It was pretty hot in London on Tuesday. I think The Glasshouse in Kew is hot too, but in a different way. This is often regarded as “the other” Nigel Platts-Martin restaurant by some people I know. If it were true, then I’m sliding down the list, having begun by dining with some frequency at The Ledbury, and a little less so at The Square (now in different hands), and with a little less frequency still at the excellent La Trompette in Chiswick, before becoming a once or twice a year man here. But I’ve come to love The Glasshouse for its food, the near perfect service (which is absolutely spot on in all of Nigel’s restaurants) and for its always relaxed ambience. And this week, I was particularly grateful for its perfect air conditioning.
Eight of us had arranged to have lunch in Kew, a group who go by the name of the “Tuscan Raiders”, which may sound clumsy here, but these are guys who worship all things Tuscan, and some of whom make fleeting wine-fuelled dashes over there once a year together. I usually manage to join them for lunch once or twice a year and this time, for a pleasant change, the door was thrown open for any Italian wines.
We had no idea it would turn out to be the hottest day of the year/decade/century, although it seems that as I sat typing yesterday it was even hotter. With an incredible sparkler and some nice whites, and no reds which tasted too heavy, we were lucky. Note to the organiser – make sure the next Brunello lunch is timed for winter.
That opening sparkler (all the wines were served blind) set the tone for the next four hours. Franciacorta Rosé Riserva Cuvée Annamaria Clementi 2005 Extra Brut, Ca’ Del Bosco is quite possibly the best Italian sparkling wine I can remember drinking, though doubtless that conclusion was not hindered by the cold tingle of fine bubbles which the tongue welcomed in thirty degree plus temperatures as if it were a shower of snow on Christmas Day.
The colour of this wine is truly beautiful to begin with. Is it rose gold, or copper, or bronze? It all depends on the light. What I crave in all good sparkling wine is harmony between freshness and depth, and it has both. The intense savoury, umami, which comes through in time, is just so well balanced. It was disgorged in the autumn of 2013, so had eight years on lees and around six post-disgorgement, and it came in at 12.5% abv. A good start! We all guessed Franciacorta because what else could be this good!
That remarkable beginning to our lunch continued with the first white wine. Tabarrini is an Umbrian producer based in Montefalco, to the south of Perugia and Assisi. Giampaolo Tabarrini took his generations old Azienda to the next level when he began bottling the estate’s own wines in the 1990s. He’s generally been regarded for some years as perhaps the rising star of the region, especially for his intense single vineyard Sagrantinos, which are now Gambero Rosso favourites. Bianco dell’ Umbria “Adarmando” 2014, Tabarrini, named after Giampaolo’s maternal grandfather, is an IGT-designated wine made from Trebbiano di Spoletino grapes (note: not the same as Trebbiano Toscana/Ugni Blanc).
The vines were planted in 1921, long before the idea of a quality white wine from these hills was born. Planted at around 3,000 per hectare at the time, they are at 350 metres above sea level. The vine training system is really interesting. Called “Sylvoz” (from Silvanus or Silva), the vines are usually trained high on a wire, a little bit like “Geneva Double-Curtain”, a system popular in the Veneto, but with more foliage. But some vines here are not wired, so that at harvest these plants look more like a plum tree than a grape vine. The fruit is harvested on ladders, and then fermented in stainless steel, where wine stays for 12 months on lees before a further six months ageing in bottle, prior to release. There is a reasonably plentiful 8,000 bottles of this, which The Good Wine Shop still had one or two remaining.
Freshness coats a fine line of textured fruit which ends with a quince-like finish. There are hints of Chablis, of Chenin and of the Veneto (I initially wondered whether it was a very fine Soave, and was not alone on that track). A wine I’ve never come across, but exceptionally, perhaps surprisingly, fine. £30/bottle.
The first of the two wines I managed to guess blind on the day was Etna Bianco Superiore “Pietramarina” 2002, Benanti. There’s no real mystery to guessing a wine blind. You need to have drunk the wine many times, unless it is so singular that it stands out in one’s memory. This is a wine I’ve been drinking literally from the moment an Etna craze hit the more open minded reaches of UK wine obsessives. Carricante, as a grape variety, usually has a certain profile, which many would call “zesty”, but in Pietramarina there’s a lot more smooth depth, and this late-ripening grape variety’s aromatic qualities come to the fore.
It opens with the gentle fruit of ripening yellow peach, before you notice a citrus note, not on the top of the palate, but buried away, almost hidden. You get a distinct touch of almond too. It doesn’t take very long to start to notice the wine’s salinity. This does dominate a little, perhaps the reason why it wasn’t universally as popular as the previous white. But to me, this was classic “Pietra”, even though it hails from a period before Giuseppe Benanti’s sons, Antonio and Salvino, brought new acclaim to the estate when they took over in 2012. The key to this wine is old vines. In 2002 they were already averaging around eighty years old. Otherwise, the regime is a simple one, stainless steel for an extended two years after fermentation.
