Alsace


Last night LL made what is probably the best risotto I have ever eaten. And since the wine I chose to match this paragon of ricely beatitude was smack-dab on the money, we had a pretty damned perfect meal.

It was one of those nights of looking around the kitchen, the refrigerator and the cabinets to see what was on hand. We had about a cup of leftover diced butternut squash, so LL broiled that until the pieces had nice blackened edges. She sauteed some chopped shallot and then a few sliced hen-of-the-wood mushrooms, stirred in the rice and some white wine, let the wine evaporate and then began the process of slowly incorporating the chicken broth, a ladleful at a time. Toward the end, she folded in the butternut squash and a handful of chopped parsley and then — pure genius! — about a tablespoon of white miso to give the dish a deep, savory bass note. Readers, it was wonderful, with layers of complementary yet slightly contrasting scents and flavors bound in the creamy, not quite chewy rice.

I opened a bottle of the Hugel “Classic” Pinot Gris 2006, from the venerable firm of Hugel et Fils, founded in the town of Riquewihr in Alsace in 1639. The grapes derive from nearby vineyards secured by the family through long-term contracts and also from a selection of declassified grapes from Grand Cru vineyards on the Hugel estate. The Hugel “Classic” Pinot Gris 2006 is made all in stainless steel and sees no oak. The wine is a lovely medium straw-gold color with a faint green cast. Subtle aromas of jasmine and honeysuckle, quince and pear, crystallized ginger and a back-note of woody spices are woven with a strand of smoke and baked apple. In the mouth, the wine is satiny and mellow, slightly honeyed in aspect yet completely dry, with flavors of apple and nectarine and a hint of green grapes, all enveloped in a spicy, smoky haze that opens to a touch of barely mossy earthiness. The texture feels almost cloud-like, and the acidity, while lively enough for some vivacity, is soft and accommodating. What a treat! And the synergy with the risotto was amazing! And I’m using too many exclamation points! Drink now through 2013 to ’15, well-stored. 13.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About — here’s the clincher — $15, though you see prices on the Internet as high as $24; somebody’s making a killing. A Raving Bargain.

Imported by Frederick Wildman and Sons, New York. A sample for review.

Why “The 12 Days of Christmas with Champagne and Sparkling Wine”?

For fun, of course. Because I love Champagne and sparkling wine in all their categorical imperatives. Because I adore certain kinds of old traditions, such as the sequence of 12 days that leads from the solemnity of Christmas to the revels of Twelfth Night — that’s tonight –and the Epiphany, the day, according to ancient beliefs, on which the Three Kings arrived at Bethlehem. (The Kings, or Wise Men, were my favorite Christmas characters.) Of course end of the old year/beginning of the new year festivities extend back in history to the Roman Saturnalia and other ceremonies, riotous or not, that celebrate the glimmer of longer days and the foretaste of the coming Spring.

My favorite comedy by Shakespeare is Twelfth Night; or What You Will (to give the full title), a play, written indeed as a Twelfth Night entertainment, that in its witty and touching chronicle of love and loss, mistaken identity and discovery, foolishness and wisdom, pomposity and common sense, malice and miracle exactly captures the spirit of an occasion on which, in Medieval and Renaissance England, people disguised themselves and indulged in fits of merrymaking, feasting, drinking and dancing.

Perhaps the connection of Twelfth Night and sparkling wine is tenuous, but, after all, sparkling wine and Champagne are without doubt the most festive of beverages, and in honor of that conceit, I offer a roster of sparkling wines from around the world that would be appropriate for many, perhaps all, occasions.

