Every first Wednesday of the month, Ambrosia Restaurant & Bar owner, Armen Kevrekian, unclips the rope that blocks the stairwell to the underground tasting room and private dining room, and invites wine and food enthusiasts to join him in the cellar for samples of hand selected wines and chef prepared appetizers.
I’ve always loved the warm and inviting ambience of Ambrosia, which is eclectically furnished and housed in an early 1900’s brick building on the corner of Pearl and Broadway in downtown Eugene. The ceilings are high, the walls are exposed brick, and the separation of space and multi-level dining add character to its cozy atmosphere. Armen had recently remodeled the downstairs tasting room, so I was excited to experience my first Italian themed First Wednesday Wine Tasting in the new cellar. As I headed down the stairs to the wine and food destination, I noticed numerous ‘Award of Excellence’ plaques along the walls from Wine Spectator.
Wine Spectator is a wine culture and lifestyle magazine that offers readers hundreds of wine reviews and tasting notes conducted by a panel of well-known wine critics. They also have a Restaurant Review Program where restaurants around the world are given awards based on their wine lists, and Ambrosia has no shortage of awards from this critically acclaimed program.
Once inside the newly remodeled tasting room, I noticed a beautiful mural of a barrel filled winery painted along the wall behind the tables that were meticulously lined with the 10 selected Italian wines for the evenings tasting. Rustic chandeliers which hung from the exposed rafters offered dim, romantic lighting, and much to my surprise, there were windows along one end of the room that looked out at a brick wall that was about 3 feet away from the buidling, which allowed in natural light from above. Along the windowed wall, there was a buffet set-up with appetizers for guests to enjoy with their wine, and an acoustic guitarist played quietly on the other side of the long, rectangular shaped room.
Before receiving a sample of the first suggested wine, we were introduced to Tom from Small Vineyards Imports. Small Vineyards Imports supplied the hand-selected wines for this Italian tasting, and when I say ‘hand-selected’, I mean the wines were personally selected by Tom and his business partner, Josh, while they were on one of their many trips to Italy to discover and select exceptional, family owned, hand-harvested, small production wines.
Their philosophy, which is stated on their website is, ‘Tappo-a-Tappo’: “Tappo-a-Tappo means ‘Cork-to-Cork’ in Italian, and the concept is simple: from the time the winemaker puts the cork into the bottle, until the time the consumer pulls it out, Small Vineyards has ‘connected the dots’ in between. We connect the people who make the wine with those who enjoy it, by telling the story of each artisan, their family, and their estate. We do this because we believe the story of the wine is just as important as the wine itself–it’s a reflection of the place it comes from and the folks who make it.” Tom offered guests a map of Italy showcasing the Italian wine regions, and pointed out that Italians make wine for only one reason: to consume while enjoying foods that come from the same soil where the grapes were grown. He suggested that whenever purchasing a bottle of Italian wine, google the region that the wine is from in order to learn about the foods that are eaten there before deciding what to have with the wine you’ve chosen: that particular wine was produced solely to be consumed with food from that region.
The first wine Tom poured into my glass was a 2010 Soave Classico from the Monte Tondo Estate located in the Veneto region of Italy. A cutting-edge father daughter team produced and created this white wine that was 100% Garganega fruit; it was fragrant, crisp and clean and bursted with apple and mango flavors. The Soave is a great wine on it’s own, and I pictured myself outside, feet up, and sipping this wine on a hot summer day. It was the first of its kind that I’d ever had, and I really enjoyed it’s slight minerality and fruity flavors. At $14 a bottle, and a forecast of 88 degrees for the following day, I knew at first sip that I’d be taking one of these home with me.
The next wine in the line-up was from the Marche region of Italy: a 2010 Marchetti Tenuta del Cavaliere Verdicchio. This was a late harvest white wine, but it wasn’t sweet. It was off-dry, however, and the extra time the grapes spent on the vine added a balanced depth of character and a creamy mouth feel with flavors of melon and honey. While sipping this wine, I noticed on the map that Tom provided, that the Marche region was located on the eastern coast of Italy. I decided to visit the buffet table and try the crab stuffed mushrooms with this wine because it came from a coastal town, and the sea salty crab was an excellent pairing with the off-dry Tenuta del Cavaliere Verdicchio.
For the third wine, we moved on to a 2009 light bodied red from the Veneto wine region: Valpolicella Classico by Giuseppe Lonardi. This wine, that is traditionally enjoyed throughout Venice, was 75% Corvina, 20% Rondinella, and 5% Molinara, the classic red blend of the Veneto region. Unoaked and high on acidity, this wine was somewhat tart with cranberry and almond flavors.
The fourth wine was also a light bodied, high acidic wine, but this one was from the Tuscany region. Made by Allessandro Bocci, owner and winemaker of Perazzeta, this 2009 vintage was named after his daughter, Sara: Sara Rosso Toscano. 90% Sangiovese topped with 10% Ciliegiolo, this wine was bright, yet earthy. The crisp acidity in this wine called for food, so I headed over to the buffet, and picked some meats and cheeses from the antipasto platter, which was a a perfect match with the Sara Rosso Toscana because it immediately toned down the acids.
