As a freelance writer, one has to count the pennies and cents. But having had the good luck to win a prize (mit cheque) for my recent book on Champagne, I decided to have a rest from bubbles and take a few days holiday in a place where my love affair with France began: the land of plenty that is Beaujolais, Bresse and Beaune.
Due to a mix-up on SNCF timetables, I had to wait around for the TGV from Paris Gare du Lyon to Mâcon-Loché, but it raced the 400 kilometres to Burgundy's southern city in just 100 minutes. I found a spotlessly clean hotel close to Mâcon Ville station. Pleasantly tired but needing some exercise, I strolled down through the handsomely restored town and crossed the bridge over the broad Saône to St Laurent, the first township you come to in the Bresse department of Ain, a mecca for foodies. That cold, star-bright night, I ate a perfect dinner in the heated verandah of the enchanting L'Autre Rive restaurant (www.lautrerive.fr) with its dramatic views of floodlit Mâcon across the water: even in November, the flat roofs and the southern architecture of the city told me that I was just at the point where southern France begins – the Midi beckons. For the record, the soup of potiron and chestnuts was a warming intro to one of France's great dishes, poulet de Bresse à la crème au vin jaune that quite lived up to expectations. As a good old boy, just wanting to sleep well, I drank just one lovely glass of Michel's Mâcon Clessé 09 and another of Devillard's Chateau de Chamirey Mercurey 08 with the chicken. Then the freshest raspberry sorbet with a splash of Marc de Bourgogne. Back to the hotel, I did not stir till 10 o'clock the next morning.
Rejuvenated, I trained it to Belleville-sur-Saône, the real wine capital of the Haut Beaujolais and home of my old friends, the Ferraud family (www.ferraud.com)
who still run one of the best small merchants that capture all the elegance and élan of top Beaujolais crus without the ‘boiled- sweets’, confected flavours that have damaged the region in the eyes of careful wine lovers. The highlight of my visit to Belleville was a memorable tasting, orchestrated by Yves-Dominque Ferraud of outstanding Beaujolais and Maconnais crus from the great 2009 and the subtly mineral 2008 vintages. All the wines came from specific domaines, where most had been aged mainly in large casks to round them out before bottling –a rarity in the region. The Mâcon whites were especially impressive; not that surprising, as Dominique is the nephew of the eminent Jean-Jacques Vincent of Chateau de Fuissé. The property of Pouilly Fuissé L’Entreroches belongs to Dom’s widowed mother, Marie- Jo Ferraud (elder sister of Jean-Jacques): the 2008 is a superbly textured Chardonnay, all silk and satin made more savoury by the mineral tastes of the rocks from which it came. Not a stave of oak in this beauty! Her Morgon Les Charmes 2009 is sensuously magnificent, a riveting mix of kirch, black cherry and liquorice flavours. At around £16 /18 € a bottle, all taxes included, this is one of Burgundy’s great wine values.
Cheers rang through the auction hall in front of the historic Hospice de Beaune as a record price of 400,000 euros was achieved for the top lot, la Pièce des Présidents, a ‘tonneau’ of 500 litres, made specially for this anniversary occasion. The very talented actor Fabrice Luchini came to support the Association for Life and Hope against Cancer, the beneficiary of the top bid’s proceeds. The lot was bought by Monsieur Jacques Boisseau of Maison Patriache et fils, Beaune. The Sale was dominated by European buyers who accounted for nearly 86 per cent of the value of total bids. For the first time Asian buyers, notably from China, Hong Kong and Korea, outnumbered those from the United States. I was much taken by elegant 2010 whites and concentrated reds (due to smaller berries) and were I to write a best –selling novel, on my shopping list would be the Meursault Genevrières Baudots, Corton-Charlemagne Roi Soleil, Pommard Epenots, Clos de la Roche and Mazis Chambertin. One of the best values was a lovely complete Beaune Clos des Avaux, which sold for around 3,000 euros la pièce and was snapped up significantly by the restored and enlightened Beaune house of Bichot. I shall look out for it.
Last month, on a beautiful autumnal saturday, Greg Love, streaming wine video maestro and Piedmont lover, had me over for supper in Notting Hill. The other guest was Clive Vlotman, a serial South African entrepreneur who in his career has managed the 'Wet Wet' pop group. Clive's family in the 1690s was one of the original Dutch settlers in the Cape and they have continued to make wine to this day. Apparently, it isn't that good, the vineyards being poorly situated on the wrong side of the valley from the Meerlust estate, famous for its opulent Merlot. So Clive, an oenophile, vowed that one day he would be involved in a great wine venture and where better to do it than in the timelessly beautiful Monferrato hills of Piedmont. The place was also an idyllic bolt holt to restore the spirit in Clive's constant life of air travel and corporate meetings. Teaming up with business partner, Graham Kresfelder, Clive poured money into the Noceto Michelotti estate near Asti, this Monferrato district famed for the best Barbera, one of Italy's most satisfying reds. And for refreshing, juicy pleasure the delectable Moscato has no rival: at its low alcoholic strength, you can indulge yourself with a full bottle and walk in a straight line afterwards.
