There are three landmark dates in the British middle classes love affair with Tuscany:
1987: The River Cafe Restaurant opens in Hammersmith. Founded by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, it wowed London with its Italian peasant dishes and optimistic prices. It was also a pioneer in the chef with only one name movement. Jamie and Hugh both started their careers here.
1988: John Mortimer of Rumpole fame writes a throway novel called Summer’s Lease about an English family finding themselves in Tuscany. It was later turned into a BBC tv series.
1989: the Jeffreys family, two adults and three boys aged fourteen, twelve and five, load up their Ford Sierra estate and drive from Buckinghamshire to Siena. We were not getting on as a family before the trip, afterwards it was a miracle there wasn’t a divorce or at least a murder. It was a difficult holiday but one good thing came out of it: my father discovered Brunello di Montalcino.
My mother’s maiden name is Castiglione and looking at the map my father noticed that there was a wine estate nearby called Castiglion del Bosco. This seemed propitious though I later realised that Castiglione is a not an uncommon name in Italy. We brought a few cases of their Brunello di Montalcino back to England. Brunello like Chianti is made from Sangiovese, and is one of Italy’s most celebrated wines. Sadly I never got to taste the stuff as it was classified ‘much too good to drink’ by my father so it sat in the garage until it was expensive vinegar.
Despite or perhaps because no one ever tried this wine, it assumed mythical significance to me. I associated wine in its highest form with Brunello so when I wanted something for my father’s sixtieth birthday there was only one choice. On Jancis Robinson’s advice I bought a case of Sesti 2001 and then we waited and waited. We finally opened a bottle last year and it was awful: no fruit, no tannin, a strong off smell with hints of vinegar; it tasted over the hill. Had my father repeated the trick as with the Castiglion? Fortunately after decanting and being left for a couple of hours it came back to life. The nose now smelt like an autumn forest and the palate had cherries cooked in cinammon, cloves and nutmeg. The whole thing had a magical earthy savoury quality. All of this was backed up by a fresh lift of acidity. It was perfect. I had finally tasted Brunello and it was better than I hoped.
Perhaps because of my complaining about never being invited to anything or because of an administrative cock-up, I was invited to try three vintages of Brunello from Castelgiocondo. The dapper Marchesi Frescobaldi, from the family that own the estate, was there in person to talk us through the wines. He looked a little like Juan Manuel Fangio the legendary Argentine racing driver.
The 2006 was not giving very much away but had the most persistent finish which hints at good things to come. The 2004 was a little more exuberant with some lovely meaty flavours. I liked them but, remembering my experience with the initially reticent Sesti, I don’t think I can judge them from only a glass of each. Brunello like most good wines is best drunk over the course of a meal with people you love. No such reservations are needed with the 1997. The smell of tobacco was so strong that it was like someone had just opened a box of Cohibas. This was a beautiful wine, elegant and polished where the Sesti was wild and heady, much like the Marchesi himself.
And what about Castiglion del Bosco itself? I did eventually get to try a few vintages and they were nice but a long way from the nectar of the gods that I imagined. If you’re looking to buy Brunello, I’d go for Sesti or Castelgiocondo, and make sure you keep them for a few year years and don’t forget to decant.
I bought the Sesti from Milroy’s of Soho who are part of the Jeroboams group. I think it cost about £350 a case. For many years after I was invited to twice yearly tastings. Sadly I think they noticed that I never bought anything else so the invites have now dried up.
Castelgiocondo 2006 is available from Fine & Rare for £331 a case excluding tax and duty.