There’s a group of aficionados of all things Toscana which meets several times a year to drink frankly far too much wine in impressive restaurants. It has been a while since I’ve been able to join them, so I was very pleased that a change in travel plans left me free to do so last Friday.
It has also been some years since I visited Tuscany. Despite several trips to Piemonte in recent years, it’s a good many since I’ve luxuriated in the sunshine of the Chiantigiana, or walked Montalcino’s medieval walls. Tuscany was one of the wine regions which became very dear to me in the early years of my wine passion, and much as Burgundy supplanted Bordeaux, I guess that Piemonte, with its pattern of ownership and vineyard designations more resembling Burgundy, came more recently to play a larger part in my cellar than Tuscany. This has certainly been the case in the past decade and this lunch served to remind me that I own all too few of these lovely wines.
The venue for lunch was The Glasshouse, on Station Approach, by Kew Gardens. It may be the least well known restaurant in the Nigel Platts-Martin stable (The Ledbury, Chez Bruce, La Trompette, and formerly The Square), but it has been open since 1999, and provides an experience combining fine dining with the kind of unimpeachable service typical of the other venues in the group. More on the food later.
Seven people drank thirteen wines, two of them magnums (I did say we drank far too much, though I do appear to have lived to tell the tale), so don’t expect an essay on each, but we did drink some lovely wines, none of which disappointed me. There’s normally a theme which loosens as the day approaches. Our theme for 25th was ostensibly “Montalcino”, but we began with a couple of very good whites, threw in a couple of non-Montalcino reds, and finished with a couple of Vin Santos from Chianti.
The two whites could not have been more contrasting, yet both were exemplars of their type, and without question the two best Tuscan dry white wines I’ve drunk so far this year, with the possible exception of Tim Manning’s ever astounding Vinochisti Erbaluce. Montenidoli “Carato” Vernaccia di San Gimignano 2009 is very fine. Big legs and a lick of oak, it is radiant with green flecks, and a palate of herby lemon acidity balanced by great texture. It’s the kind of wine which gives an often under performing DOCG a good name.
It contrasted nicely with Il Torchio “Stralunato” Vermentino 2015, from Liguria’s Colli di Luni, right up on the Tuscan border. This is a pale wine, also with lovely green glints. Refined on nose and palate, yet there’s a salinity which gives a savoury edge. Vermentino rarely gets taken seriously, except perhaps from Sardinia sometimes, but this wine is both delicate and delicious. Oddly enough, I find both of these wines very easy to recall quite vivdly as I type.
The first of the reds was served blind, and it did take a little while to tease out its identity. I think that the Sassotondo Ciliegiolo “San Lorenzo” 2010, Maremma, was a touch young, not that Ciliegiolo is a grape for long ageing but this is Sassotondo’s top bottling of this rare autochthonous grape variety. Garnet in colour, it’s juicy and spicy, with some balsamic notes. It still retains the grippy tannins of youth. Personally, I’d recommend this to anyone seeking something a bit different from the region, although there’s plenty of exciting experimentation on the coastal side of Tuscany.
Next up, two Brunello’s from the same stable. Altesino Brunello di Montalcino 1975 and 1985 were both lovely at different times at the table. The ’75 started off as an old wine drinking well, and despite showing the colour of its age, and showing some caramel notes on the nose, it was still in very decent condition, a fine wine from a very fine vintage. Yet, as expected, it did fade.
Back in the 1980s I used to shop at Winecellars, the original wine warehouse run by David Gleave (now Liberty Wines) and Nicolas Belfrage (Enotria Winecellars, Vinexus). There were two tastings which ignited the spark for me, as far as Tuscan wines were concerned. One was with Paolo De Marchi of Isole e Olena, and the other was Altesino. After that tasting I bought some 1985 Altesino Brunello, along with their 1982 Riserva. Those 1985s are long gone from my cellar, and to be fair, Altesino entered a period some time later during which many wine writers were not praising this estate in the north of the DOCG as much as they had previously. It seems that whatever happened, the estate is on form today, so how was the 1985? Initially it seemed even older than the 1975, drying a tiny bit. Yet with time in the glass it blossomed as it opened out into a lovely wine. Very hard to say which I preferred, the 1975 or the 1985? Both were long and complex, and typical of mature Brunello.
The first flight was rounded off with a beauty, Poliziano “Asinone” 1997, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (far right in the photos above). The wines of Montepulciano often get ignored just a little beside those of Montalcino, and to be frank, in many cases you can see why. But Asinone is a class act, a Riserva aged in a mixture of barrique and larger oak. It’s concentrated and quite powerful, and this 1997 is not fully mature by any means, still showing some oak influence. But saying that, it’s lovely as well as impressive, and best of all, it’s distinctive. I’ve never bought this wine, I’m not sure why? The desire to always reach for Brunello over Vino Nobile, I suppose. Something I ought to put right as far as Asinone goes.
