Winery of the Month – Agricola I Fabbri, Chianti Classico

Where time permits, we all like to find out a little more: about the farm which produced our reassuringly smelly cheese, the microbrewery responsible for that third pint of delicious murk, the saxophonist undaunted by the odd reed squeak or horn honk in the urgent unfolding of his solo. With this in mind, every month, or thereabouts, we’ll be looking at a winery and its machinations, to offer some small insight into the characters and processes that comprise your bottle of individuality. It doesn’t have to be small to be beautiful – let’s not forget that it was EMI and not Rough Trade who brought us the Beatles – but we’ll start with something very small. And very beautiful.
High in the hills of Lamole, Chianti Classico, the Grassi family have owned Agricola I Fabbri since 1620. The farm covers 35 hectares, much of it hillside woodland around the village, with just 9 hectares (about 22 acres) under vine and a further 2 given to olive oil production.

I Fabbri’s impressive grapevine amphitheatre

To get some idea of the scale involved, think of a hectare as one and a half Premiership football pitches, and bear in mind that Cloudy Bay’s estate vineyards alone amount to 250ha. I Fabbri is currently run by Susanna Grassi, a woman blessed with an uncompromising dedication to quality and value, who, with her sister Maddalena, has spent the past twelve years developing sustainable farming practices. All of I Fabbri’s grape cultivation has now been certified organic and biodynamic.

Olive workers showing us that it’s not all beer and skittles in the wine business

And the wine..? I Fabbri produce six wines and an award-festooned olive oil. The vineyard is given largely to Sangiovese (more specifically Sangiovese Grosso di Lamole), together with some Canaiolo and Merlot. All grapes are picked by hand in the first two weeks of October, and painstakingly vinified according to generations of family tradition. There is absolutely no confection here – nothing is concocted in a laboratory to produce wine of popular but compromised appeal. And the wines taste gorgeous, of course. The Lamole Chianti Classico alone tastes like a wholesome melange of light red fruit and licorice, concentrated berries and a touch of coffee. Others have rich floral aromas and flavours of plums and chestnuts, and they all have a wonderfully proportioned structure which pushes the flavours all around your mouth, and makes sure they stay there. But above all, they taste like a tiny Italian vineyard. And if you’re really paying attention, you’ll swear you can hear a reed squeak.

(Susanna Grassi will be in Liverpool on Tuesday, 12th June, hosting a five-course winemaker dinner on the glorious top floor of the London Carriage Works. For further information: http://www.thelondoncarriageworks.co.uk/news/winemakers–dinner—i-fabbri.phuse)

Susanna Grassi braces herself for a big night out in Liverpool

Staring At Beer

The only way to prove a small point to myself, it seemed, was to spend several weeks staring at a bottle of beer. It was not unbroken staring, you understand; indeed, there may only have been a few sly stares per week, but it was always the same beer. I had a suspicion that it was doing something other than sitting there quietly getting people hammered; involved, perhaps, in some low grade commercial drama. The shifty lager bastard. The beer I was staring at was in my cosy local supermarket, and cost 1.56 for a 66cl bottle, a fact announced by the smallest available price ticket. It enjoyed an unruffled life in the middle of the shelves, and for weeks it stood patiently with the other extras, waiting for Act One to come to a close and looking forward to big changes during the interval.

Sure enough, the evening came when Act Two began, and a merchandising shindy finally visited the continental lager stage. The old trouper that had held my attention had now joined a spotlit chorus of beers at the top of the shelves. Its script, for so long demanding only the odd mumble of “onepoundfiftysix,” was now trumpeted in the largest typeface possible: “Three For Five Pounds, or 1.99 each!” Typical. Yesterday an honourable mainstay of the supporting cast, today a cynical ham in a commercial pantomime. Boo! I asked one of the front-of-house staff, a good-hearted youth with a haircut that made him look a bit daft, what made this such a bargain, when yesterday it had cost 4.68 for three. He clearly didn’t have a clue, bless him, but at least he was game enough to burble on a little about increased supplier prices. It sounded like he’d heard some lukewarm gossip from a meeting to which he hadn’t been invited.

A lot of people going to the store in question would think that they were being offered a good deal. Indeed, for a fiver they’d be getting the equivalent of six 33cl bottles of something innocuously drinkable, the beer equivalent of switching on Radio Two while you do your chores. But the fact remains that the price had increased significantly before the “bargain” could be presented. As the customer doesn’t have time to spend staring at beer for weeks on end, he can find himself distracted by such bargains, real or perceived, rather than focussing on the compendious delights offered by the beer range as a whole, and the life-affirming joys of choice and growing knowledge. An hour of ELO or twenty minutes of the Clash and Charlie Parker followed by forty minutes of fulfilled silence? Don’t be duped into the former, it’s never a real bargain – ELO are fine for a while, but five quid’s worth, whatever the “real” price, is going to become background noise soon enough.

