Absinthe Makes The Heart Grow Fonder

Both vilified and adored; brace yourself for the return of the controversial ‘green fairy’
By Edwin Soon; as published in Robb Report

Edgar Degas dedicated his painting L’Absinthe to it. In Spain, Ernest Hemingway drank copious amounts of it, then proceeded to race with bulls… and survived. Marilyn Manson, creator of Mansinthe, his own award-winning brand of the spirit, attributes his inspiration and grotesque stage persona to absinthe. But the uber famous imbiber of all time has to be Vincent van Gogh – he managed to sever his own ear whist in the depths of an absinthe binge. Over the years, absinthe has been touted as an elixir by some; a cure for malaria, while others condemned it as the ‘root of all evil’. Taboo notwithstanding, many a famous persona has been linked to it. Amongst them; Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Franklin Roosevelt, Frank Sinatra, Liza Minelli and Johnny Depp.

It was not van Gogh’s brazen act that led to absinthe’s prohibition. But the few incidents where the spirit took the blame for crimes committed. Most sensational of all was the case in Switzerland in 1910 that an alcoholic who murdered his family, cited absinthe as his favourite tipple. Soon after, the spirit was banned in the country. The Netherlands, France and the US soon followed. The object of so much fervor wasn’t absinthe itself – a greenish looking spirit of 14 herbs, including licorice and anise but the presence of thujone in Artemisia adsinthium, or grand wormwood, an herb from which the spirit is derived. Thujone (similar in chemical structure to Tetrahydrocannibinol, the active ingredient found in marijuana) causes hallucinations.

Still, most other Europeans continued to drink it but somehow the green spirit fell out of favour in the 1960s. Interesting – that at its heyday a century prior, come 5p.m. l’heure verte (the green hour) would be declared in bars, bistros, cafes and cabarets across France. Everyone, from the wealthy bourgeoisie as well as the working class would indulge in the spirit.

The pendulum has swung again and in the 1990’s the European Union countries began manufacturing absinthe. The US even started to distill absinthe in 2007.

Absinthe was illegal in Singapore until November last year. The reason why the ban was lifted boiled down to good science. A review by the relevant authorities showed that thujone levels in absinthe do not exceed 10 parts per million in liqueurs containing more than 25% alcohol. In layman terms, the effects of the drug were too dilute to have any real effect and absinthe was safe after all to drink.

Intrigued to finally try the green fairy? How you enjoy it would depend if you are a traditionalist of modernist. Traditionally, a sugar cube is placed on a slotted spoon, water is drizzled over the sugar into a glass containing absinthe. Watch as the resulting milky greenish drink called la fee verte or the green Fairy-Muse makes its appearance!
For a modern twist, you might like to try an Absinthe Minded (served with gin, orange liqueur and vermouth) or a Hemingway (served with champagne).

Who knows what the green fairy might unleash inside of you!

Restaurant Absinthe stocks 16 kinds of absinthe
46 Bukit Pasoh Road, Singapore 089858. Tel 6222 9068

Aoki Restaurant – A Feast Fit for an Emperor

published in Peak Gourmet & Travel

If the world as you knew it was coming to an end, you could do worse than have your last dinner at Aoki Restaurant. This is after all, the chef that’s fed Emperor Akihito. Just remember to make reservations first. Utter to chef Aoki, ‘omakase’ – loosely translated as ‘you choose how to feed me’ and you will be taken on a sublime culinary journey of traditional Japanese dishes. To accompany your feast, nothing but the finest sake will do. There’s the rare Jyuyondai ‘Ryusen’ jyunmai daiginjyo and even rarer Isojiman Nakatori jyunmai daiginjyo 35% – surely the grand crus of sakes. If it’s a Domaine Romanee Conti 1957 you’re more inclined to, why, most certainly, but then again, there’s also that Imperial of Latour 1982 you’ve always wanted to try. After all Aoki is co-owned by the Les Amis Group and the French restaurant’s cellars are right next door. And since this is your last meal, you won’t even bat an eyelid when the bill is presented.

