Drinking on the Devil’s Shoulder

View up the mountain from Solicchiata. Too close to see the peak, one can however see the old terraced walls, built without cement. Here things grow, while further up the land is just grey-black.
View up the mountain from Solicchiata. Too close to see the peak, one can however see the old terraced walls, built without cement. Here things grow, while further up, the land is just grey-black.

The wines of Sicily have long had an undistinguished history. They were known as powerful and tannic feedstock for the more tepid strains of the northern Italy and Calabria.  Much of the wine was produced in cooperatives, often in the press-cum-warehouse called a palmento.  When the EU outlawed the palmenti as unhygienic (cue Brexit contingent’s ferocious gnashing of teeth ‘bloody Brussels bureaucrats !’), Sicily finally moved into the era of modern winemaking.  The Art of Eating issue 65 [2003] is an excellent and poetic, albeit dated, introduction to Sicilian wine.

This article is more of a photographic survey of the area, contextualised with food, rather than a particularly knowledgeable review of wine – the links below are a good start, and there are plenty of wine blogs with great articles on Etna DOC.

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View of Etna from Randazzo

One cannot drink wine in Sicily without a little sense of the climate.  Sicily’s Pozzallo port is located further south than Tunisia’s Cape Bon, and the African sun affects all. The heat saps one’s desire to do anything, least of all drink the off-dry, alchoholic production.  As Luigi Veronelli (taken from AoE 65) put it: the wines of Sicily ‘flash like a knife…leave the unprepared drinker more dead than alive’.  While, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote of the pouring style practiced by footmen of the Bourbon-era – ‘no collars’ i.e. up to the brim.  He goes on: ‘ “Only water is really good”, [Don Fabrizio] thought like a true Sicilian; and did not dry the drops left on his lips.’

The black earth of Etna.
The black earth of Etna.

Yet it is all different on Mount Etna.  In the curious landscape of Etna Nord, away from the tourists who throng the beautiful sun-drenched green south slope, we find a gentler, cooler clime, hospitable to such vines as can survive in the rich but unyielding soil. From Randazzo to Linguaglossa  heading clockwise on the SS120 lies an extraordinary zone of production that has, in the past 10 years, attracted tremendous, well-deserved, attention.  As ever, an excellent introduction is Jancis Robinson, but Eric Asimov at the New York Times has also energetically championed Etna, and Sicily generally.  Very briefly, the principal grapes are Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio for reds, while Catarrato, Carricante, and Minella Bianca fill out the whites.

Modern times here start, perhaps with the Normans in the 13th c. The church of Randazzo, black, built of volcanic rock - like much of the city of Catania - shows classic Norman features (again like the backside of Catania's duomo). As ever, layered onto this were later periods - including the Catalan Gothic.
‘Modern’ times here start, perhaps with the Normans in the 13th c. The church of Randazzo, black, built of volcanic rock – like much of the city of Catania (further south from Etna) – shows classic Norman features (again like the backside of Catania’s duomo). As ever, layered onto this were later periods – including the Catalan Gothic on the facade.  Randazzo, unlike most of the other towns nearby, was never destroyed by lava flow or earthquake, sparing it the worst excesses of the Baroque.

The terroir has been most memorably described by Marco de Grazia (see below) as the ‘Burgundy of the Mediterranean‘.  He sees Burgundy’s variety of soils and fickle climate mirrored in Etna’s geography: the DOC encircles the mountain for 120 sq km, with exposures ranging between full north to full south; rainfall 6-10x Sicilian average with one of the latest harvests in Europe; volcanic soil with layers of lava flow interpenetrating, creating soil zones, only hundreds of metres separated, yet that originate in eruptions thousands of years apart; and lastly, an altitude range of 400-1000m.  Despite all the variety, the wines, and how they interact with the food and landscape of Eastern Sicily, seem to have a deep unity and embedded history.

To be fair, the Byzantines came here first. This, the so-called 'Byzantine Cuba', is near Castiglione di Sicilia. It is thought to be more Norman in origin than Byzantine. It is not to be confused with the larger, clearly Norman Cuba in Palermo, which dates to the same time as the more-famous Zisa, also in Palermo.
To be fair, the Byzantines came here earlier, as did the Arabs. This, the so-called ‘Byzantine Cuba’, is near Castiglione di Sicilia. It is thought to be more Norman in origin than Byzantine. It is not to be confused with the larger, clearly Norman Cuba in Palermo, which dates to the same time as the more-famous Zisa, also in Palermo.  Both have strong Arabic influences, from the craftsmen who worked in the court of Count Roger.  This feels like a church, while those were pleasure-palaces amidst gardens.

Our trip started in Bronte & continued, via Catania, to the Baroque jewels of Noto and the sea at Siracusa. Yet it was in the misty, brooding slopes of the devil’s mountain, as Etna was known to the Arabs who once ruled it, tramping amongst vineyards and fields of pistachio & almonds, that we were happiest.

This land is about more than wine. Pistachios are a major crop in Bronte.
This land is about more than wine. Pistachios are a major crop in Bronte.  Slightly afield, in the Nebrodi, almonds and carob are cultivated.

Every day the mountain would be different, often with clouds blown from the south, giving an English aspect to the hill towns. On certain days, one could see the slightly different denser clouds expelled from the craters of Etna – sole sign that Monjebello could, once again, erupt.  All around was evidence of volcanic activity, as ravines were filled in with volcanic rock, while the soil was often crumbly black, almost a fine black talc.  This soil often had few weeds or plants, for it is rough and inhospitable.  Yet, for those hardy greens which can survive, it is nutritious.