Noceto Michelotti is a model modern winery built in a fold of the hills, at the heart of an estate where the vineyards have been sculpted and improved to offer the best aspect and drainage in these privileged sites. Once the grapes arrive at the winery, they are sorted, then washed and cleaned in a unique process which eliminates any toxic residue emanating from the soils. Winemaking is the best of what one could call evolved classic tradition: destemming of the grapes, gentle pressing, alcoholic fermentation in stainless steel tanks for up to three weeks depending on the particular grape and vintage character; the second 'malolactic' conversion, which makes the wine both softer and more complex, is done in small oak barrels à la bourguignonne.
The Barbera stays in wood to mature for six to seven months and after bottling is rested for a further four months before release. At our autumn London supper, Clive showed us two Barbara vintages. The first, a fairly early effort in the estate's history, was good and solid with the fruitcake opulence of the grape. The second, the 2006, was a huge step forward for its beguiling aromas and for the precision, purity and elegance of flavours - which has a lot to do with the excellence of the vintage and the little details like the washing and cleaning of the grapes. It drank beautifully with generous lamb chops, pink and succulent, cut from the rack. Then came the exquisite Moscato d'Asti 2006, which managed the diffficult feat of being as delicious and approachable as any wine from this grape can be, while at the same moment showing the concentation and complexity of a truly fine wine. Bravissimo!
Greg and I are going to the estate in early November. I shall report back on a trip which will include a visit to the Alba truffle festival. Someone has to do it.
A half hour's train ride north from Venice, the province of Treviso has a strong pull for those who like hilly landscapes dotted with elegant country towns. Treviso itself is a mini-Venice and Asolo a gem of a town of old streets and enchanting vistas, which drew writers like Freya Stark and Ernest Hemingway to live here, where Mediterranean warmth meets Alpine coolness. This part of the Veneto also has a string of exquisite 16th century villas built by Andrea Palladio, the great Renaissance architect, author and stonecutter. Close to the Montello hill, on the road to Valdobbiadene, stands the fabulous Palladian-style villa and former country house of the Conte Loredan Gasparini family, whose ancestor was Leonardo, Doge of Venice.
Since those Renaissance times, Montello has been famous for its clay-rich soil, full of iron & minerals - and so ideal for making great red wine. In the 1950s, Count Piero Loredan founded the Venegazzú wine estate, planting cuttings of both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot brought back from Bordeaux. Loridan was soon producing a series of stunning reds culminating in his flagship Capo di Stato, which warmed the chilly heart of President Charles de Gaulle. For once, the great man forgot his innate bias towards all things French, and thereafter often drank this splendid wine in preference to fine claret. In 1973, the wine estate and business ( excluding the historic villa) passed into the hands of Giancarlo Palla, a textile entrepreneur and wine lover, with the same passion for viticulture as Piero Loredan.
Early in September, we had the luck to visit Venegazzù and taste the latest vintages of Capo di Stato with Lorenzo Palla, son of Giancarlo. The two currently released vintages, 2004 and 2005, are intriguingly different expressions of a perfect Bordeaux blend, with smaller but vital inclusions of the herby,aromatic Cabernet Franc and the sturdy Malbec; both wines are partly aged in large Slovakian oak tuns, which because of their greater surface area of wine to oak aerate these great reds without making them taste too woody. The hot summer in 2005 has shaped a very full and heady wine, redolent of blackberries and blackcurrants, with strong , ripe tannins and a touch of liquorice. It's the sort of opulent, powerful red that might score 95 points + on the numerical scale of the American wine guru, Robert Parker. Personally, I prefer the 2004, a cooler year. It's much more classic, discreet and subtle, with scents of morello cherry melding with aromas of hazelnut and old roses. Tasted on its own, the palate is a mite austere just now, but drunk with food, the wine is transformed, its fresh acidity and minerality making it an ideal balancing partner for the rich dishes of autumn - roast pheasant, breast of pigeon and best of all, a substantial Côte de Veau with porcini mushrooms. Expect to pay £27.30 a bottle (incl. VAT) for both vintages of Capo di Stato, when bought by the case from the UK agents Ciborio (0208 5784388); for retail stockists log onto www.italianwinesociety.co.uk
For a significant cost saving, the Venegazzú Della Casa 2005 (£15.43) is a junior version of Capo di Stato, made from the same grape mix, but from younger vines. Fine, deep ruby hue; a whiff of black cherry; green peppers, subtle oak and woodlandblack fruits flavours. Then, the Manzoni Bianco 2007 (£9.95) is a true original, the invention of a Professor Manzoni of the prestigious Viticultural Institute of Conegliano; Manzoni's inspiration was to make a grape-cross between the aromatic-mineral Rhine Riesling and the smooth harmonious Pinot Bianco, so creating a wine that is a heavenly match with risotto of pumpkin. There's also a Prosecco Brut (£ 9.39), the fruity sparking wine of the pre-Alps.This one's from Montello and the hills of Asolo, making it firmer than the silky wines from the classic villages around Valdobbiadene, the heart of Prosecco country.
Finally, news of an exciting Italian restaurant when you're next in London. Osteria Stecca at 1 Blenheim Terrace, St John's Wood NW8 OEH (020 7328 5014) is the joint venture of Lorenzo Palla and chef-patron, Stefano Stecca. Stefano has the simple priorities of all good Italian cooks:the finest ingredients packed with flavour- Emilian pasta with razor clams, garlic and tomato, a juicy veal cotoletta and a really authentic tiramisu – all are brilliant. A full review next time.