Review : Cantina Tollo’s new sustainable range of Abruzzo wines. And why sustainable is more than organic.

Cantina Tollo launched a new line of sustainable wines for the on-trade in April. In this article I review those wines, but I also elaborate on what sustainable means for Cantina Tollo. And that is more than the environmental part of it.

Cantina Tollo is a co-operative from the Abruzzo region in Central Italy. If you are keen on cycling you may remember Cantina Tollo as shirt sponsor (1996-2002) of the team which included Mario Cipollini, Danilo di Luca and other well known cyclists.

They are also known, however, as a producer of consistently good wines with a good price-quality ratio. My first acquaintance with Cantina Tollo was in 2016 when I tasted their MO Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva 2011, which I liked very much. It was very smooth and elegant, perfectly balanced. A real pleaser, and sold at just over 10€. This wine keeps piling up the awards and has received five consecutive Tre Bicchiere of the Gambero Rosso wine guide since the 2011 vintage. The last MO I had was the 2015, which confirmed all the goodness I remember from the 2011. Luscious black and red fruit, noticeable but well-dosed wood, and refreshing acidity. An attractive and harmonious wine, and at a democratic price.

So I was very excited to taste the samples I received from Cantina Tollo of their newly released line of sustainable wines for the on-trade. These wines are certified organic and vegan, which means no animal-derived products were used, such as cow manure or fining agents based on animal proteins. Moreover, efforts were made to make the packaging sustainable with the use of recycled cardboard, recycled paper for the labels, and capsules without pvc.

You may think that they are a bit late to jump on the bandwagon of organic wines, but in fact they have been making organic wine since the 1980s. The difference of the new line with the other organic wines is that the new wines have undergone a stricter selection, and the best quality grapes go into this line.  

The thing I like the best, however, about these new wines, is that sustainability goes beyond the environmental aspect and includes a socio-economic part as well. The odd 50 members of the co-operative who farm organically are offered a price for their grapes that reaches almost double the price of non-organic grapes. Cantina Tollo also offers them a contract that protects them from unforeseen circumstances. So even if yields were low because of bad weather or diseases, for example, the growers will still get a good price. In a region such as Abruzzo, which is still a big producer of bulk wines that are sold at bottom prices, this is a very welcome incentive not only to work organically but also not to convert to other crops, or simply not to move away from the region.

In terms of appearance much attention was given to the styling of the bottles. Cantina Tollo chose a format that represents the bottles that were used in the end of the 19th century by producers to bottle their own wine. While they certainly catch the eye, the downside of this type of bottle is that they are relatively heavy (ca. 500g). This is an issue that was given a fair bit of attention recently by well-known wine critics, such as Jancis Robinson, so this is something Cantina Tollo will have to address. As Commercial and Marketing Director of Cantina Tollo, Andrea Di Fabio, explains, however, they are aware of the issue and intend to look for solutions for future vintages.

In terms of the wines there are 5 different offerings, all singly variety, and all made of local grapes.

Trebbiano d’Abruzzo 2019

Very expressive, lemony nose with a hint of almond. While the mouthfeel is quite round, the acidity makes this is a refreshing wine. This is definitely not a thin Trebbiano, of which there are still many unfortunately. There is real substance here and considerable length with a pleasant lemon zest bitterness that lingers for a while.

This is a not a very complex wine, but really well made as the kind of wine you want to have in an ice bucket next to you when you have a fritto misto or a warm goat cheese salad.

Passerina 2019, IGP Terre di Chieti

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Subtle nose with white peach and a green herbal note. This Passerina is not as aromatic as the Trebbiano but the nose is delicately perfumed. No fruit bomb but rather driven by its mild and well integrated acidity. This wine is fresh, dry and structured in a way that reminds me somewhat of a Verdicchio. In a previous article I lauded the gastronomic qualities of Verdicchio because of those characteristics, and this Passerina seems to have the same quality of being an subtle and elegant wine that will accomodate many dishes. White fish dishes will do well, but also Oriental food is a good match. The soy and fish sauce flavors of the ramen soup we had with it paired beautifully with the Passerina.

