Reclaiming the vegetable compartment

For the longest time, the vegetable compartment of the fridge has been our de-facto wine cellar. Over many years of accumulation, it was getting crowded and we needed space to store vegetables for the increased level of home-cooking due to you-know-what. So it was time to start drawing down the strategic wine reserve.

The first bottle we cracked open was the Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva 2005. It was a sentimental bottle because it was a souvenir from our very memorable trip to Spain during the winter of 2010 with old friends QY, RC and ML.

This particular bottle was especially significant because it was from our hotel room at the Hotel Marques de Riscal in Elciego, Spain. The Luxury Collection hotel was located within a vineyard and was designed by Frank Gehry, the same architect that designed the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and many other iconic buildings around the world.

The Rioja held up particularly well and kept its full-bodied oaky flavour, but with mellowed-out tannins after spending a decade in the fridge. The MdR is more of an entry-level Rioja and is commonly found in Spanish supermarkets, but it was a nice and tasty drink.

It was even more enjoyable as we took a trip down memory lane and recalled our two-night excursion from Bilbao. The drive to Elciego was about two hours across a mostly barren and bleak landscape, which seems to be what most of Spain looks like as you move from city to city.

As the GPS in the car counted down the distance to the hotel, we looked out the window and spotted the famous wavy building. In no time, we were in the car park and stepping on the thick burgundy welcome mat in the lobby.

Since it was winter, it was the off-season and we were the only people checking in. After getting our keys, we went to the hotel bar for some tapas and wine. The first thing that caught our eye was a huge feature wall stacked with bottles and bottles of wine.

It goes without saying that the wines available were all from MdR and prices were very friendly, especially when compared to the crazy prices in Singapore. I suppose there are some benefits to being a wine-producing country.

We ordered our drinks and tapas and spent a lazy couple of hours hanging out and chatting at the bar. Travel tip: when you’re in Spain, always order their anchovies tapas. Whether it’s anchovies on bread, skewered anchovies with peppers or simply anchovies in olive oil, it will always be good.

The view from the terrace was sparse since all the grapes had already been harvested, but the rows upon rows of vines had a certain austere charm about them.

We spent some time at the huge indoor swimming pool and had the whole place to ourselves…

… and joined an interesting tour of the in-house winery where they explained the wine making and ageing process and showed us their wine inventory, including huge racks of what appeared to be really old wine.

We had dinner at the in-house restaurant that night, which I vaguely recall as being quite nice but nothing fantastic. Which was relatively disappointing because: (a) this was in Spain, widely recognised as a gastronomic country, (b) we were in a Michelin-starred restaurant in a world-famous hotel and (c) it was not cheap.

Perhaps it was because we were in a small town in the middle of nowhere and were a captive audience in a fancy hotel primarily known for its architecture. So it was par for the course, I guess.

However, my faith in Spanish food was restored during our dinner the following night, where we took the suggestion of our bartender and made a reservation at a restaurant in the nearby village.

It was a short drive out from the hotel and we spent the day time wandering around and admiring the many many old buildings. It was very quiet and there were hardly any people around, and while it felt quaint to explore a place like this, I couldn’t help but think that there was no way I could live there.

It’s true what they say. The more you travel, the more you appreciate home. I’ve lived most of my life in a city and take many things for granted, but once in a while, when you imagine what life could be like if you were born somewhere else, you see through different eyes.

The restaurant in the village was underground, in what seemed to be an old wine cellar. That, in itself, was already intriguing and set the stage.

But the food was what made the meal memorable. Simple ingredients with robust flavours, paired with cold and crispy Spanish cava. It was traditional hearty country fare, probably made by an old grandma in the kitchen who’s been cooking it the same way for many decades.

The lamb was perhaps a bit too robust, because I had a severe case of indigestion late that night. Or maybe it was the accumulated effect of many days of bingeing and breakfast booze. Either way, there is such as thing as too much of a good thing.

It had turned dark by the time we got back and as we approached the hotel, we remembered why we were in Elciego and staying at the Hotel Marques de Riscal.

The view was breathtaking.