These wines were samples for review. Three Wise Men images from mcleananddeakin.com
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Lambrusco got a bad rep in the 1960s and ’70s with the ubiquitous “Chill a Cella” television ads. This essential wine of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, however, is bone-dry, not sweet and sticky, and made to match the rich, hearty indigenous cuisine. As a matter of fact, as I’m writing this entry about the Albinea Canali Ottocentonero, Lambrusco dell’Emilia, I’m sipping a glass of the deep purple/magenta/beet colored stuff with my quite savory and spicy cheese toast. Marked “Sept 2010″ on the back label, the Ottocentonero is lightly sparkling, what in Italy is called frizzante (as opposed to the full-sparkling spumante), a sort of pink tickle-and-tease. A gamay-ish nose of black currants and black cherries contains hints of bubble gum and roses and surprisingly dusty shale-like minerality. There’s a lightness of being here that belies the dark intensity of the wine’s color and broad spicy component, yet it’s well-balanced by ripe black fruit flavors, titillating acidity and a touch of astringency on the finish. Charming but with an obsidian edge. The grapes are 50 percent lambrusco salamino, 40 percent lambrusco grasparossa and 10 percent lancelotta. Very Good+. About $16.

VB Imports, Old Brookville, N.Y.
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The Col Vetoraz Valdobbiadene Prosecco Brut, marked 2009 on the back label, is a superior expression of the prosecco grape. The color is pale gold permeated by scads of tiny bubbles. Pop the cork, and you immediately smell apples, lemons and pears, followed by almond blossom, almond skin and a touch of orange zest. This is a very dry, crisp and steely prosecco whose exuberant effervescence makes for a lively and lovely quaff. Very Good+. About $16.

Imported by Montacastelli Selections, New York.
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The package on the Segura Viudas Brut Reserve Heredad Cava is so ludicrous that’s it’s almost sweet. With its elaborate pewter emblem and carved pewter base, the bottle looks like the Great Seal of the Duchy of Flabbergastan. On the other hand, this is an interesting expression of the Cava style of Spain’s Alt Penedes region. Composed of 67 percent macabeo and 33 percent parellada, traditional grapes for Cava, the first impressions are of a beautiful medium gold color, an absolute froth of bubbles and a sense of buoyancy. This is bright, fruity and savory, with an intriguing (or slightly odd) muscat/riesling-like petrol aroma wreathed with lime, lemon curd and jasmine. In the mouth, this sparkling wine is dry and crisp, smoky and steely, with a sort of dried fruit compote element before a limestone-laced, austere finish. Very Good+. About $25.

Imported by Friexenet USA, Sonoma, Cal.
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Australians have a fetish about sparkling shiraz, which I first tried in the Antipodes in 1998 and thought that it tasted like sparkling blood, not to put you off or anything. Indeed, there’s a meaty, beefy quality about sparkling shiraz that the Paringa Sparkling Shiraz 2008, South Australia, embodies handily. The color is, inevitably, very dark ruby-purple with a magenta rim; that darkness pretty much conceals the effervescence, though tiny purple bubbles gather at the wine’s rim in the glass, and of course you feel that liveliness and sort of brooding dynamism on your tongue. This is deep and rich, very spicy, packed with ripe, dusty, crepuscular black cherry and blackberry flavors that feel dense and fleshy; a few minutes in the glass bring up notes of walnuts and thyme. Still, the wine is neither heavy nor obvious, even managing to evince some delicacy of tone. It is very dry. No winsome aperitif sparkling wine, this demands food as large-framed as it is. Very Good+. About — ready? — $10, a Raving Bargain.

Imported by Quinessential, Napa, Cal.
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The Lucien Albrecht Blanc de Blancs Brut, Cremant d’Alsace, made from 100 percent pinot blanc grapes, is completely delightful. The color is pale straw; a flurry of tiny bubbles surges up to the surface, like a reverse snow dome. Aromas of apple and pear permeated by cloves and a hint of spiced peach are deftly circumscribed by elements of limestone and steel. Flavors of baked apple and roasted lemon circulate in the mouth, almost caressed by a supple texture that’s fleetly enlivened (and nicely balanced) by acidity of staggering crispness and cool limestone-like minerality. The entire effect is of purity, intensity, electricity and, ultimately, lovely elegance in temper and tone. Great stuff. Excellent. About $25.