Although to be fair, I seldom get invited round to anybody’s house for a drink nowadays. Well, where do you think I find all that time to stare at beer..?

 

No Frills Chicken Curry

“One pot and it’s dinnertime, two pots and it’s Christmas!”

 

 

You will need…

Vegetable oil

Eight chicken thighs

Three medium onions

At least half a bulb of garlic

One red chilli, finely chopped, with seeds left in.

Turmeric  (mainly to enrich the colour)

One tablespoon and one teaspoon of cumin seeds

Half a tablespoon of coriander seeds

Six cloves

Six cardamoms

Six black peppercorns

One-inch cinnamon stick, broken up

A big tub of plain yogurt, set

Salt, to taste

A bunch of fresh coriander

Half a cucumber

To start, you will need a good sized chunky saucepan, and a frying pan. This might seem contrary to the “one pot” aspect, but the alternative is to try and fry eight chicken thighs in a saucepan that already contains everything else. You will thank me.

First, put your two pans on to warm up. Then roughly chop the onions and garlic, add a couple of tablespoons of water, and blend them to a smooth paste. Remove the skin from the chicken thighs.

Put a little oil into the hot frying pan, and add four chicken thighs to seal. You’ll need to turn these, and repeat with the other four thighs, while you’re cooking the sauce. You’re a grown up, you don’t need me to tell you how to do this kind of stuff. Into the saucepan, put a glug of oil, and when it’s hot, throw in the teaspoon of cumin seeds for a few seconds, until they go a shade darker. Pour in the onion/garlic paste, pretending not to be startled by the noise this makes, and while the mixture fries on a medium heat, put on your marigolds and finely chop the red chilli, leaving the seeds in. Add this to the saucepan, the contents of which should be turning slightly brown, together with half a teaspoon of turmeric.

Now put the cumin, coriander seed, cardamoms, cloves, cinnamon and peppercorns into a coffee grinder and grind to a powder. The cumin and coriander are non-negotiable, I’m afraid, but the others are more for depth of flavour and warmth of aroma, so your dinner won’t be spoiled if you haven’t got one of them. Stir the powder into the saucepan, and fry for thirty seconds or so, while wondering how you’re going to get all that powder out of the tricky bits of your grinder.

Remove the saucepan from the heat, and whisk the yogurt. Stir it in to the saucepan a tablespoon at a time – five or six tablespoons will usually be fine, but you can use as much as you wish, as long as you leave a little for later. When you have a yellowy-brown sauce that looks vaguely appetising, return the pan to the heat and add the chicken. No matter how much yogurt you’ve used, you won’t be convinced that there’s anywhere near enough liquid in the pan to simmer the chicken, so add half a cup or so of water (where “one cup” = your morning coffee mug). In times of austerity, you might first rinse this round the pot that you blended your onions in, or even heat it up in the frying pan, to gather up all the oil and chicken-y gunge that’s sticking to it. Waste not, want not! Add salt to taste.

Put some rice on while the chicken’s simmering. In the meantime, sort out your worktop, which is now covered in onion peel, chicken skin, and hurriedly discarded marigolds. You have taken them off, haven’t you? Cut your cucumber in half lengthways, and get one of the kids to scoop out the fleshy middle with a teaspoon. Finely chop your coriander, and stir all but a teaspoon of it into the saucepan.  Mix the rest with the remaining yogurt, chop the cucumber, put it all together in a bowl and lo and behold, a simple raita accompaniment.

Finally, serve with your choice of bread and a bottle of the kind of Australian blended red that has plenty of body and spice and a touch of vanilla creaminess.

Handy coriander hint – if you don’t live near a reputable fresh coriander outlet, you can freeze it by the tablespoon in ice cube trays topped up with water. Then when you need some for a sauce, just pop a cube in!

A Short, Sweet and Stupid Wine Quiz

1. Who writes the wine column in the Guardian on Saturdays (as of 18.05.12):

Michael Winner

Jancis Robinson

Fiona Beckett

Samuel Beckett

2. UB40 had a hit record in 1983 with “Red, Red, Wine”, but who wrote the song:

Dean Martin

Alice Cooper

Neil Diamond

Anne Diamond

3. The grape variety pinotage is native to which country:

Italy

France

Greenland

South Africa

4. What did Queen’s “Killer Queen” keep in her pretty cabinet:

Bollinger

Veuve Clicquot

Moet et Chandon

Newcastle Brown

5. Which Poet Laureate wrote about “a cargo of apes, ivory and peacocks, sandalwood, cedarwood and sweet white wine”:

Ted Hughes

John Betjeman

John Masefield

John Cooper Clarke

6. In the song “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick”, where did Ian Dury go to after he’d been to the wilds of Borneo:

To the vineyards of Bordeaux

To the vineyards of Barolo

To the backyards of Barrow

To salubrious Fazakerley

7. What is the dominant grape variety in Liebfraumilch blends:

Riesling

Chardonnay

Chenin Blanc

Muller-Thurgau

8. Which monk, who died in 1715, is widely credited with the invention of Champagne:

Rasputin

Friar Tuck

Dom Perignon

Dom Jones

9. “Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee” by Stick McGhee was the first hit on which internationally famous record label, which also brought us Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin, and, er, Emerson, Lake and Palmer:

Decca

Atlantic

Motown

Parlophone

10. Which group had hits in the 1970’s with “Glass of Champagne” and “Girls! Girls! Girls!”:

Sailor

Sensational Alex Harvey Band

Sparks

The Captain and Tennille

The Sensational Alex Harvey band wondering how they ever wound up in a wine quiz.

