“In France, it’s never a complete meal unless you have two things: wine and dessert.” Inside this bottle is both.
There will always be that one dish that will change your perception of how a particular meal is prepared. With liquor, it’s always a bottle – usually a small, quirky one, that changes your entire worldview of how a drink should be enjoyed. In my personal journey with alcoholic libations it was a bottle of Lagavulin 16 that introduced me to the nuances of peated whiskey and a bottle of Four Pillars that made pairing gin with a proper tonic a science. I haven’t experienced a similar feeling with wine, until that one night in November when I dropped by La Piazza, Okada Manila’s Italian restaurant and wine cellar.
What I thought would be a normal run off the mill tasting and pairing took an interesting turn towards dessert. The featured wines for the evening were from the Klein Constantia Estate, with 300 years of history making wines. Founded in 1685, the estate is located at the southernmost tip of the continent. Their most famous bottle is a natural sweet wine called Vin de Constance. I will just lift the description of this wine from their website, because there is no better way to say it,
“Kings vied for possession of this wine; Louis Philippe sent emissaries from France to fetch it; Napoleon drank it on the island of St Helena to find solace in his lonely exile; Frederick the Great and Bismarck ordered it; and the English Prime Minister – who had sampled it with much delight at Downing Street – made sure that regular consignments from the Cape were delivered to Buckingham Palace for the King.”
“A wine like this can only be grown at the estate,” says Hans Astrom, Executive Vice Chairman & Partner of Klein Constantia. “It is called a natural sweet wine because the grapes have to be cool when picked, so they do this in the very early morning when it is very cold. There is nothing artificial added. No sugar added, not like in other sweet wines.”
I was drinking a wine with over 300 years of history. A wine that has also tasted the lips of Napoleon and Frederick the Great. Right here in this Italian restaurant where a date for two will only set you back less than P2,000. What a deal.
“Damien, tell me about this. Why is this so good?”
Damien Robert Planchenault, sommelier for La Piazza sits down beside me and pours himself a glass.
“What you have in front of you is very special, very one of a kind. Wine does not need to be expensive to be good. Expensive wine is like the Batmobile. Would you drive the Batmobile? No, but because there’s only one that is why it is expensive.”
Everyone else can drive Honda or Toyota and be perfectly happy.
Car allusions aside, Damien says that Vin de Constance is good because you had it after a meal and that helps. If the weather is hot and you’re by the poolside, the hotel won’t serve you a heavy red wine. Instead they look for a light wine that goes well when served chilled. “You want the guest to come back and say ‘I want one more please.’ That is how you know you paired well.”
The evolution of taste
The wine market today is very different from before. It’s quite similar to the way coffee has elevated itself into a 3rd wave movement. “Back then we would ask what wine do you want to drink? Chile? French? Old world? New world? Now it has more to do with taste — ah! You like Cabarnet Souvignon? You like dry? Light? Sweet?” Then from there, the sommelier recommends. It has more to do with looking at similar wines you have tried in the past to match what you can enjoy in the future.
For instance, one of the most notable wines that evening (apart from that amazing Vin de Constance) was a KC White, Klein Constantia 2018 paired with caprese (mozzarella salad). It was crisp and had the typical sweetness of a white wine but just enough body to not be overwhelmed for an appetizer. Out of curiosity I google-ed the bottle was less than P600.00 online.
I think the beauty of wine appreciation and pairing necessitates how extensive the cellar is, because you can only try as much as they have. The La Piazza restaurant at Okada Manila is the cellar. Instead of walls, you have chillers lined with literally hundreds of bottles. So, if in the near future you need to educate yourself in wine appreciation, this is definitely one of the better places in Manila to go for that.
This piece originally appeared at the Manila Bulletin’s lifestyle section.