The Bilbao Guggenheim Museum was built in a similar style but was clad in monochrome titanium and had a structural viewpoint, whereas the Hotel Marques de Riscal was coated in violet hues and appeared formless and fluid.

Here’s a side-by-side comparison, move the slider and you’ll see what I mean. It’s as different as day and night, literally.

Bilbao Guggenheim Museum (left), Hotel Marques de Riscal (right)

We checked out the next day and continued on our journey to Madrid and Barcelona, collecting many wonderful architectural and gastronomic experiences along the way. But this side trip to Elciego was definitely one of the highlights of our Spanish winter trip, ten years ago.

Enough with the reminiscing, back to housekeeping.

The second bottle to leave the fridge was the LeSalette Amarone 2012. We bought this at a food festival at the Marina Bay Sands many years back, and had high hopes for how it would taste.

We don’t drink much Italian wine and generally stick with Chiantis. But we tried a Bottega Amarone that a friend had brought for a lunch gathering once, and it was so luscious and so fragrant that we thought all Amarones were like that.

Unfortunately, we were disappointed. The nose was wonderful, but the taste was just meh. Win some, lose some. Moving on.

The third bottle was a 13th Street Blanc de Noir 2007, a sparkling wine from Canada(!) made from only Pinot Noir grapes. I’ve had this many times before and it’s one of my favourite wines, sparkling or otherwise.

It has a strong honey fragrance and rich, creamy mouth feel which goes well with almost anything. Our most memorable meal with the 13th Street was at a ryokan kaiseki dinner at Shiraume Kyoto, and it made a great meal even more fantastic.

One interesting tip when having good champagne or sparkling wine is to also have it in a white wine glass, after it goes flat by swirling it around. After all, it’s still a white wine, and when all the bubbles dissipate, you’ll get to the true taste of the wine.

This idea was shared by Jamie Paquin, who owns Heavenly Vines in Ebisu, Tokyo during a particularly delightful after-work drinks session hosted by my ex-boss ET. I can understand if you’re still skeptical, but try it at least once and see if it works for you. In the case of the 13th Street, I found that the honey notes were more pronounced.

The fourth bottle we extracted was the De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon 2007 from Australia. We’ve had this many times before, and is one of our favourite dessert wines, after a good Sauternes of course.

You can almost tell from its rich amber hue what it will taste like, and you would be right — sweet like honey, apricots and peaches but not overwhelmingly sweet. We had this with a very good pandan cake, and then separately with a spicy fried carrot cake. Both turned out to be great pairings.

The fifth bottle that we opened was the one I was most curious and concerned about. It was the Knight Black Horse Lychee Sweet Wine 2010 from Thailand.

Yes, you heard correctly, Thailand.

To be honest, I had very low expectations. Not because I was prejudiced because it was from Thailand, but because we had a bottle of Thai sparkling wine at a high-end Thai restaurant in Bangkok in the past which was, putting it mildly, not good.

But I was pleasantly surprised by the Knight Black Horse (cool name, by the way).

It was sweet, but not artificially so, and tasted of lychee, in a pleasantly refreshing way. Not as good as a Sauternes or the Noble One, but given the huge difference in price, that would be an unfair comparison.

Would I drink it again? Definitely, and especially so on a hot sunny day. We actually still have another bottle, courtesy of a cousin from a recent trip to Bangkok.

If you’re interested, we bought this at the duty-free shop at the Bangkok international Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK). They should still be selling it. That is, when we can all finally travel again.

Before you get the wrong impression that The Wife and I are alcoholics, I just wanted to clarify that the five bottles were not finished on the same day. They were opened over a period of several months, and we finished each bottle within the day, or at most, the following day.

The vegetable compartment is now empty enough to be used for its intended purpose, but there are still a few bottles left to be cleared:

  • Billecart-Salmon Brut Rose NV
  • Aubert Chardonnay Lauren 2013
  • Knight Black Horse Lychee Sweet Wine 2014
  • Migaki-Ichigo Mousseux NV

Plus a few bottles of Yuzu Sake from various Japanese breweries that are sitting in the storeroom but not taking up precious refrigerator space. But that’s a story for another day.

Enjoy your alcohol, but always remember to drink responsibly!

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