Heaven for oenophiles

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By The Glass

I was enthralled no end gazing at unopened bottles of some of my dream wines to taste — Chateau Latour 1936, Chateau Petrus 1961, Domaine de Romanee Conti La Tache 1978, Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1982, and Screaming Eagle Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 — all in one room. These five bottles are worth over P4,000,000 (… yup, not a typo), and are some of the most outstanding wines ever made, not to mention, their rarity given the old vintages. But there is much more as these wines are just five among the over 2,000 wine labels the uberly luxurious Okada Manila Casino Hotel carries in its wine list.

Up until my visit to Okada Manila a few weeks back, I never knew a wine list of this magnitude even existed outside the private cellars of hard core wine collectors. But certainly for the Philippines, and most probably even all of Asia, this would be the wine list to beat.

I remembered some of the best wine lists (prior to my visit to Okada) I had seen in Asian countries I frequently visited, including at Blu (before it was closed down) of Shangri-La Hotel Singapore, and Restaurant Petrus of the Island Shangri-La, Hong Kong. These two Shangri-La hotel fine-dining restaurants may have better by-the-glass programs, but neither come close to the depth and breadth — including the insane verticals of the most iconic wine brands — of the Okada Manila Casino Hotel wine list.

I met with the very affable Damien Planchenault, the new Okada Manila senior wine manager, and formerly a regular fixture in another nearby casino hotel, to talk about the Okada Manila wine list. Damien, an elite French oenophile himself, had also never seen so much Grand Cru Classe Medoc, Premier Grand Cru Saint-Emilion, Domaine de Romanee Conti and Petrus vintages in one place — and now he is proudly the head of serving these wines to the most discerning, or perhaps the more pompous, customers of the Okada Manila.

Instead of a thick Bible-like wine book, the wine list is presented in an iPad for added convenience. On the iPad, guests can browse through two wine sections: the casual wine list, and the collector’s wine list. From the names alone, it is obvious that mere mortals with a budget ceiling (like most of us) will be looking at the casual wine list, and choosing from an extensive list of over a few hundred labels. But for those who can afford it, or who just won a jackpot in the casino, the collector’s list deserves a very serious look.

The iPad wine list is extremely friendly to use. A wine’s name can be typed into the internal search engine, and the wine, its label, the available vintages and the price will pop out. Wines can also be selected by country and by region. And, of course, Damien and his two Filipino sommeliers, Marmi Navarro and Jose Carlos Tongco (both coming from other hotels too), are more than happy to also offer their assistance.

However, if you are like me and want to see and touch the wines physically before ordering, and the wine you are interested in is from the collector’s list, then one of the sommeliers will take you to the collector’s room — this is the room right after the reception area of the La Piazza fine-dining Italian restaurant. From this room, the chosen wine will be taken out of a locked wine cabinet for your viewing and buying pleasure.

Of the over 2,000 wine labels, around 80% come from the Okada family private collection — many of which are rare finds and are therefore only available in this hotel. The 80% are all fine wines and worth a staggering P110 million. Aside from the five wines I singled out at the beginning of this column, the collection also includes multiple vintages of all the five first Growths from the 1855 Bordeaux classification: Chateau Lafite, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild (since 1973), and Chateau Latour, and also all the four Premier Grand Cru Classe A from the latest Saint-Emilion classification of 2012: Chateau Cheval-Blanc, Chateau Ausone, Chateau Angelus, and Chateau Pavie.

Aside from Bordeaux, the list also has amazing range of Burgundy, Rhone, and Champagne. Outside of France, some of the biggest names from Italy, Spain, and Napa California are also well represented.

Spain’s most iconic wine label, Vega Sicilia Unico from Ribera del Duero, has several vintages dating back decades. Top super Tuscans from Masseto, Solaia, Sassicaia, Ornellaia, and Tignanello are also in this surreal list. The oldest red wine in this mammoth list is the Chateau Latour 1936, and the oldest white wine is the Chateau Yquem 1940.

The most expensive wine in the Okada Manila list is Domaine de Romanee Conti’s flagship wine, Romanee Conti 1978, which is being sold in the hotel at a whopping P5,295,200. The La Tache 1978, one of the five wines I listed as among my dream wines in the intro paragraph is relatively cheaper at P1,820,300. I am still in awe of all these superb wines being available in one place.

The remaining 20% of Okada Manila’s wines are bought from its accredited local wine importers. These are the wines that constitute the entire casual wine list, inclusive of all the higher turnover wine-by-the glass programs currently being run by the hotel, as well as fine wines that the current wine team, led by Damien and his sommeliers, feel can plug the gap of whatever minor tweaks are needed to further enhance their seemingly unduplicatable wine list.

Of the current 11 dining outlets, Okada Manila’s de facto fine dining restaurant is La Piazza Ristorante Italiano, though many Okada regulars would point to the two Japanese outlets: the high-end, small (only nine seats) sushi bar Ginza Nagaoka, and Michelin-star chef Hiro Imamura’s eponymous Kappou Imamura, as equally fine-dining, price-wise. La Piazza is a very elegant, stylistic, comfortable, roomy 120-seat restaurant that comes with an unparalleled view of the famous, colorful, Las Vegas-like Okada dancing water fountain show.

One-Michelin star chef Gleb Snegin is the chef de cuisine of La Piazza Ristorante Italiano. Born and raised in Russia, Chef Gleb moved to Milan, Italy in 2001 and has built his culinary reputation on his passion for Italian cuisine. His resume reads like a book, with culinary stints at some of the most reputable restaurants in all of Italy. By 2010, he spread his cooking influence into Asia, with chef positions in Tianjin, China, Singapore, and Macau where his Terrazza Italian restaurant at the Galaxy Casino Hotel earned one Michelin star.

The menu may not be as extensive as other Italian restaurants in competing hotels, but it has a broad enough selection. It takes less time to go through the menu too to select your courses. From the very small sample dishes I had, my two immediate favorites are: 1.) Carpaccio di polpo con caponata or octopus carpaccio on top of eggplant. This was a chef’s recommendation as I was used to the very traditional carpaccio di manzo (beef carpaccio), and, indeed, when I tasted this, the polpo carpaccio was not only much lighter, but deliciously tangy because of chef’s liquorice mayo. I never thought eggplant could go so well with octopus; 2.) Costollete D’Angelo con ceci or lamb chop with chickpeas. I was with my business colleague when we both ordered this lamb dish, and we both agreed this was one of the best lamb chops we had ever had in the country. The meat was pan-seared perfectly and oozing with its natural succulent juice, and smartly complemented by the chickpeas, tomato confit, horn peppers, and shallots. The price is actually quite competitive with the other casino hotel menus.

La Piazza is a must place to visit for oenophiles, epicureans, and gastronomes. Even if one cannot afford to buy the fine wines from the Okada collection, the collector’s wine room is right there for one to marvel at. The food is as top quality as you can get, and, adding the conducive ambience and the water fountain show in the backdrop, this is absolutely a dining experience hard to match.

While they say money cannot buy dreams, but if you have a P1 million or so to spare, a nice three-decade-old Chateau Petrus may at least give you a piece of wine heaven…

La Piazza Ristorante Italiano is open daily from 6 p.m. to midnight. For reservations, call (02) 555-5799.

The author has been a member of the Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux or FIJEV since 2010. For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at protegeinc@yahoo.com. He is also on Twitter at twitter.com/sherwinlao.