Food and Drink

vineyard and Winery visit with Leonardo Sassi

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Sunday March 17th I drove down through rural Umbria and up some fantastic winding switchbacks to just over the border with Lazio to meet Leo Sassi and check out his new little winery.  I have to say that although I got a little lost blasting through those tight winding flowing empty rural roads in a new Alfa Romeo Giulia an listening to opera was really fantastic and I was in a great mood when I finally arrived. 



2018 was only Leo's second vintage.  I'm not sure how much wine he made this time around but in 2017 it was just a few hundred cases.  Leo's family is from out here in the vicinity of Terrano, and his grandparents are still here, but he and his family have always lived in Rome where they have a bakery, wine bar, and excellent restaurant.  

After about 4 decades in Rome and starting a family Leo and his wife began to think about relocating somewhere the pace of life was a little less intense.  His family still owned a large hill (Collina Sassi) out on the border with Umbria and they had a love of natural wine that had developed along with their wine bar, so they made the decision to plant a vineyard and try to build a small winery from the ground up.  Serendipitously Leo was already friends with Danilo Marcucci thanks to the wine bar and Danilo was willing to come on as a consultant.  

After driving back and forth past it many times, I met Leo at his grandparents garage.  He's currently renting a little old vineyard next door to his land and getting his feet wet (ha ha it's a pun!) doing wine making on a very small scale while the 3.3 hectares he's planted grow up enough to produce grapes.  Everyone talks about Romans as being very fast and frenetic and I could see that a bit in Leo's intensity, but he was great about speaking slowly for me so I could try to follow along in Italian.  The winery was small, clean and to the point.  I tasted his new 2018 rosato and Coraggio bianco which were both excellent both thanks to the particular qualities of the 2018 vintage and his improvement as a wine maker.


This is the little rented vineyard


Here's the newly planted vineyard



The vines were planted last year so it will still be maybe another 2 years until they really produce fruit.  He's got Ciliegiolo, Cesanese, Malvasia, and Trebbiano planted. I'm not sure if there's Sangiovese as well...  Interestingly the Ciliegiolo is a local clone that seems to be kind of different from what's grown up in Umbria.  Interestingly he and Danilo spent a while studying the hill and different possible sites to plant the vineyard and eventually decided that it would be best to plant on a gently sloping north facing hillside below the peak.  As Leo explained: central Italy is always hot in the summer no matter where you are.  Getting the grapes ripe isn't a problem even here at relatively high elevation.  So instead of planting on a traditional south facing slope to get more sun, he and Danilo decided a slightly less sunny north facing slope would be better in order to make brighter and fresher wines and to be able to have a bit of flexibility to deal with the warming climate in the future. 

Leo Sassi has 3.3 ha of vines planted over two different soil types.  One is red and slightly volcanic and sandy while the other is whiter and has more clay in it.  Leo was still trying to decide exactly where to build his permanent winery on the property and was already a little worried about navigating the Italian permitting and construction process in order to have it ready for when the new vineyard started to produce 2 years in the future.  The new vineyard might be large enough to triple his production and would definitely be too much to handle in his grandparents garage.  That's a real hard deadline!  No arguing with nature! 

After seeing everything we walked back to our cars, I wished him good luck, and we were just about to take off (because he had to make it back to the restaurant in Rome and work there) when he sort of paused, thought, and asked if I wanted an espresso.  I said sure because I always want espresso.  So he said to follow him and he led me down to a Tabacheria down the ridge.  We grabbed an espresso and were about to part ways again when he sort of paused again...then he said "Hey, I'm sorry I'm in such a rush to get back to the restaurant, would you like to come to Rome with me and I'll give you lunch in my restaurant?  It's good traditional Roman cuisine.  I was going to say no, I'd rather run up and down all these insane hills out here when my brain kicked back on and I realized that I would be an idiot to refuse the invitation of a free fantastic lunch in Rome.  So off we went through the countryside and then onto the A1 to the Ponte Flaminia in Rome.