For Nipponophiles and lesser beings destined to live longer, lunch is the order of the day. And at Aoki, all set lunches come with a beginning and an end. It opens with a salad of fresh and crisp greens, baby tomatoes, dressed with soy vinaigrette. And to close, there is always a trio of desserts. Typically, one each of pumpkin custard, plum jelly and melon sorbet. Omaksase is also offered at lunch, just be prepared to indulge a bit longer.

Your choice of lunch mains depends on how much you are prepared to eat. On the menu you’ll have the choice of either a seven-piece or nine-piece sushi meal. The former costs less than the price of a French set lunch.

The full-size Mazechirashi bowl is the best looking and best tasting in town. You get sushi rice topped with a selection of sashimi, sea urchin eggs, salmon eggs plus seaweed, pickles and more. A cornucopia of colours, shapes and tastes – and each mouthful brings on a mélange of different flavours depending on how much of and what you pick up with your chopsticks. The exceptional value here is that whist one usually gets sushi end cuts going into one’s chirashi, Aoki’s sashimi is so superior, (fish is flown in from Tokyo’s prestigious fish marker four times weekly) you’ll end up savouring every morsel.

Beautifully presented is the Shokado set, featuring sashimi (chutoro, hotate, ama ebi, hamachi and more) steamed vegetables, tempura, rice, soup and dessert – all served up in a lacquer box. The more generous version is called Taian Bento.

Whilst Aoki specialises in fruits de la mer Japanese style, there are seasonal menus and also other offerings of cooked food ranging from Wagyu Sirlion and deep-fried Sole. The shiromi shio kombu kuro truffle (white fish sashimi with truffles) or the toro niniku shio (tuna sashimi with garlic and salt) are seductive specialities. The former is reminiscent of truffled chicken whilst the latter, could be passed off for carpaccio! There are also noodles, Shabu Shabu and Sukiyaki for those seeking heartier options.

Seating 47, the décor embodies the essence of Zen minimalism, of natural wood and rice paper. There are also three booths and two private rooms. The best seats remain the ones at the counter – fifteen of them, with a ringside view of flashing knives and artists at work. Regulars request seats at the right side – that is where Aoki stations himself. Middle and to the left, are his two sous chefs.  Even if all the ingredients used are similar, the sushi that is closest to perfect, is the one crafted by the grand master himself.

Service is friendly, helpful and never intrusive. Reservations are highly recommended, days ahead especially for lunch.

Aoki Restaurant
Address: 1 Scotts Road #02-17, Shaw Centre, Singapore 228208
Telephone: (65) 6333 8015
Facsimile: (65) 6333-8016

Opening Hours
Mondays to Saturdays    : Lunch 12 noon to 3 p.m. (Last seating at 2.30 p.m.)
Dinner 6.30 p.m. to 11 p.m. (Last seating at 10.30 p.m.)

Dress Code: Smart elegant
Prices:    Lunch S$ 30 +++ per person and above.
Dinner S$165 +++ per person and above.
Corkage: S$30 +++ per 75cl. bottle.

Pretty In Pink

published in Harper’s Bazaar

Harpers Singapore
Harpers Singapore
The North Americans call it ‘blush’. To the Italians the wine is referred to as rosato and in Spain, it is Rosado. They are all pink wines.  But until a few years ago I used to shun them.  How could one ever take a wine, with a frivolous colour such as pink, seriously?

Pink wines are not even a blend of white or red. They are wines that may have been destined to be red but somehow they missed the boat; or to be precise, they do not go through the maceration process. Rosés, as the French call them, are usually made by siphoning off the juice of red grapes after a brief contact with the color-bearing grape skins. Longer contact, known as maceration would turn the wine red.

Not white, not red, the wine must have been an embarrassment for Californian winemakers. During the Gold Rush, the object was to make lots of white wine to quench the thirst of sweaty miners.  The red Zinfandel grape was used but somehow, the wine took on a crimson tinge, making many a winemaker blush because he failed to produce a wine of pure clarity. By the late sixties the jug wines in California were mainly blush – alcoholic and cheap.
In those carefree days, there was no wine snobbism. Anyone hosting a backyard BBQ would have bottles of pink chilling in a bucket.  Those were also the days when I tasted my first wine, a Mateus rose that came in an oversized perfume bottle, which I promptly turned into a candle holder.

