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Etxebarri: Domaine de la Romanee-Conti 2005 Montrachet & 2012 Richebourg Grand Cru, 1999 Vega Sicilia Unico…

September 22, 2016

20160921_133036For some of us who are lucky enough, once in a long while, one comes across a dining experience that blows you away. I wasn’t really expecting anything extravagant as we drove towards our lunch destination at Asador Etxebarri after a leisurely morning at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 21 September 2016. Perhaps I should have known better, for Etxebarri is currently rated the tenth best restaurant in the world (Restaurant magazine’s 2015 Top 50 Awards). Of course, none of us knew about this fact beforehand. All we knew was that Pablo Alvarez, owner of Bodegas Vega Sicilia, had arranged lunch for us there, accompanied by some bottles of wine that he had sent over. Not only that; Pablo was also paying for lunch, even though he himself couldn’t join us in person. Now, that should have meant something, for it is well-nigh impossible to obtain a booking at this venue, even though it is so far out of the way.

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Etxebarri is located at Atxondo, truly off the beaten track, nestling within the idyllic hilly surroundings of the Basque Country  where clouds hung low and the only sounds one hears are the tinkling of cowbells and the gentle rustle of the cool breeze. Established in 1990, Etxebarri (meaning new house) is run by owner and chef Victor Aguinzoniz, aided by, of all people, a young Japanese called Tetsu who specialises in grilling the beef to perfection. That’s right. Everything here is cooked (or grilled) over a charcoal fire, for Victor loves to barbeque. In fact, the first thing one notices upon arrival is the gentle aroma of smoked meat wafting through the mountain air.

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Goose barnacles

We arrived right on time at 1330h (the Spanish start their meals late, remember?) and we were welcomed by Augusti who ushered us to a private room on the upper floor. In spite of its one-Michelin star, Etxebarri is 100% casual. Augusti was dressed down, which says a lot, but everything else is top class, particularly in their choice of cutlery and stemware. A 12-course lunch had been set that included a large selection of seafood (goose barnacles, red clams, prawns, King bolete, white tuna belly) before culminating in a gargantuan beef steak.

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We hadn’t the slightest clue what wines Pablo had sent over but, apparently, he had issued strict instructions to serve them blind (with the exception of the champagne), so much so that Augusti had assigned himself to pour and serve us the wines, each of which was poured into a new glass. We began with a pair of Bollinger RD 2002, fabulous in its bouquet of deep pungency, recalling yeasty tones and malt, glowing with excellent concentration, fine intensity and complexity from crystalline minerals and yellow citrus with a touch of chalk, very harmonious with controlled dryness and sublime acidity, a superb start to the afternoon. One specialty of Etxebarri is its goat butter that complements their superbly fresh moxarella cheese spread to go with the large chunk of freshly-baked loaf, gorgeous but yet understated.

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The first white came across as shy and reticent, displaying just a dash of crème and icing on the palate, light in texture yet possessing good presence with a placid mouthfeel and subtle acidity, eventually revealing some nutmeg character, finishing a tad short. Definitely not one of the usual suspects from Burgundy. Dr Ngoi wondered aloud: a rare ancient grape varietal? Quite spot on, for it turned out to be a 2014 Chateau de Beaucastel made of 100% roussanne, a Rhone white varietal. Interesting!

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Soon, Augusti brought up a second white, glistening with a luminous luscious gold in the decanter. The colour could only mean one thing: it must be a Montrachet Grand Cru, which I concurred as well. From which producer? The bouquet glowed with aged crème de la crème and some secondary nuances that recalled yellow melons and peaches. On the palate, this wine was superbly proportioned, striking a perfect balance between the fruit, complex minerals and understated acidity, very harmonious with good layering, effortlessly seamless and not at all showy, eventually displaying a dash of burnt cider at the side with overtones of coconut, turning a little stern at the finish, maintaining its ethereal poise and elegance throughout. Not an exuberant or characterful Montrachet like Drouhin’s Marquis de Laguiche (which some thought this to be) but more placid like the Baron Thenard that I had last month, though this has more detail. We were blown away when Augusti showed us the bottle. I was very close: a 2005 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Montrachet Grand Cru !!! This estate owns 0.67 ha of this hallowed vineyard, sandwiched between the plots of Baron Thenard and Ramonet on the Chassagne side. Well, who would have guessed that Pablo Alvarez would simply just pop a bottle for us?! DRC makes only three whites: this Montrachet Grand Cru, a Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru which isn’t for sale (available only for tasting within its cellars which I did in September last year)) and a Haut Bourgogne specially bottled only for FICOFI, which means I’ve tasted all the whites of DRC. I’m truly lucky.

