Wine in fine restaurants is a real problem for the impecunious wine lover. Especially in the UK, I end up using my knowledge to select something well made and perfectly drinkable because of the mark ups. By the time the restaurant has added 300-400% to the price of something special it has disappeared over the horizon of financial possibility. So that inexpensive Chilean red or southern French white is what we are likely to be drinking. (This is not a piece about the issue of mark ups, just a reflection on their effect on choices in restaurants for those who do not have Roman Abramovitch type resources.)
One of the joys of eating out in most of Italy is the cost of wine, ignoring for our purposes the resorts and international restaurants in major cities. In provincial towns and the countryside, there is little difference in price between buying a bottle in an enoteca, a wine shop, and in a restaurant. And then, even more excitingly, there are restaurants which are run by a wine-driven owner which is an elaborate device for selling the best bottles at reasonable prices to those who share the passion. If Dante was re-writing his Commedia today, he would have preserved a special place in one of the top tiers of heaven for these people. Not only does the customer get a great bottle at an entirely reasonable price, they also make a friend for life. You know that you are somewhere special and that the magic has worked, when the restaurant owner rightly sits down with you to discuss your love of wine and the bottle he has just sold you!
This spring Janet and I stayed in the beautiful town of Faenza, which gives its name, to the elaborate decorated pottery called ‘faience’. We were there to visit the vineyards and wineries of Romagna and especially to explore its expression of Sangiovese. It was a great trip and one of the highlights was eating at Ristorante Noë Vino e Cucina (now sadly closed) run by wine devotee and expert, Andrea Spada. On the first night we ate here we soon fell into discussion about his wines and on the third night he organised comparative tastings of Albana and of Sangiovese by the glass for us. He is a master of hand-selling the rest of the bottle of wine to his other customers and so everybody wins.
On the second evening we chose from the wine list. Having first checked that it was as good a deal as it sounded (yes it was the top wine, no it wasn’t a misprint!) we ordered a bottle of one of Italy’s great wines, Montevertine’s Le Pergole Torte 2008 for €54. I bought a bottle of the 2006 for £60 from the Wine Society whose prices tend to be the lowest in the market … Andrea explained: I love wine, I want people to drink great bottles in my restaurant so I make it possible – what a great attitude! He has some bottles of Soldera’s world-famous Brunello and following the destruction of all the current stock at the winery (five years worth of supply) Andrea has received offers for all his bottles. To which he has replied, yes of course you can buy it all … as long as you drink it here!
You can find my full account of how Le Pergole Torte is made here. What I can add now is that this was the best bottle of wine I have ever bought in a restaurant. The only doubt I had in my mind in ordering it was whether it was too young. The wine is capable of ageing for a couple of decades or more … but I made the right call. Italians love young wines, the English have a thing about old wines but that is mainly because our wine culture is overly influenced by Bordeaux where the best does not begin to show its quality until after the first decade. Actually I had a second doubt – should one really drink Chianti Classico (in all but name) across the Apennines in Romagna? I did feel a bit guilty, but not once the wine got into the glass. And Andrea very politely said when we returned for our third evening that we should drink something Romagnian – which we were more than pleased to do. Especially as he suggested those comparative tastings.
And finally I have to try to say something about this superb but by no means obvious wine. In colour it is unremarkable. For a wine made from 100% Sangiovese it is a slightly darker-than-average medium ruby red. The nose is just so elegant – sour to black cherry, a hint of some real concentration. The oak only shows through in rounding out and making the fruit more elegant, not for itself. But at this young age it is the palate which is simply amazing. There is a magical combination of power and finesse – soaring acidity which thrills and refreshes with every mouthful, very fine tannins which hold the wine together and which are only going to get more supple and delicious fruit, earth, herbal and savoury notes. But this could not be further from a knock-out wine that you want to taste but don’t want to drink. It is drinking perfectly now and we certainly drank every drop and could have happily embarked on a second bottle. At this age it will get more complex, rounded and supple with age – but you would lose some of that vibrancy, youthful freshness, the physical thrill of drinking this perfectly balanced and subtle wine. Sangiovese heaven … stupendo!
PS the food is really very good too … just in case you are wondering. Congratulations Andrea!
If a relatively youthful vintage of Le Pergole Torte can be that exciting, what about a fully mature one? A few months after the visit to the Ristorante Noè above, I had the chance to taste the 1995 vintage, bought at auction by a friend, an unrecognised bottle in a mixed bag. Sounds unpromising? Clearly other bidders thought so too as the price was extremely reasonable. As you can see the labels, front and back, were in half decent condition, but aesthetics apart, that doesn’t really tell you anything about the state of the wine. I decanted this bottle and it was in perfect health.
Old Sangiovese develops in rather a different way to, say, the layers of Bordeaux or the increasingly perfumed Barolo. The young wine is rarely that overtly fruity but shows a zesty freshness in youth. In time, the tannins do soften and lengthen – somewhat – and wine does develop leather and generally ‘animal’ and earth notes, plus a balsamic touch which I think is related to old oak. Le Pergole Torte 1995, drunk June 2013, fitted this profile perfectly except for its exceptional freshness. We did not taste this blind but if we had I doubt anybody would have thought it was approaching the end of its second decade. More generally, the wine was fragrant in the glass, with an an excellent attack of sour cherries and herbs, and a silky but robust texture. Le Pergole Torte does not shout or bluster, rather it is discreetly powerful and subtle. It has a big tannic structure for sure but it is perfectly balanced with flavour intensity and fine length. ‘The complete wine’ was one unsolicited comment for a taster not known for being predisposed to Sangiovese!
The back label shows one nice historical note. It reads ‘Vino da tavola di Toscana’. The wine has since become IGT which gives it the modest fig leaf of denominational respectability, but it spent most of its early years as a mere ‘vino da tavola’. It committed the unpardonable sin against the rules then in place for Chianti Classico – of being 100% Sangiovese. Here the variety is called by one of its old synonyms, Sangioveto, but it is not accompanied by its prescribed companions, Canaiolo and other local red varieties and certainly did not have the obligatory white grapes. So just as Sassicaia had to start life as table wine, so did this other Tuscan classic – but in this case for being too Tuscan. I think Sergio Manetti, its creator, rather enjoyed the argument with the Consorzio and when the wine became famous, it was their loss rather than his.
The dense old-fashioned text on the back label tells you nothing about how it will taste, what mood you should be in when you drink it or any of other frivolities you read on back labels. It names the grape variety, the vineyard (Le Pergole Torte, of course), the nearest town (Radda in Chianti) and the two human co-workers alongside Manetti who created this elegant masterpiece: the cellar manager Bruno Bini and the ‘master taster’ Giulio Gambelli, who died last year. While Gambelli will be sorely missed, his work continues to give pleasure and to inspire.
For my full profile of Montevertine, click here.