Wine number five was 100% Montepulciano from the Abruzzo region of Italy. Made by La Quercia Estate and appropriately named Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo, this 2010 vintage was made winemaker Antonio Lamona who scrupulously tended the vines to create one of the finest Montepulciano’s around. After Sangiovese, Montepulciano is Italy’s second most dispersed grape variety in Italy. This was the first Montepulciano I’ve had, and although the level of acidity was much lower than the Sangiovese I had just sampled, this went well with the assorted meats and cheeses too. In stead of toning down this wine, the salami actually brought it to life and enhanced the tannins and flavors.
The next red wine for sampling was the 2009 Arcangelo Primitivo by Palama from the Puglia region. Primitivo, here in the United States, is better known as Zinfandel. I’ve loved Primitivo for many, many years; in fact, the first time I tried a Primitivo was in Italy while visiting there with my parents in my late teens. I remember being surprised by the spicy, peppery tones, so now I constantly compare Zinfandel’s/Primitivo’s to that very first taste, and find that the Primitivo’s I like best will contain some level of spiciness. The Arcangelo Primitivo had the perfect amount of spice combined with blackberry, anise and cedar notes, and I absolutely loved it. Whenever I cook a pork dish at home, I always serve it with Primitivo, so when I noticed the Pork Ravioli on the buffet I knew I was in for a treat. The Pork Ravioli was tender and cooked to perfection, and was entirely perfect with the Primitivo.
Four more to go, the number seven wine was from the Piedmont region made by Eugenio Bocchino calld Tom Langhe Rosso. This 2008 vintage was 70% Barbera and 30% Merlot. Dark ruby red in color and exploding aromas of fresh blackberries, this wine had a surprising and unique cinnamon pie spice finish-it was unlike any Barbera-Merlot blend I’d ever had, and I loved the uniqueness of the berry and pie spice flavors. I headed back to the buffet to see what I could pair with this unique wine, and when I spotted the Baked Brie with Apple Relish, I knew I had found an impeccable match.
The next two wines to try were both from the Tuscany region. One was a 2007 Chianti Classico Riserva from Podere Ciona which was 95% Sangiovese, 4% Merlot and 1% Alicante Bouschet. The other was a 2003 called Brunello di Montalcino from Antonio Sanguineti and was 100% Sangiovese. The Chianti was aged in new, 2nd and 3rd passage French oak barrels for at least 18 months, and the cherry tones mixed with earthy flavors created a well structured wine with depth and character, one that could be aged for years to come.
The Brunello di Montalcino was drastically different than the Chianti Classico, although they both mainly contained the Sangiovese grape. The Brunello had smooth, silky tannins and ripe cherries with hints of coffee bean. Aged 42 months in French Oak, this wine was amazingly gentle, gracious, and approachable. This is a wine that would make a great gift; I can’t imagine anyone who likes red wine turning their nose up at this one.
As usual, the best (and usually, but not always, the most expensive) was saved for last. From Piedmont, this 100% Nebbiolo 2006 Barbaresco Serracapelli from Poderi Elia was truly outstanding. Rumor has it that the word Nebbiolo is derived from the Italian word “nebbia” which means fog, and usually in late October, during harvest, an intense fog sets into the region where the Nebbiolo vineyards. Alternatively, others argue that the grape was named Nebbiolo because of the milky fog-like veil that forms over the grape as they mature.
Nebbiolo’s are known to be highly tannic, and require years of aging before the tannins balance and round out. Although this 2006 Barbaresco Serracapelli had been in the bottle just a few years, it’s tannins were perfectly rounded and the texture was silky smooth and creamy. Toasty oak flavors were intensified by tobacco, truffles, and dark cherry tones. It was light bodied, yet complex with an excellent depth of character – positively the finest wine of the night. There was one item on the buffet that I hadn’t tried yet, the Lamb Meatballs with Tzatziki Sauce. I didn’t purposely avoid the Lamb Meatballs so I could have them with the most anticipated wine of the evening; in fact, I had avoided them because I don’t like lamb. But this Nebbiolo needed food, so I decided to take a chance on the meatballs, and I couldn’t believe how delicious the wine and the lamb were together. The wine seemed to enhance the flavors of the lamb, and in turn the lamb seemed to enhance the flavors of the wine. I’m assuming that because both the wine and lamb were intensely flavorful on their own that it allowed each to benefit one another. For the first time, I enjoyed the flavors associated with lamb that, in the past, had turned me off. So, a sincere “cheers” goes to the chef-they were rich, savory and immensely delicious.
The First Wednesday Wine Tasting at Ambrosia well exceeded my expectations: 10 outstanding wines, delectable food, and an education on Italian regions, varieties, and winemakers–this wine tasting absolutely stood apart from others I’ve participated in. The new tasting room is cozy and inviting, and the whole experience was simply ambrosial; unequivocally, a perfect match for Eugene’s premier downtown restaurant and bar that’s aptly named, Ambrosia.
To join the mailing list for information regarding Ambrosia’s First Wednesday Wine Tastings, please visit: http://www.ambrosiarestaurant.com/wine
174 E. Broadway
— Julia Crowley, EDN