While Bronte itself lent her name to the writer via the family of Horatio Nelson, of Trafalgar fame. Though he would never get to enjoy this estate, it was awarded to him by a grateful King of Naples for defending his beleagured kingdom. The castle is decorated as an English country house, all carpets, chintz, and doilies. As ever, the bath is a principal focus, while the tiles are in the traditional Sicilian style, albeit muted, of Caltagirone, and old Arab stronghold.
Bronte, a tiny place on Etna, lent her name to an English writer, via the family of Horatio Nelson, of Trafalgar fame. Though he would never get to enjoy this estate, it was awarded to him by a grateful King of Naples for defending his beleagured kingdom. The castle is decorated as an English country house, all carpets, chintz, and doilies. The family of Nelson was active in the fortified wine trade, a curious thing one finds all over the Sicily – particularly around Marsala and Palermo. As ever, the bath is a principal focus, while the tiles are in the traditional Sicilian style, albeit muted, of Caltagirone, and old Arab stronghold.
Looking at the minor church at Passopisciaro, site of Az. Ag. Frank Cornelissen.
Looking at the minor church at Passopisciaro, site of Az. Ag. Frank Cornelissen.  The ubiquitous FIAT Panda, sometimes with jacked-up wheels – with the Ape 50, this is Italy’s answer to Citroen.

The legendary & idiosyncratic winemaker Frank Cornelissen inspired the trip, and we mostly drank his wines and those of a few other producers who share his philosophy – a fidelity to the earth that most winemakers preach, but few practice. In the tasting at his cantina, he told us about his background and how he came to Etna, and his approach to making wine.  As an glimpse of what winemaking really boils down to, it was invaluable, particularly as we have seen and drunk his wines over years, and remember the especially volatile and idiosyncratic wines of the early days.  Some of his wines employ skin contact, yet he made an interesting comment on orange wine, a trend that’s gripped the weingeist in London and New York.  His sense was that orange wines tend to have a certain similarity of flavour – they resemble each other, in their oxidative notes and strong tannins, more than they fully express individualities of terroir.  While I am not sure I can entirely see the wines of Gravner or Radikon in that way, I do agree, that, in lesser producers’ hands, after one subtracts the colour and tannin, there’s precious little left of fruit or individuality.

Cornelissen also gave an example of a cold maceration as an approach that let’s him get the things he wants, such as the transfer of natural yeasts from grape skins to the juice, without undesirable effects, such as transfer of tannins.

That said, Cornelissen is all about expressing the identity of the land, grape, and vintage, with as little intervention in the cantina as possible.

Cornelissen's parcels (each called a 'contrada' in local parlance), over a range of elevations from 600m to 1000m.
Cornelissen’s parcels (each called a ‘contrada’ in local parlance), over a range of elevations from 600m to 1000m.

Cornelissen, like many of the other top producers in the area, uses the archaic alberello approach to training vines.  The French term is gobelet, but the gist of it is that vines are trained to form a clump of vine leaves and suspended fruit, around a central spur, so resembling a wine goblet or a tree.  Given there is a minimum of external support (i.e. trellis or wire), the weight of the grapes can cause them to drag on the ground, hence this is a method better suited to low-yield varieties.  It is also well-suited to Sicily’s relatively dry climate and difficult soil – because of the vine’s bushy, clumpy structure there is enhanced risk of damp and rot. This is also a fiddly approach that requires more manual work, and, combined with the steep terraced terrain, it’s not a surprise that Cornelissen requires a (very glamorous) enclosed tractor: Sicily’s answer to the Lamborghini tracked-vehicles we saw in the mountains of the Abruzzi.

One can see why the vines that manage to survive here can be...well...particolare
One can see why the vines that manage to survive here can be…well…particolare
What man needs to work this land.
What man needs to work this land – tending the devil’s shoulder.

 

 

Susucaru is Cornelissen's rose - as in the others, no added sulphur dioxide, skin contact, fully-complete malolactic fermentation. The grapes are Malvasia, Moscatel, Insolia, and Nerello Mascalese (the last two are autochthonous to Sicily). This wine drinks as a very light red, a bit like a Jura wine.
Susucaru is Cornelissen’s rose – as in the others, no added sulphur dioxide. Skin contact, fully-complete malolactic fermentation. The grapes are Malvasia, Moscatel, Insolia, and Nerello Mascalese (the last two are autochthonous to Sicily). It drinks as a very light red, a bit like a Jura wine.  Malvasia and Moscatel are, of course, the aromatic white grapes founds further west at Trapani and Marsala.
The tasting table: 2015 bianco (yet to be named), 2014 Munjebel Bianco (blend of grecanico dorato, carricante), 2014 Munjebel Rosso (blend of n. mascalese, n. cappuccio, minella nera, minella bianca, alicante bouschet), the entry-level Contadino blend, another 2014 Munjebel Rosso with 100% nerello mascalese.
The tasting table: 2015 bianco (yet to be named), 2014 Munjebel Bianco (blend of Grecanico Dorato, Carricante), 2014 Munjebel Rosso (blend of N. Mascalese, N. Cappuccio, Minella Nera, Minella Bianca, Alicante Bouschet), the entry-level Contadino blend, another 2014 Munjebel Rosso with 100% Nerello Mascalese.

Asked about what he thinks amphorae do, he was characteristically forthright – he lines his in epoxy, so they are essentially neutral vessels of 400 hectolitre volume, nothing more or less. He didn’t see any particular attraction, in the final product, to lining them with beeswax, making them out of terra-cotta, etc., as other producers sometimes claim.  Georgia, a country with an illustrious and long history of wine-making, was one of Cornelissen’s first stops when he made the transition from wine trader to novice vignero.  He recounts how Georgian oenology perhaps ended up pursuing traditional approaches, such as kvevri (amphorae), without questioning  them sufficiently.  Indeed, Georgian wine is somewhat ‘rustic’ (Cornelissen’s term), but I find it works well with the spicy, flavourful food of that land.

Cornelissen's amphorae. Asked about what he thinks amphorae do, he was characteristically forthright - he lines his in epoxy, so they are essentially neutral vessels of 400 hectolitre volume, nothing more or less. He didn't see any particular value, in the final product, to lining them with beeswax, making them out of clay, etc., as other producers, indeed a nation, Georgia, sometimes claim. That said, Cornelissen is all about expressing the identity of the land, grape, and vintage, with as little intervention in the cantina as possible.
Cornelissen’s amphorae.
Cantina-porn 1
Cantina-porn 1
Cantina-porn 2
Cantina-porn 2
We had the Munjebel Bianco at Cave Ox, a lovely osteria with rooms in Solicchiata.
We had the Munjebel Bianco at Cave Ox in Solicchiata.

