“An Italian wine-tasting would have been considered a joke 30 years ago, particularly of all whites”, confessed the illustrious wine critic Tim Atkin at Enoteca Turi the other night. This excellent Italian restaurant in Putney, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, was paying tribute to the wines of Italy’s most northerly wine regions, Alto Adige and Friuli, and The Wine Wanderers were drawn by the fabulous regional food as well as the sublime and delicate wines.
Alto Adige, also known as South Tirol, the hilly far north of Italy where road signs are also in German and some winemakers still wear lederhosen, is home to the country’s best pinot grigio. This is, however, a grape which has been single-handedly responsible for Italy’s poor reputation for white wines. The cheap supermarket variety grown on the flats is so popular simply because it’s inoffensive, with no distinct taste profile, Atkins rightly pointed out, but give the grape some altitude and a decent winemaker and you have a completely different animal. We loved the 2013 from Hotstatter which was served as an aperitif to complement lovely nibbles like fried potato and cheese cakes and mackerel in sweet-sour sauce.
But it was a pinot bianco from Alto Adige served with a sublime starter of meltingly soft smoked duck breast with horseradish sauce – that Germanic influence again – which really gripped our tastebuds. It was a Vorberg Riserva 2010 from Cantina Terlano, one of the most acclaimed growers in the region. We also enjoyed their Quartz sauvignon bianco 2012 which accompanied a plateful of black cannelloni filled with skrei, the new cod sensation from Norway, and served with cuttlefish ragout – to die for. The Gewurtztraminer Kolbenhof from Hofstatter also served with this course was a reminder that Alto Adige is where this most perfumed of grapes made its name, even though its reputation was perfected in Alsace.
It was to the north-east for the main course; Friuli Venezia Giulia adjoins Slovenia in Italy’s easternmost corner, and makes the same style of delicate, fragrant white wine. We enjoyed the Studio di Bianco 2008 from Borgo del Tiglio with our turbot, scallops and risotto of barley, crab, safron and courgette flower, more even than the very posh Ribollo Gialla Pettarin Colli Orientali del Friuli 2011, which is so rare the restaurant had an allocation of just a handful of bottles.
Finally, also from Friuli, a beautiful dessert wine redolent with dried fruit – Le Vigne di Zamo Vola Vola, which made the most beautiful partner for a berry tart with ginger cream and rhubarb jelly which was like late spring on a plate. If the food at Enoteca Turi threatened to eclipse even these finest of wines, it’s no surprise – their new head chef, Michaele Blasi, helped his last restaurant, Sadler’s in Milan, win two Michelin stars. Lucky Putney-dwellers, having Enoteca as their local – their Italian food is some of the best we’ve eaten in London, and they have a great list showcasing fine wines from every region of Italy.
The Wine Wanderers were looking forward to drinking decent sangiovese, which too rarely makes it to UK supermarket shelves, when they visited Tuscany last week, At its most joyous, a fine Chianti Classico, at its grandest an austere Brunello from Montalcino, in the south of the region.
We were served both at Castello del Nero, an elegant wine-producting hotel whose list has been voted one of the world’s best by The Wine Spectator. The estate is in the heart of the Tuscan Hills overlooking Antinori, known for its Super-Tuscans. These are the fine wines which better producers fielded in the 70s to improve the rep of a region tarnished by a wealth of indifferent chianti in the preceding decades.
Antinori’s Tignanello was among the first of these – 80 per cent sangiovese tempered with 20 per cent cabernet sauvignon. The 2011 vintage was the first wine served at the tasting the Castello lays on for guests – and the only one we actively disliked in three days of sublime tasting. Tough and tannic, it was a relief to move on to Antinori’s Badia a Passignano 2009, one of the most delicious Chianti Classicos we have ever tasted, no doubt reflecting its age and 14 months in oak. Even more toothsome than the Brunello of the same age from La Gerla which completed the tasting.
So much for the reds – it was the whites served during our stay which were the biggest surprises of the trip. Who knew vermentino, more closely associated with Sardinia and LIguria, was also produced in Tuscany? Not us, but now we’ll be on the lookout for La Pettegola vermentino from Banfi, a perfect accompaniment to spinach and ricotta-stuffed tortellini and tiramisu made that morning in a cooking class with the hotel’s Michelin-starred chef, Giovanni Luca di Pirro.
Even more delicious – memorable, in fact – was a white which had nothing to do with Tuscany except pairing beautifully with chef Giovanni’s slow-cooked egg with asparagus and broad been salad served in the Castello’s fine dining La Torre restaurant. The Confini 2012 from Lis Niris in Friuli Venizia Giulia was an incredibly flocal blend of gewurtztraminer, pinot grigio and riseling grapes, a reminder of what elegant and fragrant wines are produced in that sometimes overlooked north-eastern corner of Italy.
Back to the reds – of the Castello’s own production, the use of merlot in their blends gives them a certain seductiveness, and we particularly enjoyed the Levriero, which is 80 per cent merlot, with sangiovese and cab sauv added for a bit of structure. But it’s also worth mentioning that the Castello’s own olive oil is good enough to drink, and supplies are dwindling fast, thanks to the 2014 harvest having failed completely.
The Wine Wanderers have felt silenced these past few months by a visit to Lyon, where we drank just too much wonderful wine and found ourselves divided between the joys of Burgundy and Rhone, a question which also regularly taxes the Lyonnais. But it did remind us of how much we adore a fine, white Burgundy and how nothing quite substitutes for that classy, buttery hit mitigated with a hint of flint which is a simply sumptuous partner for a great piece of fish or a top-class chicken.