Panificio Nazzareno






This was an amazing fried squash blossom with cheese


Pasta Amatriciana


Look!  Here's video of Leo talking about his new vineyard

Chateau St Anne Bandol Rouge



Vintage: 2010

Chateau St Anne is an old family winery in the small region of Bandol, located in Provence France.  St Anne currently has 15 hectares and is run by Francoise Dutheil and her son Jean-Baptiste.  Chateau St Anne.  St Anne both helped resurrect the Bandol appellation 5 generations ago and was a founding member of the first natural wine growers association in France: the Association de Vins Naturels. 

Grape Varietals: Primarily Mourvedre with Cinsault and Grenache as well.

Aroma: the Chateau St Anne Bandol smells so unmistakably like Provence.  This is garrigue.  This is wild dry hills with lavender, rosemary, and thyme.  There's also slight old dry woodsey smell that tips me off to the extremely long time this wine spends resting in large traditional oak casks.  There's fresh black cherry fruit along with a whiff of dry pine forest.  this Bandol smells so old in the sense of generations of history and at the same time it's bright and alive.  I am also pleasantly shocked to not smell any stewed fruit in a Bandol.

Palate: So elegant, so old world, so raw and rustic.  St Anne's Bandol is a bit of a contradiction and it's one of the best wines I've had in the past 12 months.  There's fresh acidity right at first, fresh cherry, a hint of tannin and then proper tannins that cradle and focus the wine's Provencal herb, fruit, and earthy flavors.  This 12.5% alcohol Bandol isn't for everyone; if you like big lush high alcohol modern sleek Bordeaux look elsewhere.  But if you yearn for old school Cornas, Brunello, and elegant reserved Barolo this wine will move you. 

I only got 2 cases.  Available at Maine and Loire and Vinland.

Bodegas Ponce P.f and Pino

I was recently lucky enough to get limited quantities of Bodegas Ponce's special single vineyard cuvees and they are some of the most exciting and compelling wines I've drunk in recent memory. I've written about Bodegas Ponce already concerning their excellent entry level wine, the intriguingly smoky yet still juicy and fun Clos Lojen

Here's a quick over view on why you should care about Ponce.  Bodegas Ponce is in Manchuela, a DO west of Valencia in western Catalonia.  It's a lesser known area and not so highly thought of for fine wine making.  There is wine growing here, but much of it is bulk and all sorts of grapes are grown from Grenache to Bobal, to Alicante, to I don't know what.  Bobal is traditional though and the Ponce family has been farming it for many generations.  Despite how long the Ponce family has been growing grapes here their grapes had always been sold off to other people.  In 2005 they made the jump and built their own winery.  They are now the best producer of Bobal and the one doing the most to demonstrate the complexity and subtlety that the grape can achieve if taken seriously.

That all sounds promising, right? And I really liked the Clos Lojen, so I decided to get my hand on some P.f and Pino: two of Ponce's higher end wines.  I sampled them with some people last week and they were the most compelling exciting wines I've had in many months.  Here's what I thought:

Bodegas Ponce P.f


P.f is made from a 3 hectare plot of 80 year old Bobal vines planted on their own root stock in sandy soil The phyloxera louse doesn't survive in sandy soil allowing these vines to be planted on their own root stock; an exceptionally rare situation.  This is the only wine made entirely from ungrafted vines that I've tasted in a couple years.

The P.f's aroma is rich and powerful; there's a lot of ripe dark fruit but also a meaty quality like smelling a seared steak.  Rich, deep, and smoky is how I'd describe the P.f's smell.

On the palate the P.f is dense.  It's dark and spicy and sticks to the inside of your mouth. The first flavor sensations of the wine are kind of lively and fun, but the mid palate deepens and then the finish has serious tannins that linger, but are softened but this lush almost milk chocolatey component that I taste at the finish of the wine.  I don't have a lot of experience with Bobal, but coming from 80 year old vines and ungrafted this must be an exceptionally rare demonstration of what the grape can do.

Bodegas Ponce Pino


Ponce's Pino is also 100% Bobal, but this is from 30 year old vines on a separate vineyard plot that is the rockiest that they own.  Ponce used to blend the grapes from this plot into one of their other cuvees, but they realized that he wines of this rocky vineyard plot were always the most vibrant, racy, chiseled expression of Bobal each year.  So they started making a wine from just that patch.  Ponce only has grapes to make about 200 cases a year.