 

Cave Ox
Cave Ox

 

A dear friend we made amongst the vines at the San Marco agriturismo in Rovittello near Castiglione di Sicilia. She answered to Etta, but her neighbours Mario the donkey, and Max the somewhat waxy sheep-dog were a bit more responsive.
A dear friend we made amongst the vines at the San Marco agriturismo in Rovittello near Castiglione di Sicilia. She answered to Etta, but her neighbours Mario the donkey, and Max the somewhat waxy sheep-dog were a bit more responsive.

Similarly, his comments on the palmento were telling – they weren’t particularly hygienic ways of making wine – and as in any natural wine-making operation, Cornelissen has essentially no defence against harmful bacteria.  That is, other than taking great care to keep kit clean, keeping the cantina cold, and, in the field, hoping it doesn’t rain too much.

An old palmento, now turned into the really lovely San Marco agriturismo near Rovittello. Having been to loads of agriturismi, we can say they span the phenomenal to the dreary, and this one was amongst the best - a great view of Etna, a mum cooking, good food, and best of all, a veritable petting zoo of pigs, donkeys, sheep, dogs, and some young vines yet to make wine.
An old palmento, now turned into the San Marco agriturismo. Having been to loads of agriturismi, we can say they span the phenomenal to the dreary, and this one was amongst the best – a great view of Etna, a mum cooking, good food, and best of all, a veritable petting zoo of pigs, donkeys, sheep, dogs, and some young vines yet to make wine.
Hobnail boots used for the old-style pressing of grapes in the palmento. At a tiny museum near Rovittello.
Hobnail boots used for the old-style pressing of grapes in the palmento. At a tiny museum near Rovittello.

Cornelissen’s cantina at Passopisciaro is bracketed by two fine eno-restaurants: San Giorgio e Il Drago in Randazzo, and Cave Ox in Solicchiata.  San Giorgio is a joyous, casual place, particularly when one of the younger proprietors is on the floor – and it is, hands down, the best value on (high-quality) food or wine, that we have found in Sicily.  Its wine list is exclusively Sicilian, with many Etna names.  Cave Ox, owned by Sandro Dibella, is a bit of a legend – a phenomenal and wide-ranging wine list, both Sicily and otherwise.  In particular, it’s great fun to drink awesome wine there with the equally spectacular pizze, though his lunch menu was some of the finest food we had on the trip.  Prices are slightly higher, but it’s emphatically worth it – and it’s worth staying the night.  In both places, we saw mostly local people eating simple food and drinking modestly-priced wine.  It was early in the season, but there was a smattering of the international eno-set tootling along from village to village in rented Audis.

View inside San Giorgio e Il Drago (Randazzo)
View inside San Giorgio e Il Drago (Randazzo).  Salvo Foti’s I Vigneri is well represented in the bottles.  Sadly, we didn’t get to taste one of their wines (but have one sitting in front of me at the moment), but this article gives a good idea of Foti’s approach.
At San Giorgio e Il Drago: the lovely aubergines of the area, marinated with chili; little fried 'meatballs' of potato. With
At San Giorgio e Il Drago: the lovely aubergines of the area, marinated with chili; little fried ‘meatballs’ of potato. With Crasa’s SRC Rivaggi blend of nerello mascalese & grenache.  Not the most exciting wine in the world at the price, but the food more than made up for it.
The fabulous antipasto dish at Cave Ox, with the Wiegner Triterre wine.
The fabulous antipasto dish at Cave Ox, with the Wiegner Treterre.  100% Nerello mascalese from 750m, natural yeasts.  It was a lovely, very balanced, elegant wine.  They say nerello mascalese could be the pinot noir of the south, or as aglianico is to nebbiolo.  You could sort of see it in this wine.
Cave Ox (Solicchiata)
Cave Ox (Solicchiata)
Magma is the grandest of Cornelissen's wines. From a single vineyard at 910m, vines of 106-year old vines. 1300 bottles. I've only had it at tastings, and have no useful comparative note to offer. I do think Cornelissen's wines, more than most, benefit from tasting over a few hours.
Magma is the grandest of Cornelissen’s wines. From a single vineyard at 910m, vines of 106-years, 1300 bottles. I’ve only had it at tastings, and have no useful comparative note to offer. I do think Cornelissen’s wines, more than most, evolve greatly as they are tasted over a few hours – so, some day, keen to splurge on a bottle of this.
A jolly good go at Cornelissen's entry-level wine Contadino. With arancini of horse-meat, some marinated greens, and pizza.
In beautiful, but perhaps culinarily challenged, Noto: a jolly good go at Cornelissen’s entry-level wine Contadino. With arancini of horse-meat, boiled greens, and pizza. And lashings of the marvellously mild garlic of the area.  It was Thursday, and we would go to bed confident of a Remain vote – after all Farage had all but conceded (‘Remain will edge it’) and Sterlinga had hit 1.50.  What could go wrong?

Other producers have gravitated to the area – such as Marco de Grazia who runs Tenuta delle Terre Nere near Randazzo.  His vineyards are from 700 to 900m, and one parcel has pre-phylloxera alberello vines of 140 years age.  The wines, while slightly spicy, have a chewy sort of minerality, described by Jancis Robinson as a ‘cappucino’ edge. Their soils range from volcanic pumice to volcanic sand mixed with basaltic pebbles and ash.  The terrain is steeply terraced, and again, needs to be tended by hand.

Terre Nere entry-level Etna Rosso 95% nerello mascalese, from near Randazzo
Terre Nere’s entry-level Etna Rosso 95% nerello mascalese, from near Randazzo.  With grilled veg, stuffed pies, and pizza on a balcony in Noto.  It was Friday – the vote result has sunk in, sort of, markets are tanking.

