When you alight from the train from Central London at Kew Gardens station you cross the tracks and immediately feel you are in a village. The tall trees surrounding the station set the scene for the famous gardens down the road. I have some fond memories of the gardens. A friend’s mother lived in a neighbouring road and at that time there was a now long-gone private gate giving free access for residents. I’m sure that its removal reflects the need nowadays for Kew to extract the full £11 entry from those of us who might otherwise have known how to get in for nothing.
Still, £11 is cheap compared to lunch at The Glasshouse, the increasingly fine restaurant which is my current connection with Kew. A group of friends try to dine there at least once a year in order to pair Italian wines (once just Tuscans but now broadened out a little) with the Michelin-starred food. It doesn’t seem too many years ago, acknowledging that Covid created a void in time, since lunch cost £50-60. £80 was a jump, but still good value, as a treat, because the kitchen seems to have moved up another notch here.
Friday was the hottest day of the year so far by quite some distance, with 33-degrees on my weather app, and the majestic trees of Kew’s Station Approach were puffing out some serious pollen too. But inside the restaurant the perfect air conditioning, said by some to be the best in London, made it the perfect ambient temperature for dining. That said, despite the restaurant temperature, and the fact that I for one had taken my own red contribution in a chiller sleeve, it wasn’t really a day for red wine. The whites showed better. The food was, come to think of it, faultless.
We opened the batting with our one non-Italian of the day, Champagne Bérêche Rive Gauche 2015. Raphaël makes this from fruit largely sourced from vines around Mareuil-le-Port, and it is 100% Meunier. It has the Bérêche signature elegance coming via a thin but firm spine of crystalline acidity. It develops in the glass with a mix of fresh yellow apple and cinnamon spice, with a hint of apricot exoticism. I wonder whether that is the result of a little skin contact? Others around the table detected a hint of cherry, but it passed me by. This 2015 is still a trifle young. It is yet to develop the tertiary notes of mushroom, and the turning of yellow apple freshness into tarte-tatin or toffee apple. Still loved it, though.
Our first course was veal tonnato with green asparagus, fine beans, crispy polenta, capers and pecorino. Two wines accompanied it. The so-called “lesser” of the two was Ca’ Lojera 2021 Lugana. This was 100% Trebbiano di Lugana (so actually Verdicchio, not the Tuscan Trebbiano). Pale white wine with a mineral heart, and a tiny bit of CO2 freshness, it was a delightful choice and paired nicely.
However, I think the next wine, many people’s “wine of the day”, was in a different league. It was also remarkable to note that Pieropan Soave Classico 1995 was not one of the single vineyard wines, but the ”Classico” tout-court. Although it had a richness which in some ways resembled Chardonnay more than Garganega (a vastly underrated grape variety, I think, when treated with care), it was equally fresh as a daisy. You almost had to double-check the vintage, except for the stately length, a sign of maturity. I do remember that we were always told this cuvée would improve with age, but how many people have kept a bottle of this for close to twenty-seven years?
The next course was an exceptional piece of sea bream, crispy on top and soft beneath, served with new season’s tomatoes, crushed green olives, crostini and smoked paprika aioli. I could have eaten two fillets, pure greed but it was so light and cooked to absolute perfection. We chose to accompany the fish with three reds.
Garnacha Not Guerra 2015, Sardinia was the first vintage of the first wine made on Sardinia by Irish MW Mick O’Connell. The grapes were bought in for this vintage, but picked early to preserve freshness. In fact, Mick calls this wine “Garnacha” rather than the local synonym, Cannonau, in order to distinguish the style. It’s perhaps more like a Garnacha grown at altitude in the Gredos Mountains of Spain rather than here in Sardinia.
The alcohol is marked as 12.9% all the same, but it doesn’t taste too alcoholic. It has light juicy cherry fruit flavour supplemented by hints of blood orange, with that unmistakable bouquet somewhere between raspberries and strawberries, allowing for lifted violet scents to waft over the top. Delicious, but perhaps not showing its delicacy on the day due to the heat and, perhaps, being paired with two bigger wines. That said, only 360 bottles were produced this first vintage, so it felt to me like a privilege to try it, my only bottle (I recall it was very much rationed on release). Some felt it had lost the freshness of youth, but somehow it seemed fresh to me, mostly thanks to the bouquet.