Pasternak Wine Imports, Harrison, N.Y. Image from redwhiteandfood.blogspot.com

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Here’s another blanc de blancs, separated from Alsace by distance, style and grape variety. The Iron Horse Blanc de Blancs 2005, Green Valley, Sonoma County, is made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes, 35 percent of which go through barrel fermentation. The color is very pale shivery blond-gold; the surging gold-flecked bubbles are hypnotic. Yes, this evokes all the green apple and pear, limestone and steel one expects from a blanc de blancs, but adds flourishes of fresh biscuits and cookie dough, almond skin and almond blossom, with traces of roasted lemon and a distant waft of mango; sort of a thrilling bouquet. In the mouth, however, this sparkling wine is very dry, very crisp, very high-toned; a hint of roasted almonds and lightly buttered cinnamon toast bring a touch of winsomeness to the hauteur. I don’t mean the last sentence in a critical spirit; I love these Alpine sparkling wines and Champagnes and their aching sense of being above it all. Production was 1,550 cases. Excellent. About $40.
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We drank the Lucien Albrecht Brut Rosé, Crémant d’Alsace, with yesterday’s Christmas lunch: country ham and eggs, grit, biscuits and red-eye gravy. Not the fare of Alsace, perhaps, but appropriate for the American South and the traditional Christmas meal in the FK/LL household. Made in the “champagne method” of second fermentation in the bottle — thus producing the all-important bubbles in the bottle in which it will be sold — the product represents a regional interpretation of a sparkling wine made completely from pinot noir grapes. The Albrecht family has been growing grapes and making wine in Alsace in an unbroken line since 1425, though the company was founded in 1698; the cellar dates to 1772 and holds huge barrels that are 175 years old and more.

Sporting a pale copper-sunset color, the Lucien Albrecht Brut Rosé, Crémant d’Alsace, seems at first to embody the essence of fresh, macerated strawberries. Then, no, it must be the influence of dried red currants. But wait, is it not dominated by ripe peaches with an undertow of melon? These attractive and tasty notes flow together seamlessly in lovely appeal, bolstered by considerable minerality in the limestone-damp shale range and by assertive acidity that both stimulates and quenches thirst, keeping the wine crisp and lively, though the texture is more silken than sprightly. Exquisitely charming, and capable of not only lubricating the meal but cutting through some of its richness and the bracing saltiness of the excellent country ham. 12 percent alcohol. Very Good+. Prices range from $16 to $20.

Pasternak Wine Imports, Harrison, N.Y. A sample for review.


The top shelf of the white wine fridge, that is. I received so many wines after I returned from South America that I needed to clear out space for some of the in-coming stuff, so I lined up the bottles that were lying on the top shelf of the refrigerator devoted to white wine and tasted them all. So that’s the category today: Miscellaneous Whites. These reviews follow the order of tasting. All of these wines were review samples.
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A blend of sangiovese, merlot and cabernet sauvignon, the Centine Rosé 2009, Toscana, offers an appealing pale onion skin color. A bouquet of strawberries, raspberries and dried red currants with a hint of dried herbs and limestone leads to a dry, crisp mouthful of wine permeated by delicate touches of strawberry and melon and a sort of woodsy berryish mossy note. The finish brings in more limestone and a trace of clove-like spice. The alcohol content is a highly quaffable 12.5 percent. Bottled with a screw-cap. Drink up. Very Good. About $11.

Imported by Banfi Vintners, Old Brookville, N.Y.
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Well, the Frisk Prickly 2009, Alpine Valleys, Victoria, is completely adorable. A blend of 83 percent riesling and 17 percent muscat gordo (an Australian synonym for muscat of Alexandria), the pale straw-gold colored wine is indeed a bit prickly and rather frisky, with its hint of spritz and star-etched crystalline acidity. The wine is moderately sweet going in, but by the time it flows past mid-palate, it’s classically dry and minerally in the crushed limestone/damp shale sense. Green apple, peach and pear, with a tinge of juicy mango; lilacs and camellias; a final delicate wash of river rocks, like a pale watercolor painting of water; these comprise a delightful wine that I found irresistible. Alcohol is 8.7 percent. Bottled with a screw-cap. Very Good+. About $10, an Absolute, Freaking Bargain.

Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Cal.
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The Lorentz family has been making wine in Alsace since 1836; the tradition, the heritage and the experience seem evident. The Gustave Lorentz Rèserve Pinot Gris 2008, Alsace, is a radiant medium gold color; the bouquet delivers a heady amalgam of roasted lemon, lemon balm and almond blossom over subtle tissues of pear, toasted almonds and clean earthiness. Moderately rich notes of lemon, lime skin and pear (with touches of quince and ginger) seethe with teeth-rattling dryness and aching limestone-like minerality; this is, obviously, a very dry, very crisp wine that for all its litheness, leanness and chalky austerity offers wonderful body and presence. I love this detail: according to the winery’s website, its Reserve wines age in wood, stainless steel and glass containers. Drink now through 2014 or ’15, well-stored. 13.5 percent alcohol. Bottled with a screw-cap. Excellent. About $24.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal.

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The color of the Gustave Lorentz Rèserve Riesling 2008, Alsace, is pale straw-gold; pungent aromas of pear, lychee and petrol (or rubber eraser) teem in the bouquet, along with hints of jasmine and damp rocks. This is a high-toned, elegant riesling, completely classic in every aspect, from its pinpoint balance between swingeing acidity and supple texture to its tremendous dose of limestone and shale that verges on pure minerality to its gorgeous peach, pear and roasted flavors. Mainly, however, this is about structure; you feel, beneath the fruit, the stones and bones of true authority and austerity, the chime of bright acidity extending into every bright molecule. Drink now through 2015 to ’18. Alcohol content is 13 percent. Excellent, though I liked it a degree or two less than the Rèserve Pinot Gris mentioned above. About $24.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal.

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Pert and pleasant but at the same time fairly neutral, the Centine Bianco 2009, Toscana, a blend of 40 percent sauvignon blanc, 30 percent pinot grigio and 30 percent chardonnay, does little to bring glory, much less discernible varietal character to any of its constituents. The wine is dry; it is crisp; it is quite minerally, but not in the pristine form of pure scintillating minerality. Even dividing the wine for fermentation and four months’ aging in French barriques doesn’t result in a memorable personality. Let’s face it: Tuscany ain’t prime real estate for sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio or chardonnay. 13 percent alcohol. Good. About $11.

Imported by Banfi Vintners, Old Brookville, N.Y.
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It’s always interesting to read the technical sheets that accompany wines from Kendall-Jackson to my door because, for one reason, they confirm what a meticulous winemaker Randy Ullom is. The Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve Pinot Gris 2009 carries a Monterey County designation, though the wine includes wee portions of grapes from down south in San Luis Obispo County (3%) and farther north in Napa County (2%); don’t forget that there is a Napa County appellation as well as Napa Valley. The wine is fermented primarily in stainless steel tanks; 26 percent is barrel fermented. Pinot gris grapes account for 93 percent of the wine; blended are marsanne (2%), chenin blanc (2%), viognier (1.6%), roussanne (1%) and, rather incredibly, 0.4 percent chardonnay. I wonder how efficaciously the presence of less than half of a percent of chardonnay affects the wine, though my purpose is not to second-guess the winemaker, whose attention to detail I admire. (Actually that’s not true; I second-guess winemakers all the time. No sense being a hypocrite.)

Why, then, don’t I like this wine better? It’s certainly pleasant, clean, crisp and fresh, and it packs a terrific wallop of limestone-and-shale-like minerality, yet it leaves little impression of fruit or even the fruity/floral personality one would expect from the grape. I hate to be a snot, but I have to ask the question: Why was this wine made? Why was so much time and concentration devoted to it to end up just sort of decent and drinkable and forgettable. Well, there’s a place for such wines, but they don’t usually come with this sort of pedigree. Good+. About $15.
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The Cadaretta SBS 2009, Columbia Valley, Washington, is a blend of 78 percent sauvignon blanc and 22 percent semillon; the grapes derive from hillside vineyards planted in 1992 and 1995, and the wine is made completely in stainless steel tanks. The wine offers notes of roasted lemon and yellow plums, with the semillon contributing touches of leafy fig and white waxy flowers, say camellias. There’s nothing grassy about this Bordeaux-style wine, but it does deliver sheaves of dried thyme and tarragon with a broad spectrum of dried savory spices. Elements of limestone seep in around the circumference and within a few minutes the wine is permeated by shale-like minerality, while the finish brings in hints of lime, tangerine and slightly bitter grapefruit. 13 percent alcohol. Production was 500 six-pack cases. Winemaker was Virginie Bourgue, who has since left Cadaretta to focus on her own label. Very Good+. About $23.
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At the end of July, I reviewed the Yangarra Estate Vineyard Mourvèdre 2008, McLaren Vale, and wondered why the winery, which is owned by Kendall-Jackson, put the words “vinted and bottled by … ” on the back labels. Shortly thereafter I received an email message from winemaker Peter Fraser, who informed me that the estate’s winemaking facility was almost complete and that future vintages will be estate-bottled.