Tuscan winemaker Andrea Franchetti’s Passopisciaro makes some phenomenal wines, both with the local grapes but also transplants such as chardonnay in the 2013 entry-level Guardiola white, from a parcel at 1000m, vinified in stainless steel and aged in wood botti grandi.  Franchetti also makes single-contrada reds, and like wines from some other producers, the pale, perfumed production of nerello mascalese bring to mind northern greats like Pinot Noir as expressed in Chambolle-Musigny or Gevrey-Chambertin, or Nebbiolo as expressed in Gattinara.

Passopisciaro 2013 Guardiola
Passopisciaro 2013 Guardiola, with the archaic tumminia pasta of Sicily, in a sauce of swordfish, zucchini, and baked ricotta.  Our take on the Catanese classic – pasta with swordfish, aubergine, and cheese.

We drank Alberto Graci’s wines a few times, as they were amongst the most affordable.  Like Franchetti, Cornelissen, and Wiegner, Graci is an import from the north (a Milanese banker in this case, albeit with Sicilian roots), his parcels are also near Passopisciaro.  This bianco is a blend of Carricante and Catarratto and was actually one of the loveliest and most versatile we tried, particularly with food.

Alberto Graci's Etna Bianco accompanies pasta made with the blood-saturated off-cuts of tuna. They're called buzzonalia, and we bought them dock-side from a small cannery in the marina of Avola.
Alberto Graci’s Etna Bianco accompanies pasta made with the blood-saturated off-cuts of tuna (from near the main dorsal vein and spine). They’re called buzzonalia, and we bought them dock-side from a small cannery in the marina of Avola.  Very strongly flavoured, they’re best eaten in pasta with the sweet onions of Tropea (Calabria), sweet/tart tomatoes (Pachino, Sicily), and lots of herbs.  They can also be served with sun-dried tomatoes.  This is the ‘fifth-quarter’ of the tuna, so-called pig of the sea.
Salvo Foti's rose Vinudilice
Salvo Foti’s rose Vinudilice

The last producer we sampled, albeit back in London, was Salvo Foti’s I Vigneri, a collective named after a winemakers’ guild of 1435.   His Vinudilice comes from a parcel nestled in a forest of holly oak (quercus ilex giving the name), near Bronte, located at 1300m, probably making it one of the highest vineyards in Europe.  The grapes are Alicante, Grecanico, Minella Bianco, Minella Nera, and Nerello Cappuccio, growing on alberelli vines 100-200 years old.  The soil is ash and sand, and the terrain requires Foti to employ Ciccio the mule  – fair competition to Cornelissen’s tractor.   This was a pretty remarkable rose – pale in colour, strong acidic backbone, but a tremendous complexity of nose and palate – really not like any other rose we’ve had.  That complexity, I suppose, was the pure expression of rock and ash.  We paired it firstly with boquerones, then a guinea fowl roasted in wine and grappa – secondo Patience Gray’s recipe from Carrara.  Vinudilice is available retail at Noble Fine Liquor and also through Les Caves de Pyrene.

The digestivi at San Giorgio e Il Drago, one of which is made for the restaurant.
The digestivi at San Giorgio e Il Drago: the amaro on the left is made for the restaurant.  Interestingly, we saw quite a few ‘grappe’ made in Sicily.  Cornelissen’s grapes used to be sent for grappa production (no longer, he preferred to stay focused on the wine and olive oils, both of which are much more about his terroir, whereas the grappa reflects mostly the distiller’s work).  To be honest, I didn’t love the Sicilian grappe in comparison to Veneto, FVG, etc., but that probably has more to do with the heat.

 

By the time we got to the humid, hot, slightly dusty plain of Catania, all thoughts of wine had evaporated. Instead, it was enough to get to the fish-market before dawn, to watch the tuna come in. Unlike most fisheries, some tuna in Sicily still are caught in the Mediterranean, and gutted onshore. The plaza gets soaked with blood - the perennial renewal of the vines in Etna is replaced by the ancient and tragic rituals of the tuna hunt.
By the time we got to the humid, hot, slightly dusty plain of Catania, all thoughts of wine had evaporated. Instead, it was enough to get to the fish-market before dawn, to watch the tuna come in. Unlike most fisheries, some tuna in Sicily still are caught in the Mediterranean, and gutted onshore. The plaza gets soaked with blood – the perennial renewal of the vines in Etna is replaced by the ancient and tragic rituals of the tuna hunt.

Some addresses:

Cave Ox, Solicchiata

San Giorgio e Il Drago, Randazzo

Enoteca Solaria: Via Roma, 86 in Ortigia, Siracusa

San Marco agriturismo, Rovittello

 

Wine-makers:

Frank Cornelissen

Passopisciaro

Tenuta delle Terre

Alberto Graci

I Vigneri

Tutto Wines, Le Caves de Pyrene, Noble Fine Liquor, Berry Brothers Rudd, and Corney & Barrow are good places to start in London if one wants to track these wines down.

 

Rites of Spring: Gergovie & Tutto Wine Tasting

View of Tutto/Gergovie Spring Tasting 2016 in the Round Chapel, Hackney
View of Tutto/Gergovie Spring Tasting 2016 in the Round Chapel, Hackney

Those lucky enough to be in London for the Bank Holiday had a chance to go to an superb event at the Round Chapel in Hackney, organised by Tutto Wines and Gergovie Wines.  Both importers, along with a handful of others, have done much to create a space for natural wines in the London market – 15 years ago wine-drinking here was neatly segmented into high-end Bordeaux and Burgundy, set against high-alcohol, often New World, rotgut sold to the masses at off-licenses.  Natural wines, with their exacting standards of facture, respect for the land, artisanal approach, and sheer contagious enthusiasm, have brought in younger, cosmopolitan drinkers and really breathed life into the wine scene here.  While events like RAW have popularised natural wine, bringing in producers from Germany, Austria and further afield, Tutto and Gergovie have maintained a distinct Italian and French focus.  On the retail side, Noble Fine Liquor, closely associated with Tutto, has made Broadway Market in Hackney pretty much the hottest place to buy top-end, often idiosyncratic producers, particularly from Italy.  A short distance away, the eno-bistrot Brawn, by another natural wine pioneer Ed Wilson, keeps Columbia Road amply fed & watered. Lastly, south of the Thames, Gergovie’s food venture 40 Maltby Street, with its phenomenal but simple food and tiny menu, the place to go, even as Borough Market has descended into a tourist-driven fracas of selfie-sticks and ‘street-food’.

