Kate Thal’s Tuscan Adventure

Disgustingly early start - 3:50 wake up, for an early flight to Pisa. Jude and I plus Giselle and Kamila from Lordship Lane and Olly from Clapham as well as four young people from The Grove (one of the hotels I consult for) were off to Tuscany on the now annual trip with the biggest supplier to Green & Blue and one of the biggest to The Grove.

I often say, and it is completely true really, that if Eric Narioo’s company did not exist, then neither would Green & Blue. Although I was a few years in to my wine career before I really got to know them, they have in the last ten years or so, introduced me to the wines I love most in the world and quite apart from that, they are also an amazingly wonderful group of people. They seem to attract a certain type of person - those who are really passionate about wine without being even slightly precious, who also have an incredibly well developed sense of humour and more than a touch of eccentricity about them. My theory - expounded on previously here - that companies take on the character of their leaders and founders is given weight here in that Eric is all of the above, as well as being one of the most talented tasters I have ever encountered. He also seems to have the most uncanny ability to unearth extraordinary wines where ever he goes. I am sure it must drive his competition mad.

A trip with them has taken place for the last 3 years, always in late August or early September when the grapes are ripe and ready to be tasted (which I always do - very enthusiastically). We went to the south west region of France in 2005 (where Eric hails from), the Languedoc and Roussillon last year and this year, we were going to Italy. Although they had only a smattering of Italian wines 3 years ago, their portfolio from this country has now expanded to the extent that last year, they won Italian Wine Merchant of the year at the International wine challenge. Quite apart from these kudos and my profound adoration for them and their wines, there is also the fact that their trips are fun. Slightly chaotic at times and certainly not for the faint hearted in some ways, they are never the less full of joy. Mostly, this is due to the fact that we do tend to be tasting sensational wines while talking to the fascinating and talented people who make them in ridiculously beautiful settings - profoundly energising and joyful. Partly though, I always laugh a lot on their trips and frankly for the last three years, I have always needed to laugh a lot for a day or two by the time I get to the airport.
The one and only fly in the ointment is, sadly, an obscenely large, very annoying bluebottle. On these trips, I have to be one of the drivers.

My aversion to driving on wine trips is also well documented on this blog so we won’t go into that again, suffice it to say that of all the countries in which I hate to drive while working (no matter how much fun that work is), Italy far and away surpasses the others. It is the champion of champions of driving nightmares. Those bloody tiny highways with only two lanes, bordered on each side by scarily solid looking concrete walls (and Italian drivers too have succumbed to the insane fashion for obese vehicles, making them even more hair-raising now); the common practise of driving whilst smoking, eating, conducting important business on the phone and simultaneously having an animated conversation with passengers which leads to cars floating aimlessly all over the road as opposed to staying definitely and solidly in one of the tiny lanes; the over taking on blind corners whilst doing all of the above and, my personal favourite, the habit of large trucks of pulling out into the fast lane with no warning what so ever, often straight into the path of a much smaller vehicle. This makes driving a test of nerve to rival the playing of Russian roulette. Not that I have ever played Russian roulette but then I really don’t need to. I have driven in Italy.
We arrived to glorious sun which made a welcome change from moody, chilly London. Eric had been called away to France on urgent business with a prospective Champagne agency so we were met at the Airport by Christian - his Italian buyer - who was everything you would expect a colleague of Eric’s to be. Also, he is Italian which meant that he was a particularly effective tour guide.

First, we had to pick up my hire car and as we stood in the queue, I asked Christian if he drove like Eric. Eric, although French, has in many ways embraced the Italian approach to driving. He definitely drives with more skill and purpose than many natives of Italy and his commitment to lanes and directions are a relief, but his speed and multi-tasking behind the wheel hint at a fair sprinkling of Italian in his genetic make up. When he called me up to get the names of the people coming on this trip, we were halfway through this - me carefully spelling them all out and him painstakingly writing them down - when he said “Oh hold on Kate, this is getting tricky, I am just going to get out of the fast lane”.

“Oh no” Christian replied “I am much worse”.

