Brunello all-stars and a BBQ at Sting’s

The top wine blogger wraps up his first visit to Tuscany’s premier wine festival

Image: Alessandro Moggi, www.alessandromoggi.com

The next day began with James Suckling presenting famous oenologist, Carlo Ferrini, and a selection of the Tuscan wines on which he consults. One of the highlights for most must have been the monumental Casanova di Neri Tenuta Nuova 2007 (97 points from Wine Spectator). It clearly shows fantastic power restrained by sinewy tannins; broad shoulders but lithe hips like a Greco-Roman wrestler – a compelling but not charming wine that, much as with Lady Gaga, I struggled to find attractive. Carlo proclaimed without equivocation that 2010 is the best vintage of the last decade in Tuscany, eclipsing even 2001 and 2006. Note to self: back up the trucks to my favourite Brunello and Chianti estates.

Certainly the selection of Rosso di Montalcino and basic Chianti I have tried bode well for the quality of their big brothers, currently maturing in barrels. On this subject, Michael Motiu from Fuligni suggested that his Rosso di Montalcino acts as an indicator, a litmus test for the Brunello, whilst Valdicava’s Vincenzo Abruzzese declares that his Rosso is his business card. I had a bottle of his 2010 with tagliata di manzo at home recently, and was surprised by the intensity of the wine and delighted by the perfection of the match. Tagliata is my favourite way of preparing steak and typical of Florentine elegance, sliced rare into strips and served on a bed of rocket, with parmesan shavings and aged balsamic oil drizzled over. Of course, the more famous bistecca fiorentina – a porterhouse of cartoonish proportions as thick as a slice of whale – is better representative of Florentine opulence.

We headed into town afterwards with a friend I had convinced to sign up last minute for Divino Tuscany. As we wandered along the streets of the Oltrarno, trying to relocate more of my old haunts, we had the great fortune to encounter the procession of participants for this year’s Mille Miglia passing Palazzo Pitti on their long drive north to Brescia. As my friend’s company, Vintage Seekers, specialises in vintage fashion, watches, wines and cars, he was in his element. If only one of the drivers could have been wearing Oscar de la Renta and an Omega Chronostop I think his weekend would have been complete.

Back at Villa Cora in the afternoon, I turned my attention to the Brunello being presented – the four/five star vintages ’01, ’04, ’06 and ’07 featuring heavily. The majority showed impressively and after a disappointing Ciacci Piccolomini d'Aragona ’04 on Thursday night, my faith was restored with the Burgundian (well – 2003 Pommard-ian) 2007 and a multi-faceted Riserva 2004. I had deliberately left Valdicava’s single vineyard riserva (Montalcino’s first) Madonna del Piano 2006 until late in the session to try, so as not to peak early; and sure enough it was the wine of the afternoon. I found out subsequently it has a perfect 100-point score from Suckling, so it was possibly the first and last time I will try it as the tiny allocations are fought over by dead-eyed wine brokers on both sides of the Atlantic.

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That evening we dined at Teatro del Sale, a private dining club (membership is €5 but by invitation only), the brainchild of one of Florence’s most heralded and unforgettable culinary masters, Fabio Picchi of Il Cibrèo fame and his wife, actress Maria Cassi. I remember Hunter S Thompson’s godson cooking me a Cibrèo speciality, zampa di vitello (veal hoof), six years ago at his apartment nearby and the restaurant remains unquestionably my favourite in the city. The food is never pretentious, but woe betide the cretin who asks for bread, let alone salt, to accompany his soup. Picchi would be the archetype for a Disney version of a loud, bearded, uniquely eccentric, passionate and larger-than-life chef. Customarily, he stands by the pass in the open-view kitchen (I think at least two of his sons are in there with him and certainly one runs the front of house) and calls away dishes when ready – not to waiting staff but to customers who hasten up to the hatchway, plates in hand, to accept the next round of food. Unless of course you are fortunate enough to sit next to Panorama magazine’s food critic and the editor of L’Espresso, and hence have special dishes trotted over to you. I have loved tripe since living here, and recall fondly the city’s trippaio (tripe vans) offering rolls stuffed with intestines slow cooked with lots of tomato, red peppers and liberally seasoned with pepper.

Tonight we enjoyed an exquisitely subtle cold tripe salad and then the Florentine speciality, lampredotto, previously the only dish I have ever struggled to enjoy: a section of veal’s small intestine served in a vinegary broth, it can be rustic and plebeian to the point of fitting right in to a Dickens adaptation. But in this instance it was well seasoned and more approachable in texture (not like undercooked squid). It was accompanied nicely by a magnum of Frescobaldi Castelgiocondo Riserva ’01 that started on our table, the form for the evening being that you went around to fellow diners swapping bottles when you fancied trying something new. James Suckling’s precociously talented but charmingly modest daughter, Isabel, provided the after-dinner entertainment, singing standards and originals accompanied by Ernán López-Nussa on the piano. Other Divino Tuscany guests were dining in various palazzi around town, as guests of their aristocratic owners, but although there may have been grander dinners in Florence that night, there were certainly none more fun.

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Divino Tuscany concluded the next day with a BBQ at Il Palagio (second picture), the restored 16th-century hunting lodge in Figline Valdarno owned by Sting and Trudie Styler, where they also make a small range of biodynamic wine (obviously). The food and private performance were first-rate; and for a man famous for his activism saving rainforests, he was remarkably indulgent of my daughter’s previously mentioned attempts to denude his cypresses of their bark. By this stage of the weekend, I’d surfeited on red wine and stuck mostly to Ferrari’s fizz (and even, I’m ashamed to say, water).

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