Simple Pleasures

  • Wednesday 28 March 2007

Supertuscans may grace the wine lists of the world’s most elegant restaurants, but if you dine at the famed Bolgheri estates themselves, expect traditional, rustic home cooking, says Rosi Hanson

Supertuscans may grace the wine lists of the world’s most elegant restaurants, but if you dine at the famed Bolgheri estates themselves, expect traditional, rustic home cooking, says Rosi Hanson

You might think that the makers of world-renowned Supertuscan wines would want elegant gourmet cooking to accompany their stellar wines. Not so. There is a distinctly rustic tendency in the dining rooms of blockbuster estates.

‘There are no rules; no right or wrong. Matching food and wine is so subjective and personal. It can depend on your mood, the season or the weather,’ says Allegra Antinori. But she firmly believes that wines go with the food of the area they are produced in. She is well placed to know, as the Antinori group has estates throughout Tuscany, and the regional differences are very distinct. Like her father, the company’s president Marchese Piero Antinori, Allegra’s values are rooted in the countryside where she and her two sisters spent their childhood holidays helping in the vineyards. ‘We still make bread in the old ovens from the cereals we grow,’ she says. ‘We have our own old-breed pig farms – ham goes so well with Chianti Classico – and we make our own cheese. It is very important to us to do all this. When guests visit, they eat what is produced on our farms and grown in our own vegetable gardens.’

At Ornellaia, the Frescobaldi family entertains many clients each year using its own in-house staff. ‘We mainly stick to traditional Tuscan cooking to show the wines at their best,’ says winemaker Axel Heinz. Guests will be offered typical local antipasto of bruschetta (toasted bread with garlic and olive oil), crostini topped with sautéd chicken livers, wild boar salami, olives, artichokes and Pecorino. Other first courses might include aubergine sformatino (as a timbale) with basil, mozzarella and Parmesan, or a tartare of western Tuscany’s Chianina beef with black pepper, capers and marinated vegetables. These are paired with Le Volte (a Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot-Sangiovese blend).

Robust flavours

We’re in Italy, so naturally a pasta course follows. This could be tagliolini with a sauce of guinea fowl and porcini mushrooms, ravioli maremmani (stuffed with spinach and ricotta) with a pigeon sauce, or short pasta with aubergine, tomatoes, olives and dried ricotta, served with the Bolgheri Rosso Serre Nuove. The main course to go with Ornellaia might be roast suckling pig with new potatoes and mixed vegetables, or beef cooked in Serre Nuove, with a white bean puree or polenta. During the game season, the main course could be wild boar stewed with tomatoes and black olives, or in a red wine sauce and served with Masseto, the 100% Merlot flagship wine.

‘Italians match even great wines with simple food. They like meals that are informal and relaxed,’ Heinz says. Robust flavours are the order of the day, and portions are generous. Guests in Tuscany need to pace themselves.

Presenting Ornellaia abroad, Heinz has enjoyed the experience of eating rather different dishes with his wines. ‘Not being Italian (Heinz is French-German), my taste is not necessarily the same as that of my colleagues. In other countries, as a mark of respect, they tend to pair Ornellaia with classic French meat dishes. I was served one of the best combinations in London: Ornellaia 1998 with Tournedos Rossini. The wine was quite exuberant and rich but we always try to balance that richness with acidity, so it coped well with the sweetness of the foie gras with the steak. I have also had good venison dishes in Sweden that I liked very much with our wines.

‘Masseto is the wine that creates the most problems for us in terms of matching – it’s so exuberant and has such a strong character. But some unusual combinations work: recently we tried the 2001 with a bitter chocolate tart. It was a really interesting match. I think this wine could go well with spicy Asian dishes, too. But we almost like it best on its own.’

At Tenuta di Capezzana, the historic estate in Carmignano, Beatrice Contini Bonacossi says: ‘We usually have red meat or game with our Villa di Capezzana [the Carmignano DOCG is a Sangiovese-Canaiolo-Cabernet blend]. We serve aged Pecorino cheese with our Ghiaie della Furba (Cabernet-Merlot).’ She also loves it with Florentine steak – a thick 1kg piece of mature veal grilled lightly over hot embers, seasoned with salt, pepper and local extra virgin olive oil.

Tuscany is not famous for its desserts (not surprising considering the numerous courses that come first) but a glass of sweet vin santo is usually appreciated at the end of the meal. At Capezzana they think it goes well with cheese or a wine-soused fruit salad. They also make Cantucci di Prato or biscotti (hard almond biscuits) or Castagnaccio (a baked batter of chestnut flour, oil, water and pine nuts) to serve with the wine. But if you’re thinking of dipping the biscuits into your glass, as is traditional, be warned: ‘We don’t like to dip them as it changes the taste of the wine,’ says Contini Bonacossi.

Coastal influence

At Sassicaia, Sebastiano Rosa feels his wines are best suited to meat, particularly game. Boar, pigeon and pheasants from the local woods are his choice, backing up Allegra Antinori’s view that there is a natural synergy between the wines and produce of the area, which includes the fish Tuscany is also known for. Antinori says it seems more natural to go for white or rosé with fish, although she is happy to drink fruity, fresh red wines straight from the fridge in the summer months.

Fulvio Pierangelini, widely esteemed as Italy’s premier chef, has friends among Tuscany’s top estate-owners. He started his restaurant, Gambero Rosso, on the coast at San Vincenzo in 1980: ‘We grew up together, Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Gambero Rosso – I adore those wines.’ One of his most celebrated dishes – steamed prawns in a chickpea purée with olive oil – was an impromptu creation for the owner of Sassicaia who dropped by unexpectedly in the early days.

Pierangelini has been pairing fish with fine reds for the past 25 years, but not everyone is convinced. ‘It is easier to persuade foreigners. Italians don’t drink enough red wine with fish – they are very traditional. I sell more Champagne in the restaurant,’ he moans. ‘People want wild boar with the great reds of Bolgheri, but these stereotypes don’t interest me – you are not obliged to stick to tradition.’ It gives him more pleasure to drink Sassicaia 1998, one of his current favourites, or Ornellaia’s Masseto 1994 (‘not a well–known vintage but truly magnificent’) with fish ‘in a sauce with complexity’.

They may well flock to his restaurant, but at home Tuscan winemakers seem happier to stick to simple classics.

For the results of this month’s Tuscan Coast panel tasting, see p83

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