One day, at the buffet table, an influential male banker took me aside and whispered, “Pink wines are for women and effeminate men!” Immediately, my full glass of pink disappeared behind a huge platter of chicken wings. Thereafter, I was initiated into the world of big heavy reds. I began drinking classified growths and getting on the mailing lists of rare cult wines which conferred kudos on the drinker. It was the era of see and be seen. Like most men in Singapore, I believed I would never want to be caught holding a glass of pink wine in public – it would be akin to wearing leopard-spotted leotards to a black-tie gala.

It was when I visited the French Riviera that I noticed that everybody enjoyed rosé wines with their grilled Dorade Royale, or cold lobster, or Bouillabaisse or even spicy mutton Cous Cous.  The most brutish of men did not bat even an eyelid on ordering the wine. “Vin de rosé, s’il vous plait,” they would say in low reverberating voices to the sommeliers who would always nod approvingly.

With seafood, red wines interact badly, throwing off a metallic taste in the mouth. Pink wines are the perfect accompaniment to seafoods, especially those served up with sauces whose flavours often overcome the delicate nature of white wines. After France, my days as a closet rosé wine drinker came to an end.

The true wine connoisseur has been known to remark that pink wines can be more appealing than either white or red wines. The colours of rosé wine range from the palest pink to light cherry with a copper tints. And if you tilt the glass and look into them, some even have onion skin hues with purple grey edges – the hallmark of a fine wine. It is no wonder that some pink wines have taken names such as “vin gris” (“gray wine”) or “oeil de perdrix” (“partridge eye”). In fact, one can colour-coordinate pink wines to many foods. Rosé Champagne is the perfect partner for salmon even in taste.

Taste wise, pink wines combine the cool refreshment of a white wine with ripe berry flavours and textures of light red wine. This means you can not only drink them at lunch but also enjoy them on a sweltering tropical evening when the alternative, a red wine would send you to sleep.

French rosé is generally made from grape varieties such as Grenache, Cinsault and Mourvedre although you could get pink wines from any red grape. The Italians might make pink wines from Sangiovese to go with their antipasti, whilst the Spanish Garnacha-based or Tempranillo-based rosados are quite delicious. If the Australian versions are similar to the European wines, the American ‘white zinfandel’ or blush is often sweeter.

These days, Californians too, drink blush without turning red. In fact, the dryer Californian rosés have moved from the BBQ-patio to cooler places, appearing in cocktails called “Sex on the Beach” or “Moon Light Swim.”  I have only gone so far as to serve pink wine on the rocks. But I always have rosé on Valentine’s Day (it matches the roses) but most of all, it is the perfect wine for pepper crab!

Que Syrah Shiraz

published in Wine & Dine Magazine

Wine & Dine
Wine & Dine
Shiraz has been said to be Australia’s contribution to the wine world.  It is indeed the most widely planted red vine ‘Down Under’. It was John Busby who first took cuttings of Syrah vines from Rhone’s Hermitage village in France to Australia, naming the vines Shiraz. Syrah as the noble grape of the Rhone region in France is currently being enthusiastically adopted in South Africa, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, California and even in Italy and Spain. Even Chapoutier, one of Rhone’s top producers in France has even begun to make Shiraz in Australia. California is next on his list.

There is a rekindling in tastes for the wines made from Shiraz/Syrah. Perhaps because they always present a sunny disposition. Wines are often concentrated with heady aromas, ripe sumptuous flavours of plum, spice and herbs – the flavours of summer. That the Syrah grape thrives in Mediterranean sun perhaps explains its origins in Iran where wines were first made in the Middle East.  History has it that the Romans brought the grape to the Rhone Valley where it was planted on a hill called Hermitage.