The color is inky dark and vividly purple.  The vintage is 2012 but it looks like it's 2014. 

The Pino's aroma is really gorgeously floral; it's edgy, it's vibrant, it's floral.  I smell roses, violet, very fresh raspberry, some orange, and a hint of a herbaceous spiciness.

On the palate the Pino tastes serious.  It's deep and linear in it's parade of flavors.  High acidity and vivid raspberry strawberry fruit but it tastes like it's not giving everything up yet.  I dare to say I can't get past 2nd base with this wine right now.  But even though the P.F is technically a better balanced and more complete wine I prefer the Pino.  This is a completely different racy, intense, hard to get to expression of Bobal and I love it.  

The P.F is available at Caiola's, Tess's Market, Vinland, Browne Trading, Maine and Loire, and the Blue Hill Wine Shop.    Maine and Loire is the only shop carring the Pino.  They retail for about $28 and $43 respectively. 


Jean-Paul Brun Terres Dorees Cote de Brouilly

Jean Paul Brun started making wine from the 4 hectares of vines on his family farm in 1977.  In 1979 he established Terres Dorees as a winery and became a full time wine maker.  He now has over 30 hectares, demonstrating that organic farming and wild fermentation isn't only for tiny garagiste domaines.  Brun's Cote de Brouilly comes from two small vineyard plots on southeast facing hill sides.  The vines are 50 years old and the soil is outstanding for Gamay: decayed granite scree that gives the vines excellent drainage as well as focused vivid acidic and mineral structure.


Aroma: Brun's Cote de Brouilly has an exceptionally pretty aroma of fresh strawberries and raspberries.  The aroma isn't super powerful or sweet smelling and verges on being more floral, but it's in a very pretty and elegantly fresh way.  As the fruit aromas subside a bit there's also a rose petal aroma that comes through.


Palate: Juicy, but with a crisp stone foundation.  This Cote de Brouilly is a medium bodied wine, but so smooth and round and fresh.  The texture is velvety and suave, with just the barest tiniest hint of tannin.  Brun's Cote de Brouilly is deliciously juicy and lush from start to finish wile still tasting alive, energetic, and vivid. 

Brun and Terres Dorees is imported into the US by Louis Dressner Selections and if you click on the link included just there you can read a great interview with Brun on their website.  Devenish represents Louis Dressner in Maine and the more of their portfolio I taste the more impressed I am.  Sadly we only got 5 cases of Brun's Cote de Brouilly so this is only available at Maine and Loire in Portland and the Blue Hill Wine Shop in Blue Hill Maine.  The Cote de Brouilly retails for around $20.

Farmers Dinner at Vinland

On Thursday the 8th of January, their one year anniversary, Vinland closed to the public and threw a private dinner for all the farmers that supply them.  Chef David Levi had been trying to think of a good way to celebrate the anniversary and instead of some big pay event he settled on the private dinner to thank all the farmers that supported Vinland.  What better way to celebrate than with a straightforward party and no financial motivation.  Plus, when your restaurant uses no ingredients that aren't locally sourced and organic, you really depend on local farmers to come through for you with the things you need.


Not being a farmer I felt a little out of place and unworthy of the appreciation due the farmers, but that was completely outweighed by how flattered I was and happy to be a part of such a fun and generous  event.  I sat at the bar with Evan Mills, the butcher from Rosemont, who supplies Vinland with most all their meat. 


Of all the special dinners I've attended with famous wine makers and chefs from around the world this made me the happiest.  Farming for the most part is gritty and unglamorous but it's hard working great farmers that are responsible for Maine's nationally famous food scene.  Seeing so many of those farmers having a good time together experiencing the end result of where their labor was pretty moving for me.  I wanted to show my appreciation in a small way as well so I brought along some bottles of a totally natural wild fermented sparkling wine from the Loire: Jean Pierre Robinot's Fetembulles.  I walked around, chatted with people, and poured the Fetembulles for everyone mid way through the dinner.  The wine sparked fun conversations and was well received.  The evening left me really happy to be in Portland Maine doing what I do.

