For one lunch in Chicago last week I reached out to several vintners I thought might be in town early for Wine Spectator's Grand Tour event. Two responded that they would, and I invited them to join me at the Purple Pig, a relatively new restaurant with the enticing motto, "Cheese, Swine and Wine." Pork plays a pivotal role on the menu, which relies on Italian, southern French and Spanish dishes to use fresh and cured examples of food from the pig.
Neither Mark Tarlov, owner of Evening Land Vineyards, nor Gavin Speight, who imports Australian wines at Old Bridge Cellars, had met. They knew each other's wines, though. Speight admitted he was a fan of Evening Land's Oregon Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, and had purchased some for his personal cellar. Tarlov's eyes lit up when he saw that Speight had brought a bottle from his cellar of Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay Margaret River 2005, a wine he imports.
I didn't ask either of my guests to bring a bottle with them. I cast the lunch as a chance to schmooze without pressure. But I wasn't going to turn down a chance to drink some of the Leeuwin, one of my favorite Chardonnays, and this one from a great vintage that's been in the bottle for five years.
It was a warm day, so we opted for a table on the terrace, which is quieter than the bistrolike interior, so we could get caught up on recent vintages in Oregon (consultant Dominique Lafon thinks Evening Land's 2009s are even better than the 2008s) and how Australia is faring against a strong headwind of public opinion (gradually better, according to Speight). A nice breeze wafted through the terrace from Michigan Avenue, and for starters, we drank half-carafes of Camerano Barbera d'Alba 2007 and La Mozza Morellino di Scansano I Perazzi 2008 off the Purple Pig's list, and started working our way through the menu.
This is an impressive kitchen. It executes offbeat Italian classics with simplicity and directness, such as lardo on crostini, fine slices of rosemary-tinged cured fatback draped over rustic toasts, and pork neck "gravy," a red sauce made with the flavorful bones, the well-softened meat and sauce mingling with a scoop of fresh ricotta. Ingredients are outstanding, such as the slivers of salame Toscana in a dish of baby artichokes braised with fingerling potatoes, or the sweet fresh fava beans in a salad with leeks and shreds of prosciutto and hard-boiled eggs.
My favorite dish, and I think Mark's and Gavin's as well, was the pig's ear with crisp kale, pickled cherry peppers and a fried egg. The ear, thinly sliced and fried to a crackle, tasted like potato stix of the gods, and the kale came off as a lighter version. Mixed with the egg, it was heaven.
Aside from the Leeuwin, Gavin also brought along a rarity from his cellar, Bass Phillip Pinot Noir Victoria Premium 1995. That was a gutsy move, bringing a fully mature Australian Pinot to lunch with the maker of one of America's best. In my exposure to Bass Phillip, I have been alternately impressed and frustrated by what I've tasted. When they are good, the wines have the refinement and elegance of a Burgundy. When they are not, they can feel rough-textured and the flavors can veer into excess earthiness and gaminess. On top of that, Bass Phillip has sent no wine to the U.S. for the past seven years, and even before that it was just a few cases.
This one was a revelation. Still fresh, it had taken on the silkiness and extra nuances of maturity. Flavors centered around a core of plum and cherry, with hints of tea, dusky spices and a hint of tobacco. It had impressive length, although it lacked the intensity and expansiveness of a great vintage. And it got better in the glass, as we sipped it with our last round of small plates and a platter of cheese (92 points, non-blind). Tarlov, a longtime Burgundy fan, loved it too.
I looked it up in our database. When I reviewed it in 1997 I rated it 91 points and called it "a harmonious, subtle wine with impressive depth and resonance. It vibrates with richness yet maintains an elegant feel. Drink now." Obviously, it did not hurt to wait in this case. It was $55 on release.
The Leeuwin has reached a plateau in which the freshness of its youth is gradually mingling with the extra added attractions of maturity, picking up sly hints of tobacco and green tea around a core of pear and grapefruit. It has tremendous length, finishing with intensity and grace. Still formidable, it seems to be gaining in elegance (95 points, non-blind).
Coincidentally Tarlov, who was pouring an Evening Land Chardonnay, and Speight, responsible for a recent vintage of Leeuwin, ended up in adjacent booths at the Grand Tour tastings. I swear I did not plan it that way. You can taste their wines Thursday in Boston at the final event.
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Don Rauba — Schaumburg, IL — May 17, 2011 11:18pm ET
Steve Trachsel — Poway, Ca. — May 18, 2011 2:41pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — May 18, 2011 3:02pm ET
Steve Trachsel — Poway, Ca. — May 18, 2011 6:18pm ET
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