pinot noir I tried to my liking). Luckily, I experimented pairing it with a pinot gris, and it was a wonderful match - exceeding all my expectations. I liked the dish and pairing so much, I returned to the restaurant for an identical meal for my last dinner in Alsace.

Tasting at Domaine Weinbach.

September 28 at Domaine Weinbach, Kaysersberg.

Though I was 45 minutes late for my 5PM appointment due to, among others, GPS malfunctions, Catherine Faller was still more than gracious. Due to time constraints, my wife and I skipped the tour of the winery and, after proper introductions, went straight to tasting.

We briefly met Madame Colette who speaks only French and German. So nonchalantly elegant, most charming and totally unaffected by fame and fortune, she herself helped Catherine clear the table of bottles we were done with.

The wines:

2005 Pinot Gris Cuvée Ste Catherine - Despite almost a week in Alsace, discovering and enjoying more pinot gris than I have ever had in my life within those days, this wine was noticeably riper fruit with notable weight mid-mouth compared to similar wines from other makers. Dry, good focus, this has a lively, fresh spiciness to it. Impressive for an "entry-level" wine, I thought.

2004 Pinot Gris Altenbourg Cuvée Laurence - A touch of botrytis, mild spiciness, very good depth and complexity, ripe peach, some apricot and mango. Beautiful weight, middle and good balancing acid. Visions of Peking duck came to mind. Lovely wine.

2002 Pinot Gris Altenbourg SGN - Candied fruit, buttery, baked apple flavors, rich, not as sweet as I expected (which is a good thing), and a pronounced, vaguely nutty, toastiness to the back. Superior depth. I think this is the first pinot gris SGN I have ever tried. It won't be my last.

2005 Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg Cuvée Ste Catherine - Floral in the nose, fair attack and expands mid-mouth. Pretty, young, sweetish, ripe tropical fruits in a sturdy, taut medium body, fair depth and acidity.

2004 Riesling Schlossberg Vendage Tardive - Ripe, tangy, sweet and spicy, peaches and pears with a touch of wild honey and an intruiging toastiness to the back. Lovely wine.

2004 Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg Cuvée Ste Catherine "l'Inédit" - Much deeper veined, evidently more layered and complex, riper, richer, more heft, spicier; and, with a more pronounced tanginess in its fruit that I didn't detect in the immediately above-mentioned wine. Excellent wine.

2004 Gewurztraminer Altenbourg Cuvée Laurence - Spicy lichees, some peach and mango with white flowers and minerals. Very eager and forward, yet not wanton. Extremely long. Excellent wine.

As it was getting dark, we thanked Catherine and said our goodbyes. She let us choose a bottle to take away as a gift. My wife told her any gewurztraminer would be greatly appreciated, so Catherine gave us a 2004 Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Furstentum Cuvée Laurence which is now sleeping in my wine fridge here in Manila. (NB: We tasted 10 wines at Domaine Weinbach but I, unfortunately, cannot find the paper I scribbled my first 3 notes on before Catherine gave me some proper paper).

Knowing we were based in Riquewihr, she highly recommended her friend's restaurant in town called La Table du Gourmet. "One Michelin star", she informed us, "the best restaurant in town and mention that I sent you."

So, we drove back to Hotel Le Schoenenbourg, parked the car, stowed our gift in the room and marched dutifully to the old town, straight to La Table du Gourmet. With our meal, I just had to order a half bottle of the Fallers' 1996 Pinot Gris Altenbourg - smooth, mellow, coyly rounded on the middle of my tongue, it displayed its flavors languidly, unhurriedly. Very mild spice, very slight tanginess to the fruit and a merest whisper of alluring bitterness in the finish.

Tasting at Domaine Hugel & Fils.

27 September, 2:30pm at Riquewihr.

After a short meeting and discussion with Etienne Hugel (18th generation of Hugel & Fils), Lionel Rousseau took me through the winery, cellar and then to the tasting room.Their retail prices are included.