The Green & Blue vehicle - everyone was terribly tribal and without direction, our small group and the Grove gang split neatly down the middle, distributing themselves between both cars - was not as big as it had been last year (when I had the unfortunate incident with the narrow bridge in Roussillon - do see Kamila’s blog for details), which was a relief. We set off without too much trouble and after a quick lunch on the motorway, arrived at Poggio Argentiera at around 4pm. We drove immediately to one of their vineyards where Antonia Camillo showed us around.

Poggio Argentiera is based in Maremma - land which stretches from just south of Bolgheri right to the southern border of Tuscany, a distance of about 100km all along the coast. It has a climate which is really very different to the rest of Tuscany thanks to the coastal breezes and the hot, dry days giving wines which are riper and rounder than even those from Brunello di Montalcino.

Poggio Argentiera have vineyards in two different parts of Maremma - the first being in Podere Adua which is where the winery is based. This was bought by the current owner - Gianpaolo Paglia - in 1997 and a lot of money has been poured in restoring the winery and revitalising the vineyards. They now own 10 hectares here as well as a further 10 in Podere Keeling in 2001 where vineyards are planted slightly further from the sea at a higher altitude of 250m. This is the vineyard we decant ourselves into, the afternoon feeling hot and dusty but a welcome relief from the car.

We tramp down rows, munching on Sangiovese which is very nearly ripe, down a steep-ish slope with vines running down to the bottom and then back up the other side. Antonio has been the winemaker here since 2000 although he has over 20 years of experience in this area behind him.

70% of the vineyards are planted to Sangiovese with the remaining being Alicante, Ciliegiolo, Syrah and Cabernet Franc - the latter being an experiment. Sangiovese, Ciliegiolo and Alicante are obviously the most traditional of these, with DOC (the official Italian stamp of approval) regulations allowing both. From next year, international varieties will be allowed in blends as well. Alicante, which has been here since the 17th century is also found in Spain and southern France and is famously one of the only red grape varieties which has red juice (with others, all the colour is in the skin) and was often used in blends to add deep, blood red tones. It is however wasted if only looked upon as a colouring agent as it can make splendid wine in its own right if treated properly.

The soils in this vineyard are very stony with limestone further down and although it is further from the sea, the breeze here is actually cooler thanks to the altitude. This is in contrast to the soils near the cellar which are much sandier although there is a lot of limestone as well. Because of the fact that the cellar vineyards are warmer, these wines are richer and rounder. Both parcels do eventually get blended.

Antonio farms completely organically here but like so many, there is no mention of this on their labels. This is done out of respect for the environment in which they work and in order to produce fruit (and eventually wine) which tastes as delicious as possible, but has never been a marketing decision. He also, again like many we speak to, loath to associate him self with those who do market their wines as organic as he feels that mostly, the quality of the wine is not really what it should be.

Back into the cars and after stopping off at the vineyard near the cellar, where the acidity on the fruit has a more bracing bite, we have a quick tour of the small cellar. Open, small wooden casks are full of fermenting fruit. It has just started, so things are still relatively cool and relaxed. We then proceed to another cellar and taste the Sauvignon which is on day 3 of its fermentation but which already has the most incredible apple blossom nose - really not common at this stage. It is sweet, fragrant and delicious and bodes very well for the dry Sauvignon in the range which I am not familiar with.

Up to the small tasting room next, both for a tasting of the Argentiera range as well as the wines which Antonio makes under his own label at the winery.

2006 Antonio Camillo Maremma Bianco “Alture”
100% Sauvignon Blanc. This is not a proscribed variety for this region, so this only gets IGT status. This is from a vineyard planted on volcanic soils at 600m above sea level with vines which are now 15 years old.
Lovely nose - fresh pineapple with a zesty lime/grapefruit edge. Very good balanced acidity - a zesty lime edge with underlying honey and even a touch of white pepper. Marvellous development on the palate - richer and spicier honey coming out towards the back and on the finish. Lovely wine - we will need to stock this very soon.

2005 Antonia Camillo “Principio”
100% Ciliegiolo from 40 year old vines.
This variety is named after cherries as the berry is very big. Fresh red cherry nose - juicy and very slightly spicy. Fresh, balanced acidity, soft, velvet tannins in a medium body with red cherry, smoke and aromatic spice flavours. Liquorice and more fresh cherry flavours come out more towards the back. Delicious wine - juicy and velvet textured crammed full of lovely red fruit.