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Pecorino 2019, IGP Terre di Chieti

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Very delicate and shy nose with green herbs and a bit of aneth. On the palate this is again nicely balanced with good freshness against a round backdrop. This is definitely not the type of Pecorino that is made in the style of a Sauvignon Blanc, as those exist as well. The character of this one is more in line with the Passerina, dry and fresh, and will therefore be a versatile food companion. Sea fruit, oysters and mussels will all make a good match.

Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo 2019

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Bright and aromatic, the freshly cut red fruit and minerality jump out of the glass. This invites very much for a sip. Absolutely not a characterless rosé like there are so many, but a wine with a fresh core and subtle red fruit, a combination that is difficult to resist. The mesmerizing, dark pink color completes the picture of the perfect wine for a sun-drenched lunch that lasts until it’s time to have dinner. Lovely! 

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2019

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Fresh cherries with a herbal, peppery element. Lovely fruitiness, with mild acidity that keeps everything nicely fresh. The tannins are a bit grippy but ripe. The wine was aged in cement tanks, so this is a pure rendition of the grape. Don’t let this fool you in thinking that this is a light, fruity wine, because there is considerable structure here. Cantina Tollo managed to combine accessibility with character. Not always easy to find that balance.

This wine will be a great match with grilled meat. The match with our (attempt of) homemade pizza was decent, but this wine can, and wants to, handle more than that.

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When asked whether the decision to go for cement tanks was a conscious choice in terms of the style of the new line, Andrea di Fabio explained that Cantina Tolla was never big on wood. A recent tasting of their top wine, the Cagiòlo 2012 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Riserva, confirms this. Whereas Montepulciano is a grape that tends to get heavy oak treatment, the wood in this one was very discriminate with beautiful cedar tones. Also the Cagiòlo is a very well-made and balanced wine that will seduce many palates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Food and wine pairing does matter

I always thought of food and wine pairing as something that’s fun. I enjoy thinking about how to combine both. If you hit the nail on the head, you can transcend the individual level of the wine and the dish and reach something that’s more than the sum of the parts. On my blog I have a category that’s called “one and one is three”, where I talk about food and wine pairings that make me especially happy. Because the combination of the flavors create something special, or because one really pushes the other to a higher level, or just simply because they create that kind of feeling where I think : life is good.

American wine writer Alder Yarrow doesn’t think much of food and wine pairing. On his website Vinography he published a blog post calling food and wine pairing “junk science”. Or “the source of panic attacks and the fodder for hundreds of books and scores of useless smartphone apps”. I won’t disagree with the fact that there are many books that are not particularly useful. Many just give very specific combinations of a particular dish with a particular wine. What if you tweak your recipe with a few additional ingredients, or change the sauce? Or more likely, what if that particular wine is not available in your local shop? Not so helpful indeed. But as Mr Yarrow explicitly states that one plus one does not equal three, I felt compelled to write down my own opinion on food and wine pairing.

According to Mr Yarrow the rules of food and wine pairing are “bullshit” and you’re better off forgetting about food and wine pairing altogether as “it only leads to disappointment”. I hear much frustration there. In more than 25 years of eating in top restaurants he can count the experiences  where the sum was greater than the parts on one hand. The good thing I read in that is that at least he had such experiences after all. But apparently very few.

The issue at hand here might be expectation management. If you expect a sommelier to always come with a wine that “will make the choir sing”, then you need to think twice of how restaurants work. Especially the ones who want to be innovative, who experiment with dishes and flavor combinations, and on the top of that change their menu very regularly in order to constantly offer something new to the demanding customer. For a sommelier to find a wine that will fit with a new dish on the menu, there are many things to consider : what is the defining flavor? There might be more than one. And they can interact in a way that does not allow for an extra component, the wine, to interfere. What is the texture of the dish? Does the wine have to support this or contrast with it? Do you want to go for complementarity or make a bold move and aim for contrast? Not to forget a very practical question : what does the sommelier have on the wine list? He/she has to work with what is available and what is ready to drink. If you have a thousand of references to work with, that might ease the job, but such restaurants are exceptions. On top of that, the time and possibilities the sommelier will be given to experiment with the food and wine pairing will be limited. So there are a lot of “ifs” here. That is why I don’t necessarily expect the choir to sing in terms of food and wine pairing when I go to a top restaurant. I know this may sound strange to some, but I don’t. If one plus one equals two, then I will be happy. If the dish is a winner, and so is the wine, without either negatively influencing the other, then also that is a successful food and wine pairing!