Wine swatches, akin to artist's colour samples, hundreds of them lined the entrance to the hall. The Gergovie team have been collecting these for years, and they were lovely in their minimal evocation of some phenomenal wines from far-off lands.
Wine swatches, akin to artist’s colour samples, hundreds of them lined the entrance to the hall. The Gergovie team have been collecting these for years, and they were lovely in their minimal evocation of some phenomenal wines from far-off lands.

Rant over…so this event was organised primarily for trade and growers, almost entirely from Italy, France, and Slovenia.  It was in an awesome de-consecrated Victorian chapel off Lower Clapton Road, across from Noble’s second venue P. Franco.  I can’t find much on the history of the chapel, but it had distinct echoes of the fine early Christian basilicas found in Constantinople and in Northeast Italy, the old Exarchate of Ravenna.  The room was hung with the lovely posters that have long been a feature of the London and Paris natural wine shops/enotecas, and are so sorely missed in the hyper-commercial (and somewhat more restaurant-based) New York wine scene.  There was a distinctly aesthetic vibe to the whole thing, from the posters, to the small-scale but utterly conscientious attitude of the growers, and even to some of the London-based staff, artists working part-time in the food and wine businesses around Maltby St.

40 Maltby St's spectacular grub: to start, a gutsy terrine, refined liver mousse; duck egg with asparagus; salt cod fritters. Mains: wood-grilled rabbit, aioli, and simple rough greens; a seafood rice. To end: selection of 3 cheeses; a stunning lemon-rind tarte with pure butter base, creme fraiche. This wasn't the day for vegans or diets.
40 Maltby St’s spectacular grub: to start, a gutsy terrine, refined liver mousse; duck egg with asparagus; salt cod fritters. Mains: wood-grilled rabbit (shown), aioli, and simple rough greens; a seafood rice. To end: selection of 3 cheeses; a stunning lemon-rind tarte with pure butter base, creme fraiche. This wasn’t the day for vegans or diets. Wine: Cristiano Guttorolo’s amphora-aged primitivo.

We ended up mostly sticking with the Italian stalls, with no disrespect intended to the others !  Food was essentially a holocaust of rabbits, grilled outside by 40 Maltby Street’s awesome team.  The evening ended at Brilliant Corners in Dalston, where wine crosses audiophile vinyl.

The distinctive wine posters
The distinctive wine posters
...and the sun from basilica windows
…and the sun from basilica windows

In keeping with the superb spring day, it all got a bit out of hand, with a bit of a Dionysian rendition on the preacher’s pulpit.  A tender respect for religious sentiment restrains me from a pic…

Doyen of the corps de vigneron, Gabrio Bini of Serraghia has long been a fixture on the London wine scene. His wines, from Pantelleria, closer to Africa than Sicily, come from old vines, are hand-tended, and partake of the saline air. Our favourite is his amphora-aged white of Zibbibo (local name for the Moscato di Alessandria, the name of which brings out Cavafy's poems of a vanished city).
Doyen of the corps de vignerons, Gabrio Bini of Serraghia has long been a fixture on the London wine scene. His wines, from Pantelleria, closer to Africa than Sicily, come from old vines, are hand-tended, and partake of the saline air. Our favourite is his amphora-aged white made from Zibbibo (local name for the Moscato di Alessandria grape…evoking perhaps Cavafy’s poems of a vanished city).
Gabrio's distinctive bottles.
Gabrio’s distinctive bottles.
The wines of Cantina Giardino come from the highlands of Irpinia, in Campania, known for the great Taurasi appellation. The noble grape Aglianico (Nebbiolo being the Alianico of the North) dominates reds, here and in Basilicata. The white wine Sophia, is based on Fiano, foot-trodden (by children apparently) and aged in unlined clay amphorae. Other wines are aged in chestnut/acacia barrels from the area.
The wines of Cantina Giardino come from the highlands of Irpinia, in Campania, known for the Taurasi appellation. The noble grape Aglianico (Nebbiolo being the Aglianico of the North) dominates reds, here and in Basilicata. The white wine Sophia, is based on Fiano, foot-crushed (by children apparently) and aged in unlined clay amphorae. Other wines are aged in chestnut/acacia barrels from the area.
Cantina Giardino's amphorae
Cantina Giardino’s amphorae
The wonderful proprietors Antonio & Daniela De Gruttola of Cantina Giardino.
The wonderful proprietors Antonio & Daniela De Gruttola of Cantina Giardino.
Farnea's wines, from the Eugenean Hills just outside Padova in Veneto. The soil is volcanic, grapes are fermented in concrete with natural yeasts and skin contact - Emma, based on Moscato Rosa and Moscato Giallo was a fave.
Farnea’s wines, from the Eugenean Hills just outside Padova in Veneto. The soil is volcanic, grapes are fermented in concrete with natural yeasts and skin contact – Emma, based on Moscato Rosa and Moscato Giallo was a fave.
Marco, one of the nicest chaps, in a roomful of them, isn't averse to a cuddle from a comely Celtic lass...
Marco, one of the nicest chaps, in a roomful of them, isn’t averse to a cuddle from a comely Celtic lass…
...meanwhile back in the Colli Eugenei (Source: Tutto Wines)
…meanwhile back in the Colli Eugenei (Source: Tutto Wines)
Again from Veneto, Daniele Piccinin lands are in the Alpone valley near Verona. His focus is on the local, and almost extinct, Durella grape (aka Rabbiosa - the angry i.e. acidic and hard to vinify).
Again from Veneto, Daniele Piccinin’s wines come from the Alpone valley near Verona. His focus is on the local, and almost extinct, Durella grape (aka Rabbiosa – the angry i.e. acidic and hard to vinify).
Cristiano Guttarolo from Apulian karst-covered hills at Gioia del Colle emphasises the local stalwarts Primitivo and Negroamaro, but works hard to tame them and harness refinement and balance instead of the alcoholised fruit that often marks lesser wines of the mezzogiorno.
Cristiano Guttarolo from Apulian karst-covered hills at Gioia del Colle emphasises the local stalwarts Primitivo and Negroamaro, but works hard to tame them and harness refinement and balance instead of the alcoholised fruit that often marks lesser wines of Italy’s mezzogiorno.
Guttarolo's phenomenal Negroamaro - skin contact in steel and clocks in at 12% ABV.
Guttarolo’s phenomenal Negroamaro – skin contact in steel and clocks in at 12% ABV.
...all the better to follow his Trebbiano/Verdecca blend, again skin contact but in terracotta amphorae, giving a salty savouriness. Here supported by a brodetto w/ saffron, staple seaside soup of the Abruzzese, Molisano, and Pugliese coasts.
…all the better to follow his Trebbiano/Verdecca blend, again skin contact but in terracotta amphorae, leaving a salty savouriness. Here supported by a brodetto w/ saffron, staple seaside fare of the Abruzzese, Molisano, and Pugliese coasts.
From the Slovenian border with Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, near Gorizia, we had some excellent wines from Klinec, based on Malvasia, Ribolla Gialla, Jakot (i.e. Tokai Friulano), growing in marl/sandstone soil similar to that of the neighbouring zone in FVG. The wines are aged in cherry, acacia, mulberry, and oak.
From the Slovenian border with Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, near Gorizia, we had some excellent wines from Klinec, based on Malvasia, Ribolla Gialla, Jakot (i.e. Tokai Friulano), et al, growing in marl/sandstone soil similar to that of the neighbouring zone in FVG. The wines are aged in cherry, acacia, mulberry, and oak.
One of our favourites was the aged blend Medana Ortodox, aged since 2006.
Aleks Klinec with one of our favourites – the aged blend Medana Ortodox 2006.  He was here with his wonderful family, with whom he runs an agriturismo we’re going to try to stay at on our winter pilgrimage to NE Italy.