2006 Poggio Argentiera Morellino di Scansano “Bellamarsilia”
85% Sangiovese, 10% Ciliegiolo, 5% Alicante.
Slightly fresher cherry on the nose - not as ripe as above. Good acidity and fine but slightly structured tannins in a medium body. Red and black fruit with liquorice and coffee and an edge of minerality. Great, fresh, easy red with good grip. It is more complex than the Ciliegiolo as you would expect, but not quite as charmingly juicy and rustic.

2005 Poggio Argentiera “Capatosta”
95% Sangiovese, 5% Alicante.
This name means “stubborn” - hard headed (and must remember it so I can yell it at Jude at appropriate moments). This is so named as Gianpaolo and Antonia were both very stubborn about wanting a wine which really fully expressed the terroir here.

Richer black cherry on the nose. Fresh, balanced acidity and richer but very structured tannins in a medium body. Meaty black and red cherry with great spice - still very young and “locked in” to the fruit, this will no doubt come out later. Liquorice and coffee come out more towards the back. Still very young but showing great pedigree already.

2004 Poggio Argentiera Finisterre
50% Alicante and 50% Syrah. 100% of this wine is fermented in old barrels.

Lighter, sweeter fruit on the nose. Very fine acidity and fine but structured tannins on the palate with morello cherry and damson fruit and a lifter, black spice edge. Also still very young, liquorice comes out in the mid palate with a rich damson and coffee/spice/fresh fruit finish.

We finish the tasting with a most wonderful sweet wine made from 100% Alicante which is dried in a “fruttaio” - a room with good air circulation but not overly high humidity. Here the fruit is left until the weight is reduced by 30% and then fermented in small, open barrels. Completely delicious wine with spice, chocolate and rich black cherry flavours.

Back in the cars and off to the final vineyard of the day, down a small road. This is where the Ciliegiolo for Antonio’s wonderful wine is grown and we are greeted when we arrive by two rather mangy, feral looking dogs. Kamila, our in-house fanatical dog lady, is very happy.

This vineyard is 40 years old and still farmed by an old grower who Antonio is planning to take over from although he already buys the fruit. This is ripe and delicious on the vine and the berries are indeed a lot larger than most and have a hint of black cherry about them. We stand in the vineyard as the sun sets and Antonio tells us the story of this variety. It is one of the most indigenous of this area but is hardly used any more thanks to what he describes as a “political mistake”. Some years ago, legislation managed to get passed (he suspects foul play) which permitted blends of Ciliegiolo with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Obviously, most people rushed out and started planting huge swathes of the latter varieties as they reasoned (sadly, rightly) that these would be much easier to sell. Ten to fifteen years ago, indigenous varieties were indeed almost impossible to sell and although there is something of a renaissance going on now, it is a very small, very quiet revolution. Antonio bemoaned the short sighted, lack of respect for tradition which bought this situation about. He was, he said, really just a simple farmer himself, only really interested in growing the best fruit and making the best wine, but he could not believe how bad the Italians were at preserving their heritage.

On that sombre note, it was back into the cars and off to the hotel. This by the sea, was an hour and a half away on mainly twisty Tuscan roads and while I was feeling a million miles away from relaxed because of this. We passed the time quite cheerfully, playing the “guess the artist and tune” game with the radio (always more fun in Europe where playlists are often utterly bizarre and certainly unexpected) Christian had said that cabs had been organised to take us to the seafood restaurant we were booked in to that evening, so I was feeling really quite cheerful, despite the fact that our car (an Opal. If you are an owner of one of these trumped up bubbles of pure bollocks, I can only offer my commiserations) was clearly not happy with the gradient of some of the hills and had to be dropped down into second or even first in order to make it up. Please do bear in mind that this was also before anyone had eaten several times their own body weight in food in one sitting.

