***3/9/18 Since the publication of this post, Chef Joe Flamm just won the title of Top Chef. From my experience below, Chef Flamm was very friendly and his food was thoughtful and tasty. There is not a show for Top Somm but if there was Rachael Lowe would win it. My experience below was several years ago but the consistency of hospitality at Spiaggia is incredible they treat everyone with warmth, friendliness and deliver high quality food and wine and you leave happy.
I have had Italy on the brain lately. Yes, I tend to have both France and Italy on the brain a lot. On facebook and instagram I have noticed recently posts about Italy from friends on trips there and the Slow Food people are documenting their Terra Madre experiences and their travels through Tuscany and Piedmont afterwords.
Italy is a beautiful place and the most biodiverse country in Europe. It is blessed with a unique geology that is reflected in the diversity of soils and the landscape. The soils, mountains, volcanoes, rivers, sea coasts, islands and climates together create terroirs that are reflected in the 1800 wine grape varietals that exist and the 330 DOCs.
Being both a wine and internet nerd, when I saw that Spiaggia Chicago was starting to offer monthly wine experiences on the first Tuesday of every month with their incredible sommelier Rachael Lowe, I hopped right on it and signed up. The next best thing to actually visiting Italy is sipping Italy and that is what I did.
The event took place at 5pm in the lounge. The restaurant had that night before Christmas feel, staff were polishing glasses and preparing for the evenings reservations. The lounge has a spacious, airy feel to it that immediately transports you to a Spiaggia/Italy bubble and away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Rachel Lowe, the sommelier and beverage director lead the event.
One of the reasons that I signed up was that I knew Rachael was really knowledgable about wine. Meeting her, she was just really friendly, humble and nice. Little did I realize until today in the midst of putting this post together that she has won a gizillion wine awards if you read her bio on the Spiaggia site.
It is basically impossible to sip across Italy with only 6 wines given the diversity of grapes. However, Rachael put together a stellar selection of wines, many that she offers BTG at the restaurant. We started with whites.
A Terra di Gioia Friuli Grave Sauvignon Blanc, a Monte Carbonare Suavia 100% Garganega and a Su’Entu Vermentino di Sardegna. Chef Joe Flamm paired them with oysters. Later while I was still tasting the whites he brought out a selection of cheeses with a very decadent rosemary honey drizzled on the plate.
In terms of small indulgences in life, carefully selected cheese with high quality wine is one of those!
Rachael patiently took me through each of the whites. From the Italian Wine Specialist program I had learned that some of the best Sauvignons in the world come from Friuli because of the huge diurnal swings and cold climate. The Soave came from a particular property in the Veneto with rich black volcanic soils . I was ,also, aware that of the island wines, the best vermentino come from Sardinia. Needless to say, I was excited to go through these wines. I still have not mastered the art of fast note taking but the aromas Rachael was able to detect in the wines was pretty incredible: things like tarragon, lime blossom and the herbaceousness without it being overly grassy of the sauvignon. She said she likes to encourage people to try the Soave over the eponymous Pinot Grigio. The Soave had delicate hints of underripe stone fruit and subtle floral aromas. In the Vermentino she noted notes of tropical fruits and banana. I think a lot of people and I am one of them, note the aromas but cannot process them quickly to articulate what you are smelling. Once she pointed out the aroma, I totally understood and got what she was talking about.
Then she brought out a wine surprise, one being this oaked Tuscan Rhone blend of viognier & roussanne. The previous whites had little to no oak, so this was a good example of the difference in flavor and texture when it comes to oak. The notes of vanilla and toast were immediately noticeable but not overly. Yet another delicious, unusual wine.
At this point I was already wine overwhelmed by the quality of the producers. Now onto the reds.
Castello di Ama Chianti Classico 2014, Barolo Riserva ‘Rocche dell’Annunziata,’ Franco Molino, La Morra, Piemonte 2009 ($28 BTG) , Amarone della Valpolicella Classico ‘Morar,’ Valentina Cubi, Veneto 2006 ($30 BTG), and she brought out another wine surprise, a Piombaia Brunello di Montalcino 2005.
My noting taking was rapidly deteriorating because at some point it was all about just appreciating the wine and the food. Chef Joe Flamm brought out pork belly on a stick.
Each of the reds were top examples for their DOCGs. She compared the Brunello to the Chianti Classico to show the differences in sangiovese clone and terroir. On the nose the Brunello had aromas of wet leaves and earth. She suggested meats like wild boar to accompany it whereas with the Chianti lighter pasta dishes with tomato. It is not everyday that you see a cru Barollo BTG. She likes the 2009 vintage because it was warm and makes the wine more inviting and less austere in terms of harsh tannins. I was aware that La Morra was noted for more floral, feminine styled Barolos. She pulled out aromas of black tea, allspice, along with red flowers. At this point of the evening, with all these incredible Italian red wines in front of me, I was in wine heaven. Each of the wines had its own unique character reflective of the very specific places where the grapes were grown and the wine-making techniques and traditions.
I had always kind of put Spiaggia on a high fine dining pedestal, it was “the place that Obama dined” and a place for only super special occasions. But what I realized from this experience is that it is now far more approachable than I thought. The lounge as I mentioned is comfortable and airy. The thing that Spiaggia has is its fine dining history, its contacts within the Italian wine and food community worldwide and its wine cellar. It is much more financially prohibitive to put deep wine cellars together these days.
Tony Mantuano has a very deep team of highly knowledgable yet very down to earth people in terms of the ins and outs of Italian wine and food. This is yet another place in Chicago where the entire staff are enthusiasts of all things enological. One more thing to go on my list, the food and wine pairing that Rachael and Joe put together for the tasting menu.
I paid to go this event, you can to at their website here. They are having a pretty incredible sounding event next week to raise money for the Lynn Sage Foundation in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and to celebrate the Women of Wine and Food in Chicago.
Enjoy a five-course tasting menu with wine pairings by Rachael Lowe and participating restaurant Sommeliers. Rachael Lowe | Cafe Spiaggia Liz Martinez | Purple Pig Sian Ferguson | Alinea Liz Mendez | Vera Rachel Driver Speckan | City Winery. Some of the most well-known women in Chicago’s wine world will be pouring Italian wines from all female producers while guests will enjoy a tasting menu presented by Breckin VanRaalte of Café Spiaggia.
Sometimes what is old becomes new and I think that is what has happened to Spiaggia and Cafe Spiaggia. It is pretty darn expensive to travel to Italy and not everyone has their own cellars full of Barolo and Brunellos. But you can sip a really beautiful Barolo BTG, have some of Joe’s tasty food and just enjoy the incredible space that Spiaggia is in with a friend, for date night or to just treat yourself. I know I will be back for round 2 next month.