We visit Tenuta Grillo and taste some more excellent wine. Then we eat a lot. Again. By Kate
I wake up when we are just down the road from Tenuta Grillo. We turn into the drive which is an avenue of resplendent autumnal yellow so intense it seems to light up the air around us so that we arrive in blaze of glory (look!)
We are here to see Guido Zampaglione who comes from the South. Campania to be exact. He makes a Fiano down there but seven years ago he bought this property because he really wanted to produce wines that could age. He now continues to make his Fiano in Campania but is based here where he grows Cortese, Barbera, Dolcetta, Freisa and a little bit of Merlot. Soils here are so poor that nothing else will grow but his results are already amazingly impressive.
We crunch through a thick layer of tobacco brown oak leaves and acorns, past his different vineyards. The soil is a mixture of clay and sand and most of the vines were about 18 years old when he purchased the estate. Guido has since planted more, all at very high density. He explains that the Cortese particularly needs to be controlled on yields or no good can come of it.
Because of the fact that he and his wife Igea like to do very long macerations here, even for the whites (of which more later), the grapes have to be in the pink of health and so work in the vineyard is meticulous. They also work with very minimal sulphur so, again, only the healthiest grapes need apply.
Fermentation is in stainless steel, epoxy resin, cement and old wood, depending on the variety.
Guido is particularly interested in working with Chestnut but finds it difficult to find good examples. They still don’t season the wood for long enough, apparently.
Fermentation is very hands-off though and apart from letting the juice nestle up to the skins for a protracted time, and making sure that everything runs smoothly, nothing much more is done.
To the tasting.
2006 Pratoasciutto - 100% Dolcetto.
Fresh, lifted black fruit on the nose. It is rare, in my experience, to find Dolcetto this vibrant. Broad, velvet tannins with intense black fruit and liquorice cutting a swathe through the texture. A fresh, pure seam of minerality stretches all the way to the finish as well.
You need to go for girth in the mouth but if you do, this is for you.
Fresh red fruit – cranberries, redcurrents and then something richer but still red, on the nose. On the palate, joltingly pure, sweet red fruit hits first, followed by cranberry acidity and broad-ish, very un-Barbera-esque tannins. The complexity is fantastic – more sweet red fruit, almond kernel and spiced fruit cake towards the back.
This is fabulous, completely different to the Bera Barbera (don’t try saying that after a vinous lunch). It is much more broad-shouldered and muscular but the two are equally delicious. Depends what you are in the mood for.
2003 Pecoranera - Freisa, Barbera, Dolcetta and Merlot.
Spiced red and black fruits on nose. Sweet fruit again, more reticent than the 04. Same chunky, textured tannins with a rich dried red current and black current aromas.
03 was a very atypical year – it was very hot.
It was also several steps below 04 – it lacks the thrilling complexity and I think on balance, I much prefer his single varietal reds.
We bemoan the relative lack of seriously good Barbera in Piedmont It does seem to be slowly changing – today we have tasted two that outdo anything else I know from here – but there is still far more bad than good.
We go on to discuss wines which are easy to drink as distinct from those which appear appealing at first but which never lead to a longing for a second glass. How is it that so many people, producers and consumers alike, have forgotten that wine is something that you drink? It is not a symbol of your towering status. Nor a supposedly more civilized route to oblivion. Not even something to analyse and philosophise over. Just something to drink, easily and with great pleasure, because it tastes really, really good and it goes down a treat.
We taste a Merlot next. Guido wanted to produce only traditional grapes but there was a Merlot vineyard here already and the grapes were good, so he decided to stay with them.
Black fruit and the merest hint of stalk on the nose. Also quite textured tannins but good acidity with fairly generic black fruit. This is not bad wine but it does not sing. There is nothing of the vitality of the Barbera and so, by comparison, it seems slightly pointless.
A plate of bread and crostini arrives. It sits, untouched, in the middle of the table and we move onto the whites.
Tasting white after red is not really orthodox but then, these are not really orthodox whites. They are part of the breed which are fermented on skins throughout and then bottled unfiltered and unfined. While it is true that some horrendous crimes against refined taste buds have been committed by those seeking to emulate the gurus of this movement, it is equally true that some of the very greatest whites in the world are now made this way.
2004 Baccabianca – 100% Cortese
Not fined or filtered and fermented with the skins. It pours out cloudy and sullied gold in colour.
Extraordinary nose – gingerbread and honey. Spiced ginger with freshly chopped mint on the palate and lots of mineral; a dap of honey appears towards the back, but much less than is promised on the nose. I completely love this and suddenly feel properly awake for the first time today but then a great wine will do that.