Alder Yarrow also talks about the rules of food and wine pairing. As if there was a bible of what to drink with what. Food and wine pairing is not a science. If I were to regard it as such, I would probably also come to the conclusion that food and wine pairing rules are bullshit. But it’s not. Again, if you take top gastronomy as a starting point, there simply are no rules. That is the definition of innovation and experimentation : you do something new. So the wine pairing will inevitably be a trial, and yes, sometimes also be an error.

Bad experiences in such settings is not a reason to conclude that food and wine pairing is bound to be disappointing. Mr Yarrow suggests that wine should be something “universally simple and essential”. So why not look at established combinations that have been tried millions of times and that work. A sauvignon blanc will work wonders with a simple goat cheese. Just as a Muscadet or a Chablis will be a great marriage with fresh oysters. Or a lamb shank from the oven with a spicy, herby Languedoc. These are classic, straightforward dishes that do not need top wines to still be a great match with their liquid partner. There is a much bigger potential for the food and wine to lift each other up if you start with simple things than vice versa. That’s where I see the biggest added value ànd chances of success in food and wine pairings.

Mr Yarrow seems to realise that : “Our expectations need to be re-set. The bar needs to be lowered. We should absolutely be choosing wine to go with our meals, but our goals should center on enjoyment of both and the idea of “mistakes” should be banished.” I can’t think of a better way of saying it actually. So why conclude then that we should forget about food and wine pairings? There will be times that the food and wine pairing does not give the effect we wanted or hoped for, but we can also have great experiences and discover unexpected pairings. You can only do that if you’re open for it, if you see it as fun to experiment, ànd if your state of mind is rather to welcome anything good that comes out of it rather than to be disappointed if the result is anything less than stunning.

Let me give one example of a great discovery I did myself recently. One of our favorite dishes to prepare when we want comfort food is keema matar, an Indian/Pakistani curry with ground meat and green peas, topped with coriander leaves. As you can imagine, it is a very rich and relatively spicy dish. In Mr Yarrow’s opinion you should drink what you like with your food. I quite like red Burgundy, but I wouldn’t dream of drinking that with keema matar. It’d be an absolute waste of the wine. In the past I had already paired this dish with a very rich and opulent Negroamaro, an Italian wine with very ripe black fruit. The reason why that worked very well was because there was a certain sweetness from the ripe fruit that worked with the spiciness of the curry. Recently, however, I decided to take it up a notch with an Amarone, the Campo Inferi 2013 of Brunelli.

This is, for my standards, the embodiment of a “big” wine. Very rich, bold and smooth at the same time, and with a whopping 16,5% alcohol. This is a wine that is defined by ripe black cherries, milk chocolate, butter scotch and cinnamon. Big and ripe tannins, and a supporting acidity that keeps the alcohol in check. Again there is a sense of sweetness here that works very well to counterbalance the spiciness, and the smoothness and ripeness of the wine complement the structure of the curry. A good food and wine pairing, without any doubt. But what really made me tick in this combination was the combination of the ripe cherries, chocolate and cinnamon with the coriander leaves. A match made in heaven! Yes, this was definitely where I felt that one plus one equals three, where everything blended in so well together that the choir sang a little hallelujah.

The effect of the coriander with the Amarone is an example of how food and wine pairing is not a science, but something that you can discover and that will give great satisfaction once you do. Maybe not everyone will appreciate this combination the same way as I did, but others might. And by the looks of the numbers of people who post their food and wine pairings on social media, there seem to be many people who enjoy looking for that combination that adds an extra dimension. These are people who do not think in terms of potential disappointment, but in terms of discovery.

 

Slower food, please!

I am not a fan of slow food. With slow food I don’t mean good quality food that’s sourced locally. I mean slow food, like in waiting one hour for your food. If you’re hungry and you’re drinking your third aperitif because the food is not coming, then you’ll end up drunk at table. That’s probably not the ideal scenario for a romantic dinner.

Last weekend I was in London with my wife for a surprise weekend, including romantic dinners, in Margot, top Italian food, and in Nopi, the restaurant of celebrity chef Yotam Ottolenghi. We certainly did not have to wait long for our food in these restaurants. Actually, we hardly had to wait at all. Continue reading “Slower food, please!”