Chateau Ksara Le Prieure


I'm tickled pink to have added another Lebanese winery to the Devenish portfolio!  Chateau Ksara is my new addition to Chateau St Thomas.  Ksara, according to their website, is the oldest continuously operating winery in Lebanon.  I say oldest continuously operating because Lebanon has been the site of wine making since....the dawn of history?  before recorded history?  A long time.  Most recently Lebanon was a French colony and the French did what they always do: they planted vines.  Ksara was originally started by Jesuit monks in 1857, but is now owned by a local family.

Ksara and Lebanese wine making in general happens in the Bekaa valley.  The Bekaa isn't far from the Mediterranean, but it's in the Lebanese mountains and is over 3,000' above sea level.  So the summers are hot and sunny and dry, but the winters are surprisingly cold, wet, and snowy.  That seasonal variation helps to make more serious wines than you'd expect considering the distance from the equator. 

Vintage: 2011

Varietal: Grenache, Carignan, Mouvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon

Aroma: Nice juicy aroma of plums, prunes, blueberries and just a touch of smoke.  The Prieure has a hearty robust and very inviting aroma.  It smells very much like a southern French red blend, just a little bit rustic and with a ripeness to the fruit that makes me imagine hot direct sun.

Palate: Rich and juicy and spicy too.  Definitely some cooked blueberries on the finish.  The Prieure is juicy and lush but also dense and mouth filling.  There's cranberry, cherry, all that jazz.  behind the forward fruit is a nice dry earthy quality on the mid palate followed by substantial enough tannins to draw the wine out.  And then there's this cool raspberry-ish flavor that lingers on after the finish.

Ksara's le Prieure is a delicious and accessible table wine that's similar to a Provencal wine but with something different that's hard for me to put my finger on.  It's a little "drier".  Any way, the Prieure rocks and is about $11 at Rosemont Munjoy Hill, Rosemont Commercial St, The Farm Stand in South Portland, State St Wine Cellar in Bangor, and the Blue Hill Wine Shop.

Visit with Jean Michel Morel of Kabaj

Jean Michel from Kabaj in Goriska Brda Slovenia came up to Portland to visit last week along with his daughter Tina and Stetson Robbins, a representative from Blue Danube, his US importer.  Devenish has been selling Jean Michel's wines in Maine for about a year, but I didn't feel like I really knew them; I didn't have an understanding of why the wines of Kabaj are so different and unique.  After a day driving around, talking, and drinking with Jean I have a very different and deeper understanding; the wines are really expressions of his personality and beliefs.  


Jean Michel was born in France, moved to Italy, and only ended up at Kabaj after he met and married his wife, whose family owned the vineyard.  Jean Michel over and over kept repeating that you had to love what you do with the obvious point that he really loves what he is doing.  He was clear that making and selling wine is his job but that he loves the process of crafting the wines and also meeting new people and connecting with them.  In two nights and one day we covered a lot of ground, from a wine tasting with Rosemont at Tandem Coffee, a very fine dinner at the Cumberland Club, and tastings with staff at Cinque Terre/Vignola, Jen Flock of Flock and Vine, Hugo's, Caiola's, and the Blue Spoon.  

Jean Michel is really excited about wine.


We also found time for beers at Bunker.  

Jean talked a lot about fresh wines and how he doesn't like them.  Wines are wine he would say, fermented and shouldn't normally be super bright.  Wine is food he kept saying and wines should go well with food.  His are exceptional in this way.  The extended amount of time his whites spend on the skin gives them lots of flavor, but low acidity so that they pair with many flavors and tastes.  

Another comment that stuck with me is "We make wine in the vineyard, the cellar is for drinking and sleeping."  I can imagine him drinking and falling asleep in a cellar!  His point though is that the grapes are why the wines taste the way they do and that the real work happens growing them.  Jean Michel is a genuinely open generous man and his wines stylistically mirror those qualities. Look for more info on these individual wines and coming events soon.