I used to buy this from The Sampler but no results come up for them now. Astrum Wine Cellars appears to import Benanti. They have one of those slightly annoying sites where you need to sign up and log in to see prices, but I think (do correct me if I’m wrong) that you might need to shell out around £50 for a current vintage these days.
These wines accompanied a starter of veal tartare with truffle cream, white peaches, artichokes and green almonds. I don’t propose to say much about the food. It was so well judged for the meal, and the day. Very fine ingredients and a sprinkling of magic in the kitchen form dishes of undoubted Michelin standard. The number of stars is irrelevant if the style appeals.
The first red wine was my humble offering. I say humble, but I was glad to have this rather singular wine for an occasion such as this. Il Guercio Toscana Rosso IGT 2015 is the first wine Sean O’Callaghan made once he’d decided to bring to an end his long, 25-year, tenure at Riecine (he actually left in 2016).
Sean now farms around 15 hectares owned by the Egger family of Tenuta di Carleone, in Radda, but Il Guercio (Sean’s nickname, “one-eyed bandit”) comes from Sangiovese planted in a vineyard right up at 700 metres above Giaole. The grapes, 25% whole bunches, are fermented in stainless steel and then aged in ceramic eggs (five months on skins). The wine comes out at a perfectly balanced 12.5% abv. I’d slipped a cooling sleeve over this for transport and it was served nicely cool. This helped highlight the crunchy cherry fruit and it’s touch of peppery freshness. It was a fine match for the middle course of tomato salad with baked violetta aubergines, smoked paprika aioli and wild rocket.
My other blind tasting triumph of the day was only won through a very deep knowledge of this producer’s wines. Palari’s Salvatore Géraci farms vines on that northeastern peninsula of Sicily, not far from Messina, and from Berlusconi’s grand bridge to the Italian mainland. Faro is the DOC, although Palari makes a very fine Rosso if the budget is tight.
Palari’s wines were among the very first purchases I made from Les Caves de Pyrene (it is with some sadness that I say that I don’t think they list these wines any more) and Faro is long etched in my memory. The grapes here are Nerellos (Mascalese and Cappuccio). Although the varieties share a stem, they are not entirely similar. Nerello Mascalese has some real class about it. Somewhere between Pinot Noir and Syrah, it can make wines of supreme elegance, but with an animal side. Cappuccio is more of a blending variety, adding alcohol and oomph!
Here we were tasting Faro 2005, Palari, perhaps from a glass a little smaller than I would use. Think aged Burgundy from a warm vintage but with a hint of animal fat, like in a Côte Rôtie, just popping in to say hello. At 13.5% this still retains elegance, but it’s more than anything a wine of depth. You want to take in the bouquet for minutes before experiencing the smooth, rounded, plalate. Gorgeous. The man who brought this bottle picked it up in Catania. For UK readers, try winebuyers.com (it’s pricey now).
The last wine of this flight was another Sicilian, but this time new to me (although not the man behind it). Vinding Montecarrubo 2008 is a Sicilian Syrah from Peter Vinding-Diers and his sons. My first taste of Peter’s wine was a White Bordeaux from Graves, of some acclaim, bought in the 1980s. In 2005 he moved with his wife, Susie, to Sicily and now farms bush vine Syrah and stunted olive trees at 150 metres on top of a small extinct volcano. Last year Peter told Drinks Business that Sicily “is the undiscovered terroir” for Syrah. If the potential seen in this wine is fully realised, he may be right, much as I favour the wonderful autochthonous varieties Sicily offers us.
We get sweet peppery fruit here at a balanced 13.5% abv. The freshness of the volcanic terroir comes through, seeming to give the wine extra edge. It’s an exceptional wine, which can be had via importer Swig for just under £30. More recent vintages appear to have an extra half degree of alcohol.
The next flight proposed three very different wines…and then somehow a fourth red made an appearance, I’d never have guessed. We began with an Aglianico, Terre di Lavoro 2002, Roccamonfina IGT, Galardi. Galardi is based at Caserta, a provincial capital on the Campanian plain at the foot of the sub-Appenines, north of Naples. This is another wine/producer I know nothing about, though it’s always good to try an Aglianico. Generally performing well on volcanic terroir, Aglianico tastes full-bodied but usually combines this with genuine freshness. For me, the result is rarely, primarily, elegant, but it can have crunch and lift. Aglianico is certainly an under rated variety.
This one is definitely meaty and very savoury. You’ll be getting Bovril and nutmeg and a lot of depth from ageing. I’d suggest this bottle is peaking, but you have to enjoy the evolved nature of the fruit. If you can find a bottle of 2002 (some retailers in the USA still have it) expect to pay £80-to-£100.