Meursault and Montrachet are beyond us at British prices, but our Christmas came early this year courtesy of a Waitrose promotion which included their own-label White Burgundy. Even at the regular price of £8.99, this chardonnay from 40-year-old vines is a steal at any time of year; it tastes as if it should cost at least 50% more, and when regularly promoted at 25% off, like a bottle twice the price.
This is one of the wines we feel moved to buy by the case when on special, and it’s about to be joined by another supermarket find. Sauvignon gris is much less well-known to British imbibers than the sauvignon gris which can be superb at its best but quite indifferent at its worst.
The sauvignon gris just tasted from Brancott, New Zealand winemakers who pioneered the original Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, have come up with a spectacular new wine which has all that “cat’s pee under a gooseberry bush” quality you associate with a great Loire white. Green, mineral and utterly seductive. This IWSC gold medal winner seems a better buy at £10.49 than Brancott’s not so special sauv blanc, and just a shame Sainsburys aren’t listing it yet, though Tesco, ASDA and Ocado, active promoters all, have added it. Will make it in bulk to our own trolleys once we spot it at £8 or less, though worth every penny of the full price.
If sauvignon gris deserves to be better known, so does roussanne, a white grape which usually only makes it into blends yet can be spectacular on its own. I enjoyed my first 100 per cent roussanne in a restaurant in Jaffa two years ago – it was a revelation – and my second a few weeks ago in Tucson’s great western restaurant, Cowboy Ciao. That one was made in Washington state and unlikely to make it over here, but happily the Tabor Adama roussanne from Israel has started shipping here now. Not quite so affordable at £15.99, but it has been available on promotion through Amazon for £14 a bottle, and is worth keeping a lookout for – classy and delicious.
More white wine grapes are being planted in Israel all the time, and producing bottles which are a knockout in the hands of experienced winemakers. Small production has kept prices high, but as wineries get bigger – Tabor had a huge cash injection from Coca-Cola, who have had the sense to give their talented agronomist and winemaker full autonomy, and Dalton, founded by Brits, is one of the largest in Israel making quality wine – affordable bottles really worth drinking are coming on-stream. Watch this space for comment about Dalton’s Fume Blanc, another grape flourishing far from its original home.
When the Wine Wanderers were invited to a dinner matching wines of the Loire to Indian dishes at London’s Cinnamon Club, we had a couple of preconceptions to get our heads around. First, that dry wines make good partners for spicy food – our natural choice would be a gewurtztraminer – and secondly that there was sufficient variety in Loire wines to get excited about.
Laurent Chaniac, the restaurant’s wine buyer, changed our minds, at least to some extent, serving unexpected partners to the delectable dishes at this clubby Westminster restaurant which strives more towards haute cuisine than its rivals in the capital whose Indian food has earned a Michelin star. But we didn’t love all the wines we tasted, certainly not the Savennieres which came with our king prawns with cardamom and green mango-coconut chutney. Chenin blanc is a difficult grape to get right, and we haven’t been able to embrace it since being put off by some horrible domestic vintages when we lived in California.
What the Loire is rightly most famous for is Sancerre, about as perfect a sauvignon blanc as you’ll find to accompany fish and seafood, so no complaints about the 2008 Sancerre Moularde by CC. But when we followed the Cinnamon Club dinner with our own tasting of Loires on the high street, we realised there IS a better Loire white out there than Sancerre, our old favourite Pouilly-Fume, which Chaniac chose not to showcase at the dinner. The “fume” is said to refer either to the flint in the limestone where it grows, or the early morning fog which often blankets the Loire, but either way, it’s just that much more rich and sumptuous than the more austere Sancerre.
We took bottles of both these queens of the Loire to a cottage in Cornwall, where the voluptuous Pouilly-Fume Les Charmelles from Waitrose made a super partner for home-cooked lobster with lemony butter, and we were also impressed by the Signature Poullly-Fume from Morrisons. But a nice Sancerre from M&S wasn’t bad either – we tasted a couple from their selection, of which Le Mont is currently a great buy on a 25 per cent off promotion, bringing the price below £10, a rare opportunity. Also on this promotion is Les Ruettes, which won Gold in this year’s International Wine Challenge.
Before leaving whites, it’s worth noting that cheaper than either Sancerre or Pouilly-Fume, Muscadet is another barely talked-about Loire which makes a great partner for seafood. although it inexpllicably fell out of fashion a couple of decades ago and has never really hit the radar since. It’s invariably better bottled “sur lie”, which means straight from the tankm without filtering. We enjoyed a great bottle of Sainsburys Taste the Difference in this category, outstanding value at £7.
We had been excited about the prospect of tasting a pinot noir, one of our favourite grapes, at the Loire dinner, but were warned those made in this region could be deeply disappointing, and tasting a red Sancerre from M&S, we could see why. Much more successfully cultivated in this region is the cabernet franc grape, the mainstay of both Chinon and Saumur appellations.
The Saumur-Champigny Cuvee Bruyn 2010 by CC was a great partner for Romney Marsh lamb with sesame-tamarind sauce, but at home it’s a whole raft of Chinons from the high street we’ve really enjoyed with light meats like veal and chicken. Notably Les Complices de Loire Les Graviers, though it’s only available in 17 branches of Waitrose, and the more widely available Domaine du Colombier from Sainsburys, a particularly nice drop at £7, two-thirds the price of Les Graviers.
Overall, we feel you can’t go wrong with Muscadet when summer shellfish is on the menu, but if you’re going to push the boat out, a Pouilly-Fume for around the same price as a Sancerre delivers extra richness. And that Chinon can be a perfect summer red, so long as you appreciate that it’s meant to be light, elegant and slightly chalky and totally different from the rich, ripe fruity reds of the south.