Restaurant Piccolo

I don't usually write about new restaurants.  Mostly I limit myself to wine.  However, without exciting restaurants to expose people to my wines I'd just be sitting alone drinking in my grimy warehouse!  Restaurants that push the limits and give people new experiences are the best avenue for the good citizens of Portland Maine to experience my crazy, passionate, and authentic wines.  I get excited whenever a new restaurant opens and right now Portland is savoring the openings of a slew of new establishments.  I got to eat at most of them last week and wanted to share some of my impressions.

Last Friday night was the opening of Piccolo.

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Damien and his wife Ilma opened Piccolo at 111 Middle St, where Bresca used to be.  Damien's parents are from southern Italy and in our meetings prior to the Piccolo's opening all he talked about were his memories of the food he grew up with.  Nothing about the construction or the business; just the sausages his grandfather cured in their basement, braising techniques, roasting pigs, and ideas he'd come up with while cooking at high end restaurants in NY.  His passion and personal connection to the cuisine he was planning to cook was obvious.   So I made reservations for opening night.



Erin and I made a good go at the menu and had the Ricotta, Cavolfiore, Sarde, Zucca, Porcellino, and Patrimonio.  The food was excellent; we'll have to go back soon and try more of the menu.  The Ricotta in particular was memorable and served on a dry cracker-like traditional Sardinian bread drizzled with fresh olive oil from Abruzzo.  The dish sounds simple and there are only three ingredients, but the result was an unusual combination of textures and flavors; and delicious.  That set the tone.  The Cavolfiore was really hearty and satisfying with the anchovies in a supporting role giving the cauliflower an added dimension.  The Sarde was super traditional using Mediterranean anchovies, but Damien said he'd soon be getting local herring for it and it would be even better and fresher.


The Sarde


Above are our main courses.  The Patrimonio sausages with polenta is on the left and that's my Porcellino on the right.  They were both killer.  The sausages were richer and juicier than any other sausage I've ever had!  It would have been hard not to snatch them from Erin, but I had the tender milk fed pig in front of me to keep me occupied.



The view of the bar.  The layout hasn't changed much from Bresca.  Piccolo has been all redecorated and feels different, but if you ate at Bresca it will look and feel familiar.  For desert I had an affogato: house made ice cream with Matt's espresso poured over it.  Great ice cream and great coffee to be sure, but what made it special was that Ilma has a huge tank of liquid nitrogen in the back that she uses to really freeze the ice cream: not a hard freeze, but so cold that it will float, still frozen, in the hot espresso.  It was awesome!  

I'm really excited about Piccolo, not just because it's southern Italian cuisine is a new addition to Portland and different from the northern and Tuscan Italian we already have.  Damien and Ilma both seem to be technically talented chefs; however, what made the food memorable to me is that it tasted like they were really passionate about it and excited to finally be able to share it with people.  That's what I love about food and wine: the connections, emotions, history, and culture that's bound up in it.



What: bar, distillery, brewery, restaurant

Where: Commercial St across from $3 Dewey's

Why: Infiniti is a really ambitious project, the craftsmanship is crazy, and I am kind of in awe of the scope of it.

When I first started hearing about Infiniti and got my self inside months back to look around my first question was "why isn't everyone talking about this?"  I was agog at the walk in cooler the size of an apartment, beautiful high tech German still, and incredible workmanship throughout the bar.  The fact that the owners of Novare Res were opening a brewery/distillery/restaurant on the water in the old port was a pretty big deal to me, but people didn't seem to know about it. 

Those light fixtures are recycled portholes!

Now Infiniti's open and I've been there, I think, 5 times.  I've had every app on the menu, tried all the beers that they've made so far, and had plenty of opportunities to admire all the wood work.  Infiniti is a complicated project with a lot of different goals and moving pieces so this isn't like just writing about a normal restaurant.  Infiniti is a really gutsy undertaking that raises the bar for Portland both in the scope of their vision and in terms of investment in the space.  I can't help wanting them to suceed just based on what a big challenge they've taken on.  Owners Julie and Eric Michaud must be aiming for national attention with the brewery and distillery pieces and the bar seems built to be compared to the best San Francisco, NY, and Seattle have to offer. 