We finally arrived and after five minutes in the room to have a quick wash and apply lipstick (me obviously - Jude remained un-made up), we were back downstairs, to be greeted with the news from Christian that cabs would cost the ridiculous sum of 200 euros and so we were going to have to drive. I took a deep breath and decided that it definitely was not the end of the world - I could feel a cold coming on anyway, so it was probably better that I did not drink. What a poor, innocent fool I was.
The restaurant, La Fontanina di S.Pietro (http://www.lafontanina.com), was apparently not too far away, so after a bit more tricky reversing and pushing the damn car over the steep incline at the hotel parking lot’s entrance, we were away. The road climbed away from the sea and while sloping gently down for short bursts every now and then, it kept climbing. The slopes were not ridiculous, but the car was and it clearly was not enjoying the journey. My knuckles started to get whiter on the wheel but I took deep breaths and kept dropping gears and pushing it as hard as I could. The road got still narrow and ever steeper. I breathed hard and gripped harder. Then, the summit appeared. From the road the restaurant loomed into view. It looked absolutely lovely - a balcony lit up, overlooking the abyss which had just dragged ourselves out of. What was considerably less lovely was the drive up to the restaurant. A hairpin bend up a road evidently constructed for narrow ox-carts followed by a further climb up a pretty vertical incline. I think I started to whimper slightly at that point. The car, sensing what was ahead, gave a dramatic burp and stalled completely.

To words of great encouragement and slightly hysterical laughter, the Opal was started up again and with hand break released, I started to accelerate. Wheels spun, also slightly hysterically, gravel kicked up loudly, the smell of burning rubber started to permeate the car and we did not move. Everything got even noisier - including the hysteria inside the car. An even more pungent smell became apparent followed seconds later by smoke from the engine and a corresponding increase in the pitch of in-car hysteria. Slightly crazed with the idea that we were soon going to slip backwards and plunge, in reverse, to our deaths down the road we had just climbed, I slammed the accelerator down with even more force and we finally leapt forward, still at a far more vertical angle than was comfortable, over the ridge that had trapped us. Dead ahead, Christian’s car was squeezing its bulk up a tiny, also vertical drive immediately in front of the restaurant entrance but it soon came sliding down again and from the hand gestures of the occupants, it became apparent that the intention was for me to take that particular spot.

That suggestion called hitherto unscaled heights of noisy anxiety forth from me (and we had already hit some peaks that evening) so the back seat (Olly, Giselle and Kamila), helpfully, in between wails of protest at the fumes from what must have been a very unwell engine (it turned out to be something to do with the clutch) permeating the car, pointed out a teeny tiny car park immediately to the right. I allowed the car to creep backwards a bit and edged in.

Once in enough to see the extent of it, it became clear that there was in fact no space for anything larger than a very compact fiat. A small Fiat that had been flattened on a backward, downward spiral whilst trying to climb a mountain. Jude then pointed out a slightly larger space near the entrance. This turned out to be the edge of a sheer drop down - something which only became clear when one of the front wheels popped over the edge. Shrieking, the back seat cleared the car like rats fleeing the vehicle of death. I couldn’t really blame them.

My husband, bless his brave heart, stayed put and - much as one probably talks to a dangerous maniac - calmly and quietly talked me back up the hill and up the drive of doom where, shaking like a leaf, I could finally get out from behind the wheel of the car. Smoke billowed from the engine and the general consensus was that the clutch had been pretty much ruined beyond redemption.
However, it was now 9:30pm. No-one had eaten since the motorway paninis and certainly the Green & Blue gang were in dire need of calming wine so naturally vehicle drama was of limited appeal at that stage.
If ever a restaurant was worth a journey through the fires of hell to get to, this was it. It was by then pitch black, but the view in the light must be incredible. We were led to a large table on an outside terrace, underneath a canopy of vines, looking out over, well, a sea of darkness. We were on the top of the world.
Christian set about ordering a selection of wines while we set about trying to make sense of the menu. This was specialist sea food restaurant and it was eventually decided that we would let the chef - a, large, very charming gentleman who Olly decided was the perfect example of what a chef should be (Large and jolly and clearly immensely proficient) - decide for us with a selection of antipasti, followed by a range of pasta and then finally, a very large fish.