It was said that Louis XIV as a token of royal affection presented Hermitage wines to his cousin, England’s Charles II. The present opened up the shipping route of Rhone wines by a canal to Bordeaux where the wines went on to Northern Europe. Lord Hervey, the Earl of Bristol who on tasting the wines of Rhone, pronounced them to be so delicious that he started the trend for drinking Hermitage in England. Eventually, London merchants in the 18th Century also took to blending Syrah with their top Bordeaux wines to increase the Bordeaux wine’s appeal and value – as an example, Lafite-Rothshild.

Why Shiraz is not as famous as Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir/Burgundy, has less to do with the quality of the wines and more to do with its ubiquity, especially in Australia. Perhaps too much of a good thing is seldom appreciated.   Turn to France, and Syrah is used as blending material in the Southern Rhone for Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. Whilst the Cinsault grape variety provides finesse and fragrance, the Mourvedre grape, an expressiveness and structure, the Syrah is prized in the blend for its colour, fragrance and its propensity to impart great longetivity in the wine.

Northern Rhone producers, who use a much high percentage of Syrah play down the varietal name by using village and vineyard names for their wines. But it is their prerogative for the Hermitages and Cote Rotie villages.  If their wines make their impact from the taste of  ‘terrior’ in the wines, then it makes sense to name the wines after the villages for the wines from each village is different. Or for that matter, different vineyards – compare the individual vineyard wines of La Landonne and La Turque, both made by Guigal and you will detect distinct contrasts.

Winemaking of Syrah is a contentious issue. In the Rhone, (Cote Rotie, St. Joseph, Crozes Hermitage, Hermitage and Cornas) some producers, ferment grapes with all their stalks at high temperatures, in order to incorporate terrior flavours. The resulting wines that have been matured in large oak casks for 2 years or more, are full bodied, strong and tough. With bottle age, they grow into aromatic and smooth wines.

Other producers prefer to destem the grapes, ferment using temperature control and mature wines in small oak casks with some re-blending of wines not treated with oak.  The wines are medium bodied and have been described as more elegant than the previous style, closer to the new world winemaking style.

Australians who have experimented with just about all the techniques available in the vineyard and winery refute the French notion of terroir, proposing that old, low-yielding vines play a more important role in quality. At most they accede that recent experiments in the New World with cool climate growing of the vine have resulted in some variations of the wine style – Australian Clare Valley (cool-climate) wines have a big structure allied to elegance, compared to the big, complex full-flavoured Barossa Valley (hot-climate) wines.

With the disparity of approaches as to new or old techniques, (with die-hard winemakers that insist on clinging on to the traditional Rhone methods, some insisting on only new and others are advocating a blend of old and new) three major styles have emerged from Australia.

One style is from grapevines that are dry-grown or non-irrigated.  Because they are not physiologically ripe in tannins, the grapes go through a maceration (crushed grapes soaking in their juice) prior to a long fermentation at high temperatures for tannin and colour extraction. Marketed as ‘basket-press’ (where employed, traditional hand presses that extract more tannins than modern hydraulic bag presses), the wines achieve just as much following as the modern styled wines. Another style is made from crushed and de-stemmed grapes that are fermented in stainless steel at cool temperatures, then matured in American oak. Yet a third style comes from grapes that are pressed before fermentation is over. Malolactic fermentation is introduced and the wine is left to mature in small French barrels. A variation to the third style, is to let the wines macerate at the end of fermentation.

Shiraz has a disposition to age well. To drink Australia’s flagship wine the Grange, one often has to wait a decade or more.  Of late, winemaking styles have evolved and even concentrated young Shiraz with great power is delicious to drink young. Furthermore, a young Shiraz drinks inordinately like a youthful Cabernet Sauvignons full of fruit and structured tannins, but with age, develops the perfumed elegance and the wild untamed side of Pinot Noirs.

As a result, one finds a variety of styles from Australia, and before too long in the future, also from many other countries. Now that California has joined the Syrah making club, the choice is a spectrum of taste sensations for the consumer. They vary from tarry tannic wines that become earthy and velvety with time, like the Cornas of North Rhone to wines with cherry and pepper essences that are like those of the Southern Rhone wines. Then there are the concentrated wines with berry and vanilla that is a distinct New World style.