2005 “Gentil” – a curious-tasting blend of riesling, pinot gris, gewurz, Muscat and 40% sylvaner. Simple, moderately charming, quaffable wine, lightly rounded on the palate, an amalgam of tropical and citrus fruit. Probably something for the beach. Slightly confusing for me. Could use a bit more acid to balance and brighten it though. (8.30Euro)

2005 Riesling “Classic” – Some white flowers, orange rind and citrus fruit - clean, crisp and dry with good acidity. Slightly nervous/high-strung at this point. A good, albeit basic riesling. (10.30Euro)

2000 Riesling “Tradition” – Nice and calm, well-settled. Fair focus and good weight mid-mouth. Attractive minerality in this as well as somewhat loose but playful ripe lemon notes. (12.90Euro)

2002 Riesling “Jubilee” – Immediately superior showing than the immediately preceding wine: much better focus, leaner body and healthier acidity but still quite ripe. Has a nice touch of elegance. (20.34Euro)

2004 Riesling “Jubilee” – Dry, hard to break through at this point for me. Seems not as ripe, drier, more linear, more crisp than the immediately preceding 2002. Seems to me like it will grow up well though. Lionel recommends around 5 years more ageing; else decant it for 2 hours before trying it out now. (26.06Euro)

2003 Pinot Gris “Tradition” – In a word, ripe. While not quite dry, I expected it to be sweeter being from ’03. Nicely plump mid-palate, acidity low. I’d say drink this up, if you bought any. (13.32Euro)

2001 Pinot Gris “Jubilee” – Readily more complex and balanced than the 2003 and quite showy at this point. A beautiful showcase wine. Given my rather limited experience with older pinot gris, I’d definitely drink this now as it is so enjoyable. (23.44Euro)

2005 Gewürztraminer “Classic” – Bright, palate-refreshing, pure, very expressive lychee fruit and white flowers. (10.30Euro)

2004 Gewürztraminer “Jubilee” – very complex and multi-layered. Extremely entertaining. (22.48Euro)

1998 Riesling Selection Grains Nobles – rich, yet not exactly flamboyant, good finesse with tangy apricot, ripe peach, flowers and petrol notes. Not as sweet as other SGNs I’ve tried. Leans towards VT in that regard. (76.33Euro)

1998 Pinot Gris SGN – Fleshy, hefty in the middle, well-curved, entertaining almond-like suggestions to the back. (83.30Euro)

1988 Gewürztraminer SGN – Ethereal, light, airy, soaring, joyful lychee and flowers. Beautiful, very open and generous. I will definitely get this for my wife and enjoy it with her. This was probably the best in the tasting for me. It was certainly the most memorable. This would be dessert by itself. With the way it behaves, I’d drink this up now or soon. (49.52Euro)

1997 Gewürztraminer SGN – Thicker, fuller, heftier, more concentrated than the 1988, “pillowy” as opposed to “airy” or “ethereal”. Much less open and immediately generous, it requires one to unravel its layered pleasures. More of a contemplative wine. (76.74Euro)

1989 Gewürztraminer SGN & 1989 Gewürztraminer SGN “S” – Sweeter than the 1989, just as full and hefty but lighter on its feet, though not airy or ethereal as the 1988. Nice, balance/combination of the strong points of the two preceding wines. Objectively, I’d say the 1989 is better than the 1988 over-all, but the joyfulness of the latter wins me over, sentimental fool that I am. (82.84Euro)

1997 Gewürztraminer SGN “S” – A more concentrated and longer version of the 1997 above-mentioned. More richly spiced too. Serious stuff. Hope to find some of this to buy.(99.40Euro)

I actually tried more after the foregoing but my written notes on those are now indecipherable scribbles to my eyes. They invited me back a couple of days later to taste more, but time would not allow.

By the time we were done, Lionel handed me a pack of 4 bottles including 2001 Pinot Gris "Jubilee", 2004 Gewurztraminer "Jubilee" and 2001 Gewurztraminer VT. I simply cannot recall the fourth as we finished them all within a week. I politely declined, of course, but he said it was Etienne who selected the bottles for me as a gift. How could I have refused?

We had the 2001 Pinot Gris "Jubilee" with some 7 week aged Epoisses and foie gras de canard during a covert picnic in the gardens of Chateau de Epoisses on our way to Abbey de Fontenay with Franck and Francois Alby (formerly based in Manila, Franck was the Deputy Head of the French Economic Mission to the Philippines before he was recently transferred to Dijon in Burgundy).

Great match with the cheese and a fair match with the foie gras (the foie needed higher levels of acidity and freshness that the wine didn't quite possess). Very enjoyable, though, in any event. Having recently been exploring pinot gris a bit more seriously, I am quite amazed how versatile it is with different kinds of food. I used pair pinot gris only with Thai and Chinese cuisine, but my eyes are now open.