The Yangarra Roussanne 2009, McLaren Vale, sees no new oak, aging, instead, in 35 percent two-year-old French oak barrels and the rest in even older, neutral French oak; the wine does not go through malolactic fermentation. The result is a subtle, supple wine with a lovely sleek texture that deftly balances crisp, apple-fresh acidity with the moderate lushness of ripe pears and roasted lemon. This roussanne is a pale straw-gold color; aromas of green apple, pear and lemon peel are infused with notes of bee’s-wax, jasmine and honeysuckle. The entire effect is of spareness and elegance endowed with confidence and varietal authority, and besides, it’s delicious. 13.5 percent alcohol. Bottled with a screw-cap. Production was 1.045 six-bottle cases. Excellent. About $29.

Sovereign Wine Imports, Santa Rosa, Cal.
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The Charles Krug Chardonnay 2009, Carneros, was pitched to me as the chardonnay that redraws the map for chardonnay, but it seemed to me to be just another weary Baedeker into the dead-end territory of manipulative excess. It took “three new yeasts” to get the job done here, including “Dave’s super secret yeast” — winemaker is Dave Galzignato — and while I admire the restrained use of oak (seven months in French oak, 35 percent new) and malolactic (only 23 percent), the wine came out smelling and tasting like a brown sugar/toffee/crème brûlée dessert bomb. This is too bad, because it opened nicely, with hints of pear and peach, lemon peel and orange zest, but it descended quickly to strident spice and cloying fruit. Tsk tsk. 14.5 percent alcohol. On the other hand, you will be surprised that I rate this wine Good+ rather than Avoid, because the next chardonnay is even worse, and a guy has to draw the line somewhere. About $20.
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Erk! Gack! Bananas Foster goes psycho-killer! I found the Hanna Estate Grown Chardonnay 2008, Russian River Valley, completely beyond the pale. Going through full barrel fermentation, malolactic “fermentation” — to remind you, ML is a natural process but not inevitable that transforms crisp malic (“apple-like”) acid into creamy lactic (“milk-like”) acid — and aged in 75 percent new French oak, this bastion of butterscotch and brown sugar is strenuously toasty, muscularly spicy and aggressively oaky, with an unpleasantly dry, austere finish. At this point, some of my readers are saying gently, “Um, F.K., isn’t this a matter of taste and stylistic preference?” Well, no, it isn’t. Wines such as this one (and the preceding model) are travesties that have nothing to do with the chardonnay grape, just as over-oaked, over-ripe, sweet, cloying, high-alcohol zinfandels have nothing to do with the zinfandel grape. It’s a matter of respect; if you truly respect the chardonnay grape, you don’t make a wine that smells and tastes like a combination of the dessert trolley in a continental restaurant and a lumber yard. A wine writer whom I admire enormously wrote in a recent column that he would never tell a winemaker how to make wine. Oops, hey, I sure would! Look at it this way: I have reviewed books for 25 years — I was book page editor from 1988 to 2003 of the newspaper where I used to work — and I have produced a fair number of negative reviews. A negative review, even only partially, is a way of saying that an author was wrong about how he or she wrote the book, and the same principle holds true with wine and winemakers. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens in the winery goes out with every bottle of wine. Where was I? Oh, right. 14.5 percent alcohol. Not for me, O.K.? I mean, I’ll acknowledge that there are wine drinkers (and reviewers at Wine Spectator) who like this “style” of chardonnay, but their palates are beyond my comprehension. About $22.
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This is really interesting, a non-vintage dessert wine, and I don’t mean port or some other fortified type. The Höpler Beerenauslese nv, Burgenland, Austria, tasted from a 375-milliliter half-bottle, offers a radiant medium gold color and seductive aromas of roasted apricots and peaches, baked pears, quince jam, honeysuckle and touches of ginger and cloves. In the mouth, this sweetheart is honeyed and viscous; flavors of spiced and brandied peaches with a touch of honeydew melon and mandarin orange are balanced by resounding acidity and a strain of earthy, slightly funky minerality. The wine is definitely sweet on the entry, but halfway across the palate the sweetness melts away, so the finish is resolutely dry and a little stony. The wine is a blend of 40 percent chardonnay, 40 percent sämling 88 (a synonym in Burgenland for Germany’s scheurebe grape) and 10 percent grüner veltliner. This doesn’t project the weight or presence or ultimate finesse of a great dessert wine, but it’s very attractive and even irresistible. 11 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About — this is a guess based on imperfect Google results — $24.