Barolo “La Serra” 1997, Marcarini was a lovely contrast. I think we all guessed Nebbiolo from the colour alone, but the bouquet was more fruity than classic tar and roses stuff, despite its age and the vintage. 1997 was generally hot in Barolo, the hottest since 1990, and the resulting wines have had a bad rap in some circles. Marcarini may be seen as a “reliable” producer, but this very nice wine was a little more than merely reliable. It is relatively mature, smooth, long and quite gentle. A wine which lingers like the smoky mist of a Langhe morning. Even on a scorching day we were transported to the hills, with the scent of autumnal truffles almost breaking through the bright sunshine. Loved it, actually.
Another fine Barolo followed. Bricco Bussia “Vigna Colonnello” 1989, Aldo Conterno comes from a period when I was just beginning to appreciate the wines of the Langhe Hills (my first visit to the region was in 1988, but the first genuinely fine Barolo I bought was one of Aldo’s, a 1985). This “selection” comes from the Colonnello site, located within Bussia Soprana. Off sandy soils, this has intense liquorice and a hint of coffee grounds. It is currently showing more restraint than the younger Marcarini, a wine of elegance despite Aldo Conterno’s so-called modernist credentials. Wow!!! What depth.
That extra red which popped out from the bag of our man from Norfolk was Brunello di Montalcino “Vigna Schiena d’Asino” 2004, Mastrojanni. This is clearly a mature wine and despite being younger than the two Barolos, for me it is pretty much ready to drink. Mastrojanni is usually described as “traditional”. I believe the estate dates from the 1970s, which aside from the likes of Biondi Santi, is pretty early in the story of Brunello. This single vineyard (“donkey’s back”) sees very low yields now. The regime includes 42 months of ageing in large French Allier oak, resulting in around 5,000 bottles of smooth Sangiovese Grosso. The fruit is mainly intense black cherry with ripe plum at the edges. Deeper tertiary notes include tobacco. A fine wine, but pushing the Glasshouse air conditioning to the full at 14.5% alcohol.
That flight accompanied a stupendous main course of lamb saddle and glazed neck à la Niçoise with olive oil creamed potatoes. I’ve not tasted lamb as good as that for a while, and it would have been my dish of the day were it not for the dessert, which half way through 2019 is currently my dessert of the year. Warm chocolate croustade with milk ice cream and roasted nuts sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it. Well it was not simple. It was remarkable.
To wash down this wonder we ended our lunch with a dessert wine I’ve not drunk since those heady days of Oddbins‘s first incarnation (late 1980s), with its fine wine store located where we now enjoy the cool delights of Winemakers Club. Even back then it was rare to see a full 75cl bottle of this wine, Dolce Torcelato 1988, Maculan. This sweet gem comes from Breganze, where the casual visitor will probably be more interested in seeking out a few Palladian Villas, and perhaps a glass or two of Grappa, than unctuous sweet nectar.
Fausto Maculan set up a winery to make more than Torcolato, but it is this wine that he became known for all over the world. The single grape variety for Torcolato is Vespaiola, grown on volcanic and tufa stone hills. The fruit is harvested ripe and dried in long strings of grapes in a special, ventilated, room for four months, during which the grape flavours and sugars concentrate. Ageing is in barrique, of which one third is new and two thirds second fill.
I have never found this wine the most complex of stickies, but where it scores is in its amazing concentration which is balanced by a spine of acidity that holds it together. The wine is golden and honeyed. There’s still a touch of wood, almost cedar perhaps. It’s that acid which, whilst far from dominating, grounds the intense sugar rush.
Although a dessert wine, this is also a good choice for cheese, and it did a stint with our unplanned but welcome cheese course, which included the best English Sharpham I’ve tasted (a brie-style from South Devon), and a washed rind cheese where Calvados was seriously to the fore. At which point someone called for Vin Jaune.
Vin Jaune Jean-Louis Tissot 2008 leapt off the wine list. Jean-Louis, not to be confused with Stéphane and Bénédicte, is based in the hamlet of Vauxelles (up the hill from Arbois, towards Montigny-les-Arsures), bringing back nostalgic memories of the place where my family rented a tiny cottage on our first Jura holidays in the 1990s.
My scribble tells me it was good, if a little young for a VJ pedant like me, but to be quite honest, the next thing I really remember was getting on an Underground train at around 7.00pm. Well, I wasn’t that drunk in truth, but I’d completely forgotten we drank this until my notes and the photographic evidence proved we did consume it, which does rather suggest we saw the edge and jumped. Of course, we left the restaurant much sooner than 7.00pm, but I believe lager was involved after lunch, essential re-hydration in thirty-three degrees of glorious, if global-warmingly scary, summer heat.
The Glasshouse is at 14 Station Parade, Kew, almost opposite the Underground station (Kew Gardens, on the District Line, but on the same side as the trains heading back to Central London). It’s also two minutes walk from the Kew branch of The Good Wine Shop (unmissable selection, don’t go to Kew without looking in).