Guido mentions that this wine is a mere 11.5% abv. Another reason to love it absolutely but it doesn’t taste for a second like it is. There is too much weight and texture.
2007 Don Chisciotto – 100% Fiano
His Fiano vineyard in Campania is very mountainous (the highest for this variety in the region), giving grapes with extraordinary freshness. He believes that the maceration on the skins helps to capturethat aspect.
Extraordinary nose. Fresh bread, wheat husks, small white flowers plus something slightly animal. What is most surprising on the palate is the freshness, celery leaf and spice flavours but with a vitality so often missing in this variety. It can tend toward the sluggish. Unmistakable towards the back is the scent of flowers – honeysuckle in the sun.
This wine is a fantastic combination of the structure that comes from extended maceration and the elegance of altitude. The tannins are like a fluffy blanket enveloping the fruit – cashmere to the velvet of red tannins.
We speak about the fact that natural wines all have marked similarities but Christian and I agree that the more one gets to know them, the more the differences shine through. Like a traveller in Tokyo, after a time, not all the people look the same.
2004 Don Chisciotte
More nuts on this one – fresh , this is not oxidised – but the fresh celery spice has been replaced with almond and fresh hazelnuts. The same cashmere tannins and honeysuckle coming out towards the back with a clean twist of marbled minerality on the finish.
Lovely, but not quite as fresh and complex as the 2007.
Guido says that you really have to give these wines time, which is why people don’t make white this way. This is not for young drinking. I think he is right but the 2007 is just a superior vintage.
Two fat salami, one like a huge, bloated grub, arrive at the table and despite lunch being still a recent phenomenon, everyone begins to tuck in. We talk about the market for natural wine. Japan is now crazy for it – one of the biggest markets in the world. But the interlopers (and those who will leap on whichever bandwagon seems to be moving fastest) are starting to hijack the trend with some pretty disgraceful offerings.
Wine must, first and foremost, be good to drink. It just so happens that those that are best to drink have been made this way.
We linger over the remnants of the wines and so arrive at the hotel slightly late for dinner. It is a mad dash to drop our bags and reconvene in the yellow dining room. Apart from us, there is just one other table but apparently this is normal at even the best restaurants mid-week in Italy. Most people know how to cook and do it well, so eating out is much less frequent than in the UK.
The Chef and the restaurant manager come to say hello. The latter looks not unlike Elmer Fudd (if you can imagine Elmer Fudd in a suit, with the haughty bearing of a restaurant professional). I like Elmer immediately and more so as the evening wears on and he becomes progressively more camp.
We drink a delicious Riesling from Alto Adige that I don’t know – Kofererhof – and the 1994 Roche-aux-Moines Savennieres. Both are tasting good, but the Riesling has the edge. Glacier fresh with a perfumed lemon tang, it is a perfect complement to my rabbit first course.
That too is quite a revelation – the meat is tender and succulent, not at all dry or stringy. But it takes me a few minutes to compose myself enough to start eating once it arrives, because Adam has ordered rabbit too and is sitting directly across the table from me. Elmer serves him first, setting down the dish with an elaborate flourish
“Wabbit!” He says grandly.
I stare hard at the table cloth and bite my lip, taking deep breaths but it is no good. A few gentle snorts escape and then I have to cover my face with my hands while I try to control the surging tide of giggles.
Elmer and Christian are both terribly concerned. The Italians appear to believe that my fit of suppressed mirth has been brought on by the terrifying amplitude of what is after all only the antipasti, coming after a four course lunch which does not seem that long ago.
It is entirely likely that they see this kind of reaction all the time.
Elmer comes round the table and places an arm around my shaking shoulders, speaking soothingly in Italian. Christian helpfully translates.
“He says you don’t have to finish it. The Chef will not mind”.
I nod weakly, still biting my lip.
I did finish it. Every last bit of wabbit.
We go on to drink the 97 and 99 Trinchero Vino del Noce Barbera, great examples of this variety. How is it possible that I spent so many years utterly detesting it? The style is somewhere between the bright, fresh Bera wines and the broader, deep Tenuta Grillo. It is delicious.
Russell and I both try the Finanziera which was discussed at lunch and it is sublime. The argument then was whether it was a soup or a sauce but what arrives is more of a stew than anything else. Chunks of grey matter (this is what they are and this is indeed exactly what they look like), and a cock’s comb, peek jauntily out from underneath a bit of chicken brain.
I know. Sounds horrifying. Tastes superb. We finish with a bottle of the 2001 Borgogno Liste Barolo which moves things up another gear. The Nebbiolo has arrived and tomorrow is going to be soaked in it.