USA Wine Imports, New York.
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Here’s a revealing comparison: the Höpler Beerenauslese nv mentioned above contains 136 grams per liter of residual sugar (the sugar level after fermentation has run its course); the Höpler Trockenbeerenauslese 2007, Burgenland, contains 214.1 grams per liter of residual sugar, and you feel it in the wine’s massively ripe opulence and succulence, in its sense of softly dissolving grapes and skins, of macerating peaches and apricots liquifying in spiced brandy, of smoky pomanders and crème brûlée and tangerine clafoutis, of roasted honey and orange marmalade. This dazzling panoply of nectar is saved from cloyingness by a tremendous charge of limestone-like minerality and by acidity that feels electrified. “Exquisite” scarcely begins to describe this wine, made completely from sämling 88 grapes. The alcohol content is 11.5 percent. Drink now through 2015 to ’17. Excellent. About $52 for a 375-milliliter half-bottle.

USA Wine Imports, New York
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The SantoWines Vinsanto 2003, Santorini, Greece — the company also deals in capers, fava beans and tomato products as well as non-dessert wines — is a blend of 70 percent assyrtiko and 30 percent aidani grapes, both widely grown on the island of Santorini; the wine was bottled in 2008 and is throwing a sediment. The color is medium amber with a translucent rim; the bouquet offers aromas of toffee, roasted raisins and toasted almonds, fruit cake and a sort of Platonic cinnamon toast. These beguiling qualities segue into the mouth, where such flavors are a little torn between a very sweet entry and an achingly dry finish. Let’s call it an enjoyably rustic version of vinsanto that just misses essential balance. 11 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $40 for a 500-milliliter bottle.

Stellar Importing Co., Whitestone. N.Y. Image, slightly cropped, from Benito.

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I have a quartet of reserve wines from the estate of Gustave Lorentz, founded in 1836, to taste and write about, and by all logic I should write about them together, but our dinner last night was so good and the wine so delectable that I will throw reason out the window and get down to it.

LL has made shrimp risotto countless times, yet for some reason last night’s rendition was particularly memorable; I’ll go ahead and say perfect.

I opened the Gustave Lorentz Reserve Pinot Blanc 2009, from Alsace, and while the risotto and the wine did not match perfectly — the risotto needed something a little juicier — there was no doubt that the wine was a beguiling tissue of subtleties. Fermentation occurs in vats of wood, steel and glass, and the wine rests five months in tank. So, first, a pale straw-gold color and aromas of roasted lemon and lemon balm, something slightly smoky, a touch of jasmine, and after a few moments, hints of quince and ginger; exquisite delicacy in the mouth, but riven by a taut core of clarion acidity and, again after a few moments, damp limestone, revealing, as it were, both tinsel and tensile strength; then nuances of spiced green tea and a bit of orange rind; all leading to a dry, spicy yet elegant finish. Absolutely lovely. Alcohol content is 12.5 percent. Drink now through 2013 to ’15, carefully stored. Excellent. About $20, a Great Value.

While writing this post, I have a glass of the wine next to me, and I’m nibbling a dry, nutty sliver of Piave Nuda Stravechia cheese. It works beautifully.

Imported by Quintessential, Napa, Cal. A sample for review.

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