The first night I went was their second official night open; it was a Tuesday night a few weeks ago during a snow storm.  Certainly not a fair time to judge a restaurant, but the food was good.  The Belgian frites seemed to be pretty normal fries but the housemade soft pretzel with housemade mustard was great. The mustard was really intense, but I warmed up to it as I got used to it. Housemade is a theme; it gets applied to everything from beer to spirits (eventually), and sauces.  I was also pretty happy with a scallop ceviche that I had.  The ceviche was nicely put together and not overly acidic.  In subsequent visits I think the cod loin became my favorite app.  The broth it is served in is rich and creamy and the piece of cod was substantial; it was one of the more filling meal like apps. 


The food has improved quickly as the kinks were worked out over the first week and I've been impressed over all.  Infiniti's menu isn't mind blowing, but they just opened and it is well thought through for what they're doing.  I've tried all the beers they've made and they've all been clean tasting and well balanced; none has seemed overly hopped or unbalanced I'm really sensitive to that kind of thing.  The beer is surprisingly well made for such a new operation.


The harder you look at the interior the more impressive it gets.  All the wood surfaces from stool tops to tables to bar top came from a single black walnut tree that fell down in PA.  The bar and all the railings are faced with barrel staves from used barrels and the lights are all made from re bent and welded barrel hoops.  I highly recommend getting a cocktail and watching their bar staff melt an ice block into a giant ice ball in order to chill the drink with as little water melting into it as possible.  It's pretty intense.

Melting an ice ball

Infiniti raises the bar and you should check it out.  Check it out before this summer when the patio opens and it will get really crazy.  Plus they're open for lunch all afternoon so you have the opportunity to get in there while it's quite and appreciate the space.  My expiriences so far have been good, but it almost feels like a tech startup to me.  Julie, Eric, and crew have built themselves some big shoes and are now going to have to figure out how to fill them, but so far it's promising and I'm expecting impressive things.

General Wine Geekery #9 Corked!

Last week's article made the point that wine is an agricultural product and as such it varies depending on where it comes from.  Another issue with agricultural products and most food (not Twinkies though) is that it can spoil.  This week's article attempts to explain the most common way that wine can spoil: a condition called "corked".


The vast majority of wine bottles are closed with a plug called a cork.  Cork is made out of the bark of a cork oak tree which primarily grows in Portugal and North Africa. Corks were first used to close glass bottles in the 1600's and amazingly we're still sealing our bottles by jamming pieces of bark into them today! We're still doing it because cork actually works fantastically well for this purpose; it's spongy, compresses, and never rots. The problem though is that it's bark from a tree and it has to be cleaned before it can be used to seal a wine bottle. Cork spoilage happens when the cleaning process isn't done correctly. The left over chemical compound (TCA) that gets into the wine from the cork isn't harmful to people, but it does make the wine smell and taste like a moldy basement.  About 5-10% of all wine is afflicted with this tainted cork problem, no one knows precisely how much.  Once in a while a winery will get a whole batch of bad corks, but most of the time it happens kind of randomly and you can't tell whether a bottle of wine has this problem until you actually open it.  

When you open a bottle you should always pour a little of the wine into a glass to try it and make sure it's ok before drinking it.  That's why restaurants always pour a little wine for the person that ordered the bottle before anyone else, it's so that you can smell and taste the wine to verify that it's not corked.  If the wine smells like moldy cardboard, old socks, mildew, a damp greenhouse and then if you taste it and it has those same tastes and not too much fruit: it's corked.  Don't drink it.  If you're at a restaurant they'll take it back and bring you another bottle; if you're at home take the bottle back to the store you bought it from and they'll replace it.  Remember it's not the shop or restaurant's fault and neither is it the winery's; it was the cork that was faulty from the beginning.  Another bottle of the same wine should be totally different and enjoyable the way the wine maker intended so don't hold it against them.

It's not very glamorous or romantic, but it's something that all wine drinkers should be familiar with.  I love wines that taste like where they come from, not wines that taste like moldy basement!