There were a number of other Italians that I didn’t manage to get pictures of – like Skerlj from the Carso in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, and of course all the wonderful French winemakers.  We also missed, but are looking forward to see at RAW, some others: Cornelissen, Radikon, Lamoresca, Quarticello and so many more from other regions in Italy.

Houdini

So after a few hours of walking the streets of Red Hook, Bushwick, and Ridgewood to see how far this ‘gentrification’ everyone bangs on about had gotten, I was delighted to finally find ‘Houdini Kitchen Laboratory‘ on Decatur Street in what looks like a large ex-factory studio complex.  The take-away is that the pizza was decent, soup great.  The reason to go is cultural: this is a very Italian place, in unexpected ways, and a fantastic addition to a benighted area.

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I had just stopped in for a drink at Roberta’s, the avant-garde in Bushwick that is still best-in-class, despite crowds and slightly uber-cool attitude.  Between the two pizza joints was the opportunity, on Myrtle Avenue, to eat lots of fried pig unmentionables, fried plantains, stewed cow unmentionables, and so forth.  I quite carefully missed all that – save it for next time.

Anyway, I had been at Pioneer Works, in Red Hook, another ‘up-and-coming’ – that has no transport links with anything.  It was a fantastic day-long class on Software for Artists and so maybe I had Houdini on the brain.  The subtitle ‘Kitchen Laboratory’ reminded me of the contemporary trend, to bring art, and to a lesser extent, technology, into the restaurant.  Massimo Bottura in Modena is of course the Italian poster-child of this, who has received death-threats for his efforts. He in turn, has been influenced by Wylie Dufresne, Ferran Adria, and countless others, within and outside the molecular gastronomy crowd.

Houdini had, I’m afraid, nothing of the laboratory that I could tell.  It was a good-looking pizzeria in an industrial building.  But this observation serves to introduce my topic: a deconstruction of a pizzeria. Having spent some time in medium/small-town all over Italy, I thought the parallels fascinating – it really has nothing to do with the food.

Negroni: This seemingly simple drink is served in a multitude of ways across Italy – from the vast soda-glass pours of the Veneto that ‘cut like a knife and leave you more dead than alive’ (from The Art of Eating quoting Luca Veronelli, albeit on Sicilian wine) – to the perfection of the most humble Roman bar.  The pricing varies – cheapest has been €4 in Molise, and the national average is €6.  The Houdini version did a great job picking off the worst features of Italian negronis and giving them a NYC-boost: a smallish pour in a very nice glass, with an enormous fat shard of ice that wetted my nose every time I sipped, and, for grip, a fine layer of sticky Campari juice on the outside.  The iceberg is apparently a mixologist’s trope – not content to leave a 96-year-old, adequately functional, recipe alone – trained cocktail bartenders insist on molesting it with ‘barrel-aged bourbon’, fancy vermouths (Cocchi di Torino), and most painfully, massive blocks of ice that never melt.  Anyway, the price at Houdini – keep in mind, in a pretty grim bit of town – was $12.50, which with tax and a presumptive 15% tip, makes it $15.5.  Obviously NYC and Italian prices are totally different, but that gets to €14.35. More comparably, the London equivalent is £10.26, probably the most expensive I’ve had in the UK other than Dukes.

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Lentil Soup: excellent, thin, no fat, not over-salted, basically perfect.  This is a staple of winter cookery across much of North-Central Italy, but particularly well-done in Padova and the cities of Emilia-Romagna.  It’s highest form, in my view, is when the soup is made exclusively of vegetables (a soffrito of carrots and celery, plus good lentils, say of Castelluccio [Umbria]), not relying on porky bits for flavour.

