I have a mate called Warren. Some of you may know him. He’s the guy who organises the occasional Spice Oddities spin-off we have at the India Club on The Strand, and the Fish ‘n Fino lunches at Masters’ near Waterloo. I think he excelled himself in organising this very select little lunch at Pardis, a Persian/Iranian restaurant on Connaught Street, yesterday. The idea (which may have come from a bottle of I took to one of the spice lunches), crazy as it might sound, especially in summer, was to see whether Persian food would match with Chinato.
What is Chinato? You may well ask. There’s a tradition, which seems foremost now in Piemonte and with Barolo, to add a mixture of herbs and spices to wine. Think of something going in the direction of a vermouth or bitters (indeed, some people call Chinato a type of vermouth). The main difference is that vermouth is sometimes a commercial product and the wine used is unlikely to be of fine quality. Vermouth, red and white, is mainly a speciality of France and Italy, with well known brands like Noilly Prat and Dolin in the former, Martini & Rossi and Cinzano in the latter. Vermouths are most often mixed with gin these days (the now ubiquitous negroni, or a gin martini, for example), and both are undergoing an incredible revival. Chinatos are, by contrast, often small production, artisanal, versions, most usually made as a sideline by wine estates. But not always, as we shall see.
Some put the invention of chinato down to a Serralunga pharmacist called Giuseppe Cappelano in the 19th Century, but of course botanicals have been added to wine since Greek and Roman times. The Retsina, of Greece, is not too far removed from this. The key element in a true Barolo Chinato is the bark of the cinchona tree, in which the wine is steeped. In other words, they are quinine infused. Other common additions include cinnamon and coriander, but as with gin, the list can be long. Sugar may be added to sweeten the bitterness created by the bark, but not always. And as we discovered, the Chinato concept has spread further than Italy. Chinato may be viewed as a kind of vermouth by some, but technically speaking it’s a vino aromatizzato, which I think needs no translation.
Chinato is generally used as a digestif in Piemonte. You won’t find it mixed with gin, nor anything else (though sparkling water proved interesting). Its bitterness, and occasionally a sweetness which either fights or balances this bitterness, depending on your viewpoint, make it a difficult match with food. Italian Chinato usually manages 16% alcohol as well, which is quite high for a table wine, at least among the people I mix with.
Of the food itself, it was delicious. At least two of the other diners seemed to have a good appreciation for a cuisine which I love, yet rarely sample (though I’m going to give a plug here for Sabrina Ghayour‘s brilliant cook book, Persiana (Mitchell Beazley, 2014), which was my cookery book of last year).
The picture on the left shows a selection of our starters, with some of the freshest soft walnuts I’ve eaten, and wonderful home cooked sesame bread. In the centre is my Shireen Polo, fragrant rice with almonds, pistachios and orange peel hiding a large lamb shank, cooked to perfect tenderness. The last photo is Ghouzi, chosen by a couple of people at the table.
Of the wines, I will say two things. First, they ranged from “interesting” to very good, but I can’t say they provided the hoped for food match that Warren was looking for. But how much did that really matter? Not much. The food and wines were good on their own and it was no mental hardship to go between one and the other. Why didn’t they fit? The wines were just too alcoholic, and the botanicals weren’t on the whole in tune with the fragrant Persian food. Chinato is obviously more than cinnamon and coriander. What we drank was as follows:
Chinensis Vino Aromatizzato alla China, Quaquarini, Buttafuoco DOC (16%). Buttafuoco is a doc of Oltrepo Pavese, in the province of Pavia, so just to the east of Piemonte. Quaquarini, the producer, is based at Canneto Pavese. It’s not easy to work out what this is made from, but my money is on Barbera, one of the region’s ubiquitous red varieties. The first person to raise a glass of this to their lips exclaimed “bloody hell, this smells like Worcester Sauce”, and it did. Think of a Bloody Mary on the nose and you will be close. It’s very herby, with soft spice, vermouth-like. Brick red, with a lot of fine sediment, it tasted overwhelmingly of cinnamon to me. But in terms of quality, a good start.
Xerez-Quina, Valdespino, Spain (15%). This is proof that the aromatised wine concept is not just limited to Italy, yet this was very different to the other three wines. For a start it was brown rather than red. Although made from Palomino (I was assured), this had a hint of Moscato on the nose. It was at this point I thought of Passito di Pantelleria. Although a solera wine in origin, this was quite simple on the nose (and certainly a touch oxidised, though I’m sure deliberately so). It’s commercialised in a litre bottle with a plastic screw top, clearly undergoing a strict filtration, and with a hint of caramel too. Yet this really did have its charm, and I think it benefited from being served chilled, despite the fact that it might be intended to be supped at a table in full Jerez sun through the month of August. I’m guessing 90% of wine drinkers would put this down, in both senses. Yet I can think of a few people who’d be happy to share a litre of this, all in a sense of fun (and gentle inebriation).
L’In Chino Vino Aromatizzato, Castello di Tagliolo, Dolcetto d’Ovada DOC (16%). This DOC is one of several named Dolcetto zones which crop up in Piemonte where this grape, often not even secondary to Nebbiolo in the famous zones, finds favour. Think also of Dolcetto from Dogliani, Diano d’Alba and Acqui Terme. Dolcetto d’Ovada comes from a string of villages, including Ovada itself, in the Province of Alessandria, to the immediate east of the Alto Monferrato (Nizza, Acqui, etc).
Another herby nose here with a mid-red colour. I’d say this is pretty refined in comparison to the previous wine, if perhaps a little less fun. It’s smooth and rich, like a quality vermouth, sweet with a bitter finish. Made (obviously) from Dolcetto but with nine added botanicals, including rhubarb, carnation, gentian and cinnamon. Very good, but hard to match with food in my opinion, though the producer does mention chocolate. Definitely we’re in “sipping digestif” territory for me.
Vino Aromatizzato Sestario, Cantina TreSecoli, Barbera d’Asti DOC (16%). Another red wine with a little bit of a brick-red tinge, made this time from Barbera by one of Piemonte’s largest producers. It’s an attractive wine but perhaps its source shows a little. It’s very herby, yet there is also a touch of hot alcohol on the palate which makes it both a touch more burly and a little less refined than the previous wine, which it otherwise resembles.
So, overall impressions? Chinato is a great drink to explore, something I’ve known for some time. The Barolo Chinato which I tasted first in the 1990s was from Vajra (which Liberty Wines used to import, though I don’t see it currently on their web site). Another very good example is made by the excellent Luca Roagna of Barbaresco. Both of these are Nebbiolo Chinatos. However, my advice is stick to drinking it after dinner.
That said, it was an excellent lunch, a chance to explore some unusual wines (only four bottles may seem well below our usual par, but the alcohol levels provide the clue), and a new, excellent restaurant. As for those alcohol levels, I deliberately didn’t overdo it on a hot day and I left Pardis more full than tipsy. If you do go there, make sure you are very hungry indeed.
Pardis is at 29 Connaught Street, London W2 (see the link to their web site towards the beginning of this article). They charge a standard £10 per bottle corkage, but for this they throw in a bottle of water (still or sparkling) with every bottle you bring. We were glad of it.