The second red flight was all Brunello, albeit of differing stature. Sesti Brunello di Montalcino 2001 was a good start from this favourite biodynamic producer, located south of Montalcino. Full of fruit, fresh and flowery (intense violets), there’s always an elegance to this estate’s wines. We followed it with the same producer’s Riserva from magnum, Sesti Brunello di Montalcino Riserva “Phenomena” 2001. This might have been my “Wine of the Day”, and when someone mentioned that it probably has twenty years in the tank, that may be no exaggeration. This is on another level, still closed to begin with but offering enough over its time in the glass to show real class, with smoothness and depth. Phenomenal, of course, although the name celebrates a significant astronomical event in each harvest (in 2001, the Leonids shooting star shower). And all power to the magnum format, of course.
Following that was a tough task for Il Marroneto Brunello di Montalcino 2004, quite a pretty wine by comparison, but wholly delicious. I’m always wary at lunches and dinners like this one, a cornucopia of vinous delights where those which seem to show less well would clearly shine, either in less exalted company or on their own. I think that this wine, and Sesti’s straight Brunello, both fall into that category.
This was emphasised by the wine which followed it, Col d’Orcia Brunello Riserva “Poggio al Vento” 2004. In giving this wine a score of 95 points, Parker and Galloni also gave this a drinking window of 2014 to 2044. Add to that, the fact that we were drinking another magnum, and you will guess that we were very much in the territory of youth, here. But there’s already spice, smoke, and mint, along with concentrated Sangiovese fruit, and from those descriptors you can understand how impressive this is, and will be. But this wine’s most outstanding feature in this vintage is that it is quite unique, quite different in nature to so many other Brunello Riservas.
As is so often (I lie, always) the case at these gatherings, something appears from under the table. Served blind, I was pleased my tastebuds were on reasonable form, identifying what it was, but making a fool of myself over the vintage. Florio Marsala 1840 (I had guessed 1966, but to be fair, how many times do we all make similar mistakes with old Madeira, which like this Marsala, so often appear a couple of hundred years younger than they really are?). There’s little you can say about a wine like this (or at least, little that is printable). Wow! is polite, but inadequate. Some people have no idea how much their generosity is appreciated…so thanks, Chris. It went beautifully with the cheese course, …of course.
We could perhaps have found some sweet wines from Montalcino (though Moscadello is not usually a wine that springs immediately to mind for such occasions), but instead we were treated to two very contrasting Vin Santos. Riecine “Sebastiano” Passito 2001 is not strictly a Vin Santo, rather an IGT Toscana made from Trebbiano and Malvasia, grown on chalky soils at up to 500 metres altitude near Giaole. It is both fermented and aged in barrique, probably the reason why it is the darker of the two wines. Notes of pear fruit with caramel and honey, very sweet. That made it not to everyone’s taste, but I like it, as I like this wonderful estate.
The contrasting wine was Selvapiana Vin Santo del Chianti Rufina 2007. This younger wine is a classic of the genre and, at least once Isole e Olena’s Vin Santo became so expensive, has been one of my more frequent purchases. This is a pure Trebbiano (grown on clay and limestone), and as it says on the label, it comes from the northern Tuscan Rufina sub-region. After drying and pressing, the grapes are vinified and aged in small caratelli. This is dryer than the Riecine. There’s still a touch of sweet caramel, but more dried fruits, and with more complexity than the sweeter passito. Personally, I rather wish I had either, I don’t mind which, to serve with the Christmas panatone. I wonder whether it’s too late…
I promised to mention the food at The Glasshouse. It was generally excellent, fully deserving individual photos so you can really see the dishes. We began with seared Orkney scallops with cauliflower, grapes and Italian truffle. This was “dish of the day” and one of the best handful of starters this year. A truly memorable dish.
Next, red-legged partridge with Puy lentils, lardo di Colonnata, red cabbage and trompette de mort mushrooms – the partridge was beautiful and cooked to perfection dans son jus (as they say, please excuse obscure French pun), really very good indeed, though some of us found a few hard bits of bone in the wrapped element.
The main course of Cornbury Estate fallow deer with roasted salsify, pine and beetroot was classic “NPM” – from The Ledbury to The Glasshouse you can pretty much rely on exceptional deer and this delivered.
The cheese course – well, every one seemed in perfect condition so what more can you ask for?
The dessert of warm apple and pecan brioche was delicious. The ginger ice cream accompaniment was good, although for my less educated palate I felt it was not a perfect match for the brioche, somewhat dominating. I love ginger, but I’m not a big sweet ginger fan, so I’m sure it was just me. By this stage in all honesty I’d probably reached the point where remembering to take a photo of the dessert was not at the forefront of my mind, though you’ll be pleased to know that there was no staggering, no loud behaviour, at least from me, and all proper sense of decorum was completely observed. Have a pic of a few of the empties instead.
Thank you to all the staff at The Glasshouse for looking after us so well, both professional and friendly in equal measure. A long trek out on the District Line, but well worth it.