April 03 2011
Two of my three favourite wines are Italian: barolo and brunello. Respectively the burgundy and bordeaux of their country, and alongside their swarthier, fleshier brother – amarone, the southern Rhône’s Châteauneuf in this analogy – they represent Italy’s best known quality wines. I ended one week and began the next recently with lunches hosted by leading exponents of the former two: Franco Massolino and Marchese Leonardo de Frescobaldi.
Barolo, with its small, multiple-owned vineyards, artisan production levels, esoteric cru system and generally perceived inaccessibility to the junior palate, is very much akin to burgundy, even before considering that the Dukes of Savoie, who ruled the lands around Turin until the Risorgimento, were apparently keen to create locally similar wines to those of their homeland across the Alps. There are certainly similarities between the Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir grapes; both are thin-skinned, and produce wines that are naturally wan-coloured, delicately perfumed and bracingly acidic, with high entry-level prices.
The Massolino family have made barolo for generations from their vineyards in Serralunga, which boast the oldest, most iron-rich soils in the region and correspondingly produce wines of particular power and minerally intensity. Their flagship wine, a Riserva from the Vigna Rionda vineyard, has an opulence and lush feel in the mouth which opens and lengthens, nurturing a stately but lively core, the vinous equivalent of a spry dowager countess swaddled in mink.
The breeding of the wines shows in Massolino’s more humble Langhe Nebbiolo ’06, a great introduction to the style, the grape’s broad and ripe tannins on display but covered by plenty of nuanced, spicy fruit. His newly released barolo cru wines from the same vintage show tremendous potential but need nurturing – another five years’ cellaring, or two days in the decanter.
Meanwhile look out for Massolino’s slightly more open-knit barolo 2005, which offers estimable value now and would have made an interesting pairing for my rare veal chop at The Four Seasons’ Amaranto had Franco, echoing the grace of his wines, not chosen for us an admired rival’s (Ceretta) instead. The menu at Amaranto, by the way, is refreshingly honest, almost authentic, and well executed but is most notable for the enormous retro pepper grinders disconcertingly operated from behind the shoulder, and the entire wine list being available by the glass – Cristal ’02, £142.50 a flute anyone? I left the hotel, eager to proselytise the arrival of Franco’s Vigna Rionda ’01, from the estate’s library stock, humming meditatively along to the innocuous Bebel Gilberto-lite lobby music that I almost failed to realise was actually live.
The brunello wines of Montalcino have more in common with bordeaux, with a number of impressive estates, their vineyards singly-owned, some by the remnants of the region’s aristocracy. The wines too, alongside their super-Tuscan cousins – whose origins and grapes are beholden to the Bordelais – tend to be at once more patrician than artisan and also have a greater commercial in appeal than barolo. Like bordeaux for France, they are Italy’s dominant fine wines for the export market and are now similarly being released en primeur. And, pointedly, Americans are as fanatical, if not more so, about them. Italy has enjoyed a fine run of vintages this decade, but 2006 sets a new benchmark in Tuscany and my next lunch was a celebration of the release of one of its stars.
Bottles from Castelgiocondo, one of the handful of top wine estates owned by the influential Frescobaldi family, are labelled with a fresco depicting the mercenary Guidoriccio da Fogliano fighting over Montalcino for the Sienese in 14th century, suggesting even then the fierce regard that the region would instil for its wines. The tasting’s setting, hosted by Marchese Leonardo, was less intimate than the previous one – the Frescobaldis’ own restaurant and wine bar in the new all-singing, all-dancing Harrods Wine Shop – but the wines on show were no less engaging, especially as the companion pieces to ’06 were the similarly stellar ’04 and ’97 vintages.
Vertical comparisons are the best way to engage meaningfully with a particular winery’s ethos and comprehend how nature’s caprice underpins the character of the vintage. The more mature and sinewy a brunello, the better it suits game – the ’97 with its herbal and herbaceous hints of mossy oak, coffee and juniper partnered up well with our roast quail, where the more, in fact too, youthful and fibrous ’06, all chalk and cassis, tight berries and chocolate right now, was best matched with the richer, fatty simplicity of the lamb cannon.
I confess to leaving before pudding arrived; as tedious as didactic wine-pairing sermonising can be from earnest sommeliers – brunello and vanilla rice pudding? – Signor Fogliano might have considered his fight in vain.