Migration: One of the most interesting, and encouraging, aspects of how Houdini was run was the demographic.  My order was taken by a lady who looked and sounded (in English) Chinese, but who seemed to speak fluent Italian.  The Chinese incursions into Italy are one of the lesser-known success stories of immigration – from textile workers in Tuscany to owners of hotels and cafes stretching from San Remo to the Veneto – they have even spurred a documentary (being in Italy, it’s structured as a reality-TV show).  In the kitchen was a man who was African or African-American, but spoke Italian, I think.  Interestingly, Italian kitchens are rarely staffed by Africans – the kitchen and flower-seller trades are the preserve of South Asians. The clientele was a happy mix of young (white, professional) people, an elderly English couple with perfect cut-glass accents and hair to die for, and, unlike at Roberta’s, a number of (apparently) working-class Hispanic and African-American diners.  My bill came to $50 before tip for 2 drinks, soup and pizza.

That ain't 'nduja

Pizza: The pizza itself was good for Ridgewood, but would be distinctly sub-average in Italy itself.  It was not greasy, nor slathered in nasty cheese.  Yet, for sporting a wood-fired oven, they weren’t getting the best out of it: the dough was not bubbly, chewy, or particularly charred.

Localvore: The idea of making food locally took Brooklyn by storm a few years ago, and has spread to East London, Berlin, etc.  Why it’s a great idea to make basic ingredients (sausage, cheese, wine, etc.) that depend on a particular terroir, and exist in a well-defined cultural context, in cold, wet, snowy cities, is debatable.  Anyway, I ordered ‘nduja on my pizza.  When it arrived, the ‘nduja was basically just spicy crumbly sausage, and tasty too.  I called the owner (dressed in the obligatory distressed, close-fitting, precisely ripped jeans that are the carapace of the some Italian males) over to discuss, and he tried to emphasise proudly that it was home-made, but after I invoked Cosenza, Metaponto, and Reggio Calabria, he admitted it wasn’t ‘nduja at all, because he couldn’t get the spices, pork, or preservatives.  After that, I didn’t dare ask what cow (never mind, buffalo) produces the ‘home-made’ burrata.  Having said all that, they get points for effort.

Lambrusco: To their credit, it was a tart, deeply violet, bubbly drink, pretty much as it should be.

Cash-only: The last small-town Italian giveaway was the cash-only, paid at the front table.  For whatever reason, in a city that almost universally takes cards in any decent restaurant, this was a cash joint – with a ($1.50 charge) cash machine in the back.  No further comment.

Highlights of RAW Natural Wine Fair 2014

RAW Wine Fair: the end of the affair...
RAW Wine Fair: the end of the affair…

RAW 2014 was, as in 2013, at once fantastic and frustrating: some phenomenal wines and winemakers, but relatively few are actually sold in the UK. On the other hand, if you take the view that wine is best tasted in situ, then it’s all the more reason to get down to Solicchiata, Asti, Udine, or Tokyo !

Of the 151 wine stands, in the interests of focus, I mainly stuck with Italy (Friuli, Sicily, Campania, Lazio, and Piedmont), Georgia, and the Japanese sake stand.

2013 review here, with an introduction to natural wine, importers, etc. https://eatthehipster.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/raw-natural-wine-fair-london/

The highlight was the sake stand, manned by the awesome duo of Masaru Terada (of Teradahonke organic sake brewery based in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo) and Dick Stegewerns of Yoigokochi sake importers (Leiden, Holland). They had about 25 organic sakes, defined as junmaishu (“100% pure rice wine” without alchohol, sugars, additives), some of which were unpasteurised and unfiltered. Many of them were relatively “unpolished”: polishing rice removes the bran on the surface to expose the starch, and most “standard” sake is 30% polished, for what’s thought to be a cleaner flavour, perhaps at the expense of character.

Masaru Terada and friend..
Masaru Terada and friends…
Teradahonda's offering
Teradahonda’s offering

A favourite was Ine Mankai (from Mukai Shuzo brewery in Kyoto Prefecture), a rose sake made from 30%-polished red rice, sweet and acidic. Another was the Yuzu (from Heiwa Shuzo in the southern prefecture of Wakayama), flavoured with yuzu lime. Teradahonke had a number of cloudy sakes described as “pre-modern”, made with minimal polishing, while Senkin Tsurukame 19 (Senkin brewery) was 81% polished ! Bottom line, the sake stand was an eye-opener on the range and variety of sake production in Japan, which doesn’t really make its way to most Japanese restaurants in London, at least at an affordable price by the glass.

On to Friuli-Venezia-Giulia – once again Stan Radikon’s wines impressed with their colour, aroma, tautness: favourites were Oslavje 2007 (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio), the utterly austere Ribolla 2007 (Ribolla Gialla), and the more forgiving Jakot 2007 (Tokaj). Still in FVG, Franco Terpin’s Ribolla Gialla 2007 from the Collio hills was notable, as were Marco Sara’s peppery Schioppettino 2012 (Schioppettino grapes native to FVG) and the Frank 2012 (Cabernet Franc). I also greatly enjoyed Denis Montanar’s slightly sweet Rose Di Refosco Dal Peduncolo Rosso 2010 (RDP grapes), and more tannic Verduzzo Friulano 2006 (VF grapes).

Radikon from FVG
Radikon from FVG
Denis Montanar
Denis Montanar from FVG
Denis Montanar from FVG
Denis Montanar from FVG

Just next door, in Veneto, Costadila from Valdobbiadene offered a great prosecco, 450 Slm 2012, with no added sugar and slightly cloudy, as well the slightly-orange, owing to 20 days of skin contact, 280 Slm 2012 . I think the odd names might refer to elevations.

Costadila from Valdobbiadene, Veneto
Costadila from Valdobbiadene, Veneto

In Piedmont, the standouts were Luca Roagna’s Barbaresco Paje 2008 (Nebbiolo), made in the traditional style (botti grandi instead of barriques , autochthonous yeasts, and a submerged cap of crushed skins atop the fermenting wine), producing a pale and pleasantly tannic wine, 6 years after bottling. Cascina Roera’s wines from Monferrato near Asti, particularly the Monferrato Rosso of 2008 (Nebbiolo) was excellent but probably could use a few more years of ageing (Roera is also a traditional vintner). Lastly, I liked Valfaccenda’s Roero Arneis 2013 (Arneis grapes), for its hint of perfume and sweetness.

