If you’ve ever dined at a Tuscan wine estate, you will know that no dinner table is complete without two bottles on the table: one of the house wine, and another of the house olive oil. While my professional duties mean I tend to reach for the wine first, I always take great pleasure in tasting the oils too because they can be just as unique and characterful as the wines that they accompany.
Most wine estates make a little olive oil. But few export it – it’s usually for their own use. At the River Cafe, you can drink the wine, and enjoy the olive oils, of four excellent Tuscan wineries, all imported exclusively by Italian specialists Liberty Wines. Some of the oils are included in a River Cafe gift box and a good selection of the wines and olive oils can be found at Hedonism, Valvona & Crolla and Noel Young Wines.
Late last year, I had the opportunity to taste the new-season olive oils at a special lunch hosted by all four winemakers, and Liberty wines MD David Gleave, at the River Cafe – and it was a revelation. “These oils express the estate as much as any wines do,” said Gleave as we took our seats. First up was Felsina Berardenga, an estate on the southern border of Chianti Classico. Its Chianti Classico 2016 was on the more spicy, powerful side. But the style of its five jade-green oils ranged hugely depending on the varietal: the 2018 Pendolino was as fresh as cut grass, while the Raggiolo was more aromatic and complex.
The wines and oils of Capezzana, an organic estate just north of Florence, were much softer. Its Villa di Capezzana Carmignano 2015 also combined a bright acidity with a ripe, roundness that verged on chocolatey. Its oils were subtle and creamy, with meadow-y notes of chamomile and hay. Both were exquisite with a simple dish of langoustines and cannellini beans.
The Fontodi estate in the heart of Chianti Classico makes two olive oils: the eponymous Fontodi, and I Canonici. I adored the latter’s vibrant fruitiness: I could taste green apple skin, grapes, greengages but it was also incredibly silky. Its Chianti Classico 2015 had a very lifted perfume: cherries, almond and a nice bit of grip.
Lastly, came Selvapiana, an estate in the cool climes of northern Tuscany famous for producing some of the most peppery, greenest oils in the region. That piquant quality also came through in its Chianti Rufina 2016, with a defined tannin and lots of Chianti acidity. The two sliced deliciously through unctuous orecchiette pasta and ricotta.
“Twenty or 30 years ago the wines of Tuscany used to be a much more local thing,” says the River Cafe’s Ruth Rogers. “Then a new generation came along who realised they could make wine to compete with the best of California and France, and the winemaking changed radically. And it’s been the same story for the olive oil.