Although this was explained, most of the group made the rookie mistake of completely forgetting what it was that lay ahead when the first dishes began to appear. This was simple but profoundly delicious food - sea urchins (not actually a favourite of mine, but very good examples of these - fresh and intensely fishy), monkfish livers served with fried apple ( the foie gras of the sea) , beautifully baked small breads, cod and ricotta cannelloni, fritto misto, butter soft octopus salad, huge dishes of mixed seafood - prawns, calamari, mussels. Glorious food washed down with a truly fantastic selection of wine. Much as I felt I could have happily shot gunned a bottle of Prosecco after the drive, I was mindful of the fact that I would have to drive back down the hill again and so tasted each once and then stuck to water.

We started with a particularly good Franciacorta - usually a rather disappointing style in my experience - from a producer called Bella Vista. Fine and elegant with a perfect balance between citrus and honey flavours. There was also a fantastic biodynamic Verdicchio Classico - the name of which I stupidly did not record, and a hugely impressive Soave Classico from a producer called Marcato. We tried two cuvees, both of which were sensational, but the top cuvee “Il Firso” was the wine of the evening, against some very strong competition.

The mood was good post antipasti. Good wine had been drunk and the dangerous edge had been completely taken off everyone’s hunger. Indeed, the amount of food served could have taken the edge off everyone’s hunger for the next few weeks but we had only just begun.

Pasta next. There was spaghetti with a fresh tomato and basil sauce. Again, simple and completely incredible. Also risotto and another pasta, both of which had a seafood bias. I wish I had more diligently recorded these dishes but a horrid cold was starting to well and truly take hold then - intensified no doubt by the drive - and I was finding it slightly difficult to concentrate.

Everyone was stuffed to the point of being slightly stoned on good food by the end of the pasta course. Olly and Jude seemed to be engaged in some sort of “eat to the death” competition which was worrying. Worrying because I have no wish to be married to someone emulating Pavarotti (rest his soul) in girth and judging by the amount I witnessed my husband consuming at dinner, that possibility seems distinct.
The fish however, was still to come. It turned out that when they had described it as a “big fish”, they had been rather underplaying the situation. Slightly crazed laughter seemed to be the only possible reaction when it was finally, with great ceremony, carried forth from the kitchen. This was the big mama of big fish, A few people wanted to take pictures but no-one had a lens wide enough. Incredulity as to what we were still expected to consume washed over our group and certain members (Kamila and Giselle in particular) started to look really quite panicked. Others (Olly and Jude) assumed a “bruised but not beaten” demeanour and set to. I asked for the head and nibbled away at my favourite bits - hoping the nutritious value of very fresh fish (it had been happily swimming about that morning, poor thing) would help with the cold.
I returned from the loo during this course to find the table watching a car of Americans who had, on attempting to leave the restaurant, blown their tyre and were reduced to helplessly standing by while someone changed it for them. Apparently, the narrowness of the road had been a challenge too far and they had hit an obstacle. I realise it is wrong to derive intense enjoyment from the misery of others, but I did feel rather gratified. I was not entirely hopeless after all. Driving up (and down) that damn road really was bloody for most drivers. Wade (from The Grove) pointed out that on top of the misery of losing a tyre and having to stand around in the dark while it got changed, it probably did not make them feel any better to have a strange woman pointing and laughing from a terrace but I have to confess that this did not stop me from doing just that. Apologies to the hapless Americans. What delighted me more than anything though, was watching the quintessential chef turn their car around for them. The realisation that this service was potentially on offer, along with giant fish, lifted a great heavy weight from my shoulders.

Incredibly (again, in the case of Jude, worryingly) there were those among us who followed all of this with dessert. A traditional ricotta cake made by the chef’s mother. Apparently lovely and it certainly looked it.

Dinner over, a small knot of people gathered around the Opal offering opinions - none of which I had a deep understanding of apart from the fact that the general consensus was that the car would never be the same again. I was just relieved that it had stopped smoking.

The chef did indeed turn the car around - probably the best thing that had happened to me all evening which is really saying something considering the quality of the food and the rest of the experience. He zipped it down the drive of doom, zoomed up the hill and then magically zoomed back down again, facing the right way, seconds later. “I’m glad that’s not my car” he said as he tossed me the keys. After the hideous anticipation of reversing down the drive which I had endured all through dinner, the drive to the hotel seemed really quite easy and when we finally arrived and parked, I don’t think I have ever been quite as pleased to get out of a car and walk away from it.

Posted by Doug on 13-Jun-2008. Permalink
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