Elena Fucci “Titolo” Aglianico del Vulture 2015 is a very different wine. Elena makes wine on the volcanic soils of Monte Vulture, in Basilicata in Italy’s deep south. Altitude allows the Aglianico vines to ripen more slowly, and under less intense heat, than many might imagine. The result is rich, for sure, but also mineral and showing a degree of restraint. The wine is aged in small French oak barrels, and whilst the oak doesn’t dominate, it does bring a dark and firm intensity to the glass. A nice wine, but one I myself might not pair with Bream.
Graci “Quota 1000 Contrada de Barbabecchi” 2013, Etna was, for me, a delight to drink although I may have found myself the most vocal in its praise around the table. Graci is, of course, one of the first names in Etna wines and this cuvée is, I think, Alberto Graci’s top wine. It is made from, as the name suggests, vines grown at 1,000 masl and above, mostly Nerello Mascalese, on a small two-hectare single site.
Like all good Etna, it is classy. Not too dark in colour, more elegant than powerful, with for me cherry and tobacco being the main elements of the bouquet. There’s a little texture, but little sign that this was (I think) originally aged in young, oval, Stockinger casks. It has smoothed out nicely. I can find a drinking date of “by 2025” for this vintage. Personally, I think this took a while to open up so it might go a bit longer if properly stored…or equally it may be a sign that it needs drinking. I have no idea.
I read that this is labelled under the Sicilia DOC, not Etna DOCG, and this, apparently, is because the Etna appellation stops at 1,000 metres. Whatever its designation, this is a fine and beautifully aged wine.
Our third course was some small but once more perfectly cooked pieces of Lamb a la Niçoise with olive oil creamed potatoes, violet artichokes and basil. Our plan was to drink a pair of Fontodi Vigna del Sorbo with it, but the 2004 was irredeemably corked. The 1998 was very mature in that balsamic and tomato purée way that older Sangiovese can go. I thought it smelt lovely, and the palate improved over time. Not enough for most people round the table and in consuming half a glass, I probably drank more than most.
Thankfully, the kind man who brought the 1998 also brought a backup. Peter Vinding-Diers Montecarrubo Syrah 2008. I can only say please try this if you can. Dane Peter Vinding-Diers goes right back to my nascent interest in wine. I bought what I think was my first ever mixed case from the Sunday Times Wine Club, chaired at the time by his friend Hugh Johnson, and it contained a white Bordeaux he had made. At the time I recall he was a great champion for Bordeaux whites, and Semillon in particular.
Peter, assisted by his English wife, Susie, has been around the wine world in the interim, certainly making wine in Spain and Hungary, as well as elsewhere in Italy, to my recollection, to name two of their peripatetic stops, all on the way to Sicily. Montecarrubo is their estate on the island, named apparently after the carob trees which grow there. It’s near Siracusa. Although Peter planted the local Nero d’Avola on a different site, he settled on Syrah and Petit Verdot on the estate and has been very happy with the results.
We are jumping ahead though. This 2008 Syrah was, I am told, possibly made with bought in fruit before his estate vines came on tap. However, it was magnificent, and for me, the other contender for wine of the day. As others said, like a good Côte-Rôtie, though more about the pepper and texture, without the bacon fat of mature Rhône Syrah. It did pair very well with the lamb.
Dessert was a lovely, light, toasted almond custard with poached cherries and “caremalised bracelet” (whatever that was). We had two half-bottles of Tedeschi Recioto della Valpolicella Classico 1996 to accompany it. There were definite differences between bottles. I had a pour from the second which, served cool, seemed to have clean dark berry fruit which was almost gluggable, it was that elegant. The first half bottle was described as more “coffee and balsamic”, which my glass was wholly devoid of. If anything, it seemed to lack just a tiny bit of its expected concentration, but on a hot day that was far from what we wanted with this lighter dessert. I’m sure it was down to serving temperature.
I don’t get to dine like this as often as I used to, and I make no pretence of finding it less easy to afford such a day out, post-Covid, what with travel and, in Kew, the absolute impossibility of neglecting to pop into The Good Wine Shop, being just a couple of minutes from the restaurant. Perhaps that helped make this such pleasurable meal, but I don’t think I am alone in being rather impressed with The Glasshouse these days.