To taste the vast variety and styles of Shiraz in one sitting, one could select the following:
Marques De Grinon Dominio de Valdepusa, Spain
Qupe Syrah, California
Te Mata Bullnose Syrah, New Zealand
Graillot Croze Hermitage Laguirode, France
Isole e Olena Syrah, Italy
Saxenberg Shiraz, South Africa
Michelton Peppertree Shiraz, Australia
Charles Melton Nine Popes, Australia
Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf-du-Pape, France

A-Z of Selected Australian Shiraz
Armagh (by Jim Barry) – Concentrated and big wine ranking amongst the best
Bannockburn Geelong – Raspberry, herbs and smoky finish
Chatsfield (Mount Barker) – Serious well balanced wine needing time
Draytons William Shiraz – Rich with mint, plums and cocoa.
Eileen Hardy – Elegant almost European styled wine
Grange (by Penfolds) – The flagship wine of Australia
Henschke Hill of Grace – One of the top five wines of Australia
Jasper Hill Emily’s Paddock – A top classed wine with smooth tannins
Kingston Estate Reserve – A well priced mellow and well made wine
Leasingham Bin 61 – Ripe fruit with balance.
Meshach (by Grant Burge) –  Aspiring to be one of the top wines in the country
Normans Chais Clarendon – Jammy with berry and develops good bottle bouquet
Old Block (by St. Hallett) – A spicy-raspberry wine
Plantagenet (Mount Barker) – Rich with chocolate and stone fruit
Richmond Grove (Barossa) –Complex with hints of licorice
Saltram Mamre Brook – Medium bodied wine that pleases even when young
Torbreck Runrig Barossa – A big serious wine, ranks amongst top wines
Vine Vale (by Peter Lehmann) – Economically priced wine
Wynn (David Wynn Patriarch) –  Structured wine with spice and fruit
Yalumba ‘Octavius’ – A benchmark Shiraz
Zema Estate (Coonawarra) – Fresh fruit and subtle oak.

A-Z of US Syrah
Alban Estate (Edna Valley) – Gamey, herbal style
Beaulieu (Dry Creek) – Cherry and tobacco hints
Columbia Winery (Washington) – Smooth raspberry light style
Dehlinger (Russian River) – Blackberry and oak in a big Australian style
Eberle (Paso Robles) – Ripe  fruit, forward style
Geyser Peak (Sonoma) – Raspberry, earthy wine
Hamel Wines (Russian River) – Mouthfilling tannic wine but bursting with fruit
Karly (Amador County) – Ripe fruit with tannins requiring time in the bottle
Le Cigare Volante (Bonny Doon Winery) – The Rhone Ranger of California
McDowell (Mendocino) – Attractively priced light Petit Sirah and also a serious sweet Syrah produced
Neyers (Napa) – Jammy sweet spiced elegant wine
Ojai (California) – Supple wine with balance of fruit, spice and wood
J. Phelps Vin du Mistral (Napa) – Rhone style with a long finish
Qupe Bien Nacido – One of the benchmark wines of California
Rabbit Ridge (Sonoma) – Approachable young, and with balance
Sierra Vista (El Dorado) – Rich woody, peppery and tannic wine
Terre Rouge (Domaine de la) – A benchmark Syrah
Villa Mt. Eden (Calif) – A strong wine with spicy aromas
Wellington Vineyards (Russian River Alegria Vineyard) – Cherry, spice and firm
Zaca Mesa – Earthy wine with fruit flavours on nose and in the mouth

Shiraz in South Africa
Bertrams, Fairview, Lievland, Stellenzicht and Zonnebloem

Syrah in France
Guigal, Chave, Graillot, Gaillard, Ogier, Allemand, Cuilleron, Verzier, Durand, Clape, Jaboulet, Chapoutier, Vidal-Fleury, Raspail, Les Fils d’Etienne Gonnet (Domaine Font de Michelle), Chateau La Nerthe and the Cave Cooperative of Tain.