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We were all still abuzz with excitement when Augusti came in again with more glasses and, now, a red that showed a glorious deep ruby with an abundance of rose petals and red cherries, producing a very lovely fragrance with further notes of camphor and incense on the palate where its purity of fruit and balance were quite exemplary, effortlessly poised with grace and concealed power. This must be a Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, undoubtedly. Can this be a Romanee-Conti itself? I’ve had the 2001 before earlier this year which was quite similar, a wine renowned for its sensuality and balance. Is this a younger wine? Most of us were convinced it was, though it was a 2012 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Richebourg Grand Cru. Very very young to be drunk but already drinking so beautifully. I’d expected Richebourg to be more exuberant but it was truly elegant here.

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The second red came along, very deep crimson with aromas of cherries, ripe strawberries and redcurrants, excellent in depth and concentration, bright on the palate with some briar and earth with subtle tannin structure and controlled power, quite open in spite of the density, not at all jammy. Doesn’t taste French and, since we knew these wines had come from Pablo, we guessed it must be a Vega Sicilia. But no, not yet, though, indeed, it was Spanish, the highly rated 2012 Macan (the inaugural vintage), a joint collaboration between Pablo Alvarez and Benjamin de Rothschild using 100% tempranillo grapes from Rioja Alta, aged in 50% new Burgundian oak. Highly successful.

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We haven’t got on to the beef when another red was produced. Surely, this must be Vega Sicilia, very deep red, suitably bright on the palate with dark cherries and redcurrants with a dash of camphor and earthiness, displaying excellent layering and harmony with substantial power. Clearly not French but it was a 2009 Artadi Vina el Pison, a lifted pure expression of tempranillo from a vineyard in Rioja, planted in 1945. Outstanding.

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2005 DRC Montrachet (left), 2012 DRC Richebourg (right), 2012 Macan (rear)

Yet another red was produced, exuding a lovely fragrance of bright red fruits and cherries with overtones of camphor, delicious and succulent, displaying excellent depth of fruit and concentration with a core of redcurrants and tangerine on the palate. Lovely fragrance. Vega Sicilia? Very close, just a notch down, the 2009 Valbuena No.5 from the same stable.

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Simon Cheong, Augusti, Dr Ngoi

As we were about to embark on the gargantuan beef steak, there was yet another red, very close in character to the preceding Valbuena but with even greater layering and concentration of  red fruits and redcurrants of superb depth, ripeness and fabulous intensity with an overtone of tangerines, open and alluring, framed by velvety ‘gritty’ tannins as if one was chewing the actual fruit, exuding a beautiful fragrance. Surely now, this must be it and, yes, a 1999 Vega Sicilia Unico. At this point, I must say something about the beef: it is the best that I have ever had – juicy, tender, succulent, everything that beef ought to be. In fact, every item we had was sublime. There is no gimmickry, no nitrogen, no bubbles. Just real food with real flavours, utterly fresh from its very modest kitchen with basically just a charcoal grill.

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Pablo wasn’t done yet. For dessert, for which there were two courses, something golden and luscious was produced, possessing a beautiful nose of honeysuckle and nectarine with further apricot, crème and stony minerals on the palate, its acidity receding just a little, its sweetness very well managed. Surely a D’Yquem, but it turned out to be a 2012 Matias Torres La Palma, weighing in at 14.5% alcohol but you don’t feel it.

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By then, it was 1800h. We all paid homage to Tetsu at the open air terrace with coffee and cigars, the young skinny Japanese chap responsible for the outstanding beef whom you think you’re more likely to encounter at a video game arcade in Akihabara. I will never forget this great meal. I am immensely indebted to Pablo Alvarez for his kindness and generosity. A big thank you, too, to Victor and Augusti at Etxebarri for their wonderful hospitality, and thank you as well, my friends, for being a big part of my life. Gracias mucho.

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