The answers are down here, scrolled down to just where you can’t see them…

1. Fiona Beckett, although we’d love to read Samuel Beckett’s wine column!

2. Neil Diamond.

3. Pinotage is native to South Africa. It’s a hybrid of Pinot Noir and Cinsault, which is known locally as Hermitage.

4. She kept Moet and Chandon in her pretty cabinet. The location of her Newky Brown remains unclear.

5. John Masefield wrote about the various cargoes, but John Cooper Clarke’s got a super poem about pies… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Vc4JJ8C4N0

6. To the vineyards of Bordeaux. If he ever did go to Barrow, it didn’t move him to write a song.

7. The dominant grape variety in Liebfraumilch is Muller-Thurgau, which, if we’re honest, sounds rather more esoteric than we’d imagined.

8. Dom Perignon. More specifically, he is credited with discovering that fermenting wine in a sealed bottle produces trapped carbon dioxide, which makes it sparkle, although there isn’t really much evidence to support even this. Nice legend, though.

Somewhere in your house you have a record for which you can thank, or blame, this man.

9. Stick McGhee’s name was on the first hit for the Atlantic label, setting into motion a vehicle that would also pick up Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Thank you, Stick!

10. They were among the works of Sailor, who had only one more top 40 record after the two mentioned, namely “One Drink Too Many.” Or was it one record too many..?

Vino Ignobile?

Towards the east of Tuscany you will find a DOCG called Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. DOCG, or Demoninazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, is as high a designation of quality as Italian wine law permits, and has been granted to only eleven areas in Tuscany. The deep and complex red wine which the region produces from the Sangiovese grape, aged in oak barrels for two years or more, is well-known and much sought after, and can command a high price. In the 1600’s the poet Franceso Redi described it as “the king of all wines.”

In the south of Liverpool, on the other hand, you will find a supermarket called, well, that would be telling. Its name is as high a designation of profitability as English planning law permits, and only sixteen premises in South Liverpool have been granted it. In the store, you will find an Italian red wine called Monte Nobile Riserva.  The wine has been aged, somewhere or another, for two years, and at the time of writing, it commands a price of 4.99, half the “usual” price of 9.99. In 2012, a Liverpudlian blogger described it as “the knave of all wines.”

But what’s the problem? Well, the name, for a start, which suggests a kinship to the Tuscan monarch described above. In actual fact Monte Nobile sounds like an Australian cricketer, and seems to translate as nothing more grandly evocative than “Mount Noble.” It has a rather ornate label, which obscures its origins in a DOC called Squinzano, in Puglia, an area known for producing enormous quantities of fairly robust if not wholly riveting Negroamaro-based wines. It has apparently been aged for two years, with six months in oak, but we are not told how or where it was aged for the rest of that time (ten team points to whoever said “in the store room, waiting for a spurious offer.”)

Needless to say, there are other wines in the same outlet – and in many other outlets, to be fair – that operate similar deceits. I’ll not tell you where it came from, but I have in front of me a bottle of Antano Rioja 2009, “better than half price” at 4.99 (originally 10.49). When looking at Rioja, especially at 10.49, we might be looking for some indication of its age and quality: Tinto Joven, Gran Reserva, etc. Antano offers no such assistance, and instead the label bears the unhelpful legend “Gran Seleccion 2009,” or “Large Selection 2009.” What we are drinking a large selection of remains unclear, and there is no information about grape variety or ageing. Anybody whose distant recollection of an exquisite Spanish occasion has faded to “it was Grand something, and it wasn’t cheap” might be thinking this is in the same area. It almost certainly is not. Like the Squinzano Rosso above, and like most products on offers of this sort, it’s a serviceable if undistinguished wine whose lower price tag reflects its true value.

If you’re reading this, you probably don’t need me to tell you about the economic dubiety of deals like this. What really vexes, however, is the delusion presented to anybody trying to make an informed choice. Smaller wine merchants share their knowledge quite naturally, and by doing so they engage fabulously with their customers. Conversely, the people who concoct these deals offer cheap creations with a suggested connection to the immortal wines available from specialist shops, not only showing aggression towards smaller businesses, but worse, deriding customers by exploiting gaps in their knowledge rather than seeking to fill them. Is mockery really so cheap at half the price..?