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Some very fine wine was at Cancelliere from Campania in the Montemarano zone, made from Aglianico grapes, said to be southern Italy’s answer to Nebbiolo, its high tannins and acids making it suitable for long ageing, indeed requiring ageing before its drinkable. Unlike Nebbiolo it gives a deep garnet colour and more chocolate/plum aromas rather than the pale colour and rose/tar combination of Nebbiolo. It’s prominently made at Monte Vulture in Basilicata (though there were no Basilicatan producers at the fair), but also in Campania. The Gioviano 2008 Irpinia Aglianico DOC, and particularly, the Nero Ne 2008 Taurasi DOCG, both had wonderful colour and mouthfeel, and super-sweet winemakers (this really is a general comment about most of the makers I met). Fabulous stuff. Still in Campania, Don Chisciotte 2011 from Pierluigi Zampaglione, made with Fiano grapes, was delicious.

Lamoresca from Sicily
Lamoresca from Sicily

South to Sicily: Frank Conelissen has been written about here and elsewhere, and had his very fine, if slightly crazy, wines ran dry quickly! Lamoresca, from near Ragusa in SE Sicily, had some likeable wines, from the autochthonous Nero d’Avola, Frappato, and Nerello Mascalese grapes (see Eric Asimov in the NY Times). I also thought the wines of Porta del Vento, from near Palermo, made from Perricone and Catrarratto grapes were worth buying.

Lastly, the non-Italian standout was Esencia Rural’s wines from La Mancha in Spain: the unfiltered Pampaneo 2013 (Tempranillo) with its hint of cumin, and the De Sol A Sol 2010 (Tempranillo), were both remarkable. The former is available in the UK (many of the above are not). The estate also produces a mad black garlic, apparently ultra-hip in NYC restaurants – basically it’s garlic that’s been slow roasted that roasted at low-temperature for up to a month, until they turn black, ultra-caramelised, and umami-rich.

Esencia Rural's Pampaneo from La Mancha
Esencia Rural’s Pampaneo from La Mancha
And their de Sol a Sol, note the great label: the hands of the winemakers parents, if I recall
And their de Sol a Sol, note the great label: the hands of the winemakers parents, if I recall

Brilliant Corners, Dalston

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I love Tokyo’s ultra-specialised restaurants, from places that only serve sea urchin or fugu fish, to tiny audiophile bars under railroad arches with thousands of dollars worth of kit and records. For whatever reason, London and to a large extent New York, never really picked up into this obsessive groove – probably partially due to real estate prices (not that Tokyo acreage is cheap) and partially, likely lack of custom.

So it’s cheering to see a recent opening in Dalston – Brilliant Corners, (presumably) named after Thelonius Monk album. It’s a venue with 4 massive Klipsch speakers and a rack of old valve amplifiers; customised sound-absorbing wall panels; an awesome selection of natural wines; and very good, albeit simple and reasonably-priced, Japanese food. An odd combination, but the wonderful owners and staff make it work – they’re pumped about what they’re doing and it shows.

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The Dalston & Hackney trendy food scene is pretty grim fare – burgers, somewhat gross American junk-food elevated into haute cuisine (£21 friend chicken), served in supposedly stylish, and utterly undifferentiated, shabby-chic venues, with the obligatory tattooed, characteristically Antipodean, and extravagantly bearded cooks/waitstaff/DJ/owner. Even the acheingly hip Cafe Oto’s food is very much second fiddle to the music, booze, coffee, and cakes. The owners of Brilliant Corners are, I think, ex-City, so a far cry from the slightly ghastly food-world insiders, often backed by cashflow-hungry investors, rolling out series of dismal restaurants that cater to the latest fad (whether it be “tapas”, “no bookings”, “Venetian ciccheti”, “Peru”, “street food”, “artisanal pizza”, “hog roasts”, etc.)

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So it’s great to see Brilliant Corners’ unpretentious menu, cut rolls and hand rolls, chicken kara-age, or donburi on brown rice. No fancy fish, only salmon, which keeps cost down and keeps the “save the sea” brigade happy. The clean flavours work really well with the excellent natural wines; as it happens, a topical tipple – this weekend is RAW’s natural wine fair at the Truman Brewery, with old favourites like Frank Cornelissen, Stan Radikon, and (hopefully) a contingent of mad Georgians.

Standouts from the wine list are Salvo Foti’s gutsy white/gold wine from the shoulders of Etna, and La Stoppa’s orange from Emilia-Romagna, both at £38 by the bottle. A wine I haven’t tried, but described as having “cult status” in Japan, the ultimate accolade in my book, is a Crozes-Hermitage Syrah by Dard & Ribo, at £38. Wines by the glass are a very reasonable £5-6. As with any natural wine, it pays to enquire what the flavour profile will be (“funky”, “barnyard”, “oxidised” are terms often used, rather unflatteringly if enthusiastically, to describe them), and if possible, ask for a taste. At their best, they should have intense flavours in the whites, a tannic grip and enhanced mouthfeel in the oranges, and a fresh grapiness in the reds (at least those based on Gamay). They should be as far as possible from the ghastly mass-market high-alchohol wines endemic to the UK market.

Wine list
Wine list

These aren’t wines for drinking all the time, but they are absolutely worth a try. And….no hangover, owing to the reduced use of sulphites. Anyone living East for a few years will remember the happy 18-month tenure of 259 Hackney Road, that used to sell similar wines, albeit from the Jura or Loire; unfortunately Florian & Milena left, and the wine shop has been replaced by a bubble tea vendor (see “latest fad” above).

Brilliant Corners: 470 Kingsland Road E8 4AE.  Info on Facebook (they don’t seem to have a website)