Stuart George

Archive for April, 2010|Monthly archive page

Cuneiform: 2004 Contino Reserva Rioja

In Tastings on April 30, 2010 at 7:32 pm

This is the first of a very occasional series on bottles that have caught my eye for whatever reason.

Compañia Vinícola del Norte de España – or CVNE, as it is commonly known – is among the most senior Rioja producers, run by direct descendants of its founders. It has three arms that embrace the CVNE, Viña Real and Contino estates and wines. Of these the single-estate Bodega Contino is the most highly regarded.

José Madrazo Real de Asúa, father of current winemaker Jesús Madrazo, established the estate while serving as CVNE’s technical director in 1974, in a 200-year-old farmhouse that has cellars dating from the 16th century. It takes its name from the officer of a royal guard of 100 soldiers who continually, or de contino, oversaw the monarch. The business remains joint-owned by the Real de Asúa family and CVNE.

Contino bathes in sunshine, its boundary (and those of the Rioja Alavesa and Alta subregions) formed by the River Ebro, which also marks the beginning and end of the Basque Country. The Cerro de la Mesa hill, home to Viña Real’s €40 million winery, overlooks Contino and marks its northern edge. Contino has 62ha (153 acres) of vineyards, 85 percent of which are Tempranillo, with a typical Alavesa mix of limestone and clay soils, but pebbly alluvial soils closer to the river.

The bodega has 2,000 oak barrels in situ, with around 70 percent French, 20 percent American (mostly from Pennsylvania and Missouri) and 10 percent Eastern European (Hungarian, Russian, and Romanian).

Although renowned particularly for its Viña del Olivo vineyard selection bottling, Contino also makes more traditional reserva and gran reserva Rioja wines. The Reserva uses more French oak in the first year and more American in the second year of its life. It then has a further year in bottle before release onto the market.

Rated as an “excellent” vintage by the Control Board of Rioja, in 2004 Contino produced a focused and detailed Reserva. The tannins retain a rustic edge – corduroy rather than velvet – but the intense, plummy fruit is very fine-grained. The clean acidity and elegant quality of the fruit make approachable an otherwise taut palate that sometimes feels like a tightly clenched hand. The use of oak is exceptionally skilful: Madrazo has achieved a balletic balance of wood and fruit. Only the 14 percent alcohol on the warm finish mars this virtuoso example of contemporary Rioja.

As a medium- to full-bodied wine, Contino Reserva 2004 needs some protein to soften it. It drinks well with chorizo, the spice of the meat matched by the wine’s oak. My bottle was served (challengingly) with teriyaki beef. The wine’s dark fruit and crisp acidity were potent enough to counter the soy sauce and honey marinade of the meat.

Su and Sardinia: Su Sazzagoni in Hackney

In Restaurants/wine and food on April 1, 2010 at 2:13 pm

Thanks to the good offices of Martin Kyran at Foal Brand Grooming, I was able to visit recently Su Sazzagoni restaurant in Lauriston Road, Hackney, with my friend Jane Egginton.

Opened in January 2009, Su Sazzagoni is a Sardinian trattoria in trendy Victoria Park Village. As well as the restaurant there is also a delicatessen and bar for people who want to enjoy a quick coffee or bite to eat. Pizzas are available to takeaway at very reasonable cost. All very civilised for the East End!

Don Domè Prosecco was served as an aperitif. It was simple, clean and short – a typical Prosecco. I would not pay £32 for a bottle of this.

For an appetiser we were given pane carasau, a typical Sardinian flatbread, which was very tasty. A fruity and earthy Cantina Santadi Grotta Rossa made from Carignan grapes was served with the mixed antipasti of carpaccio di manzo in truffle oil; salsiccia (sausage); salami; and scamorza – a cow’s milk cheese – with peppers.

The primo piatto was calamari ripieni, fresh squid filled with a seafood pesto of parsley and bread-crumbs. Jane and I agreed that it needed to be a bit more tender.

The secondo piatto was very good. Maccarronisi de busa al ragù di cinghiale, or Sardinian-style macaroni with wild boar ragù, was rustic and filling and good with the Grotta Rossa. Cantina Santadi is a large co-operative with a good reputation but £25 seemed quite pricey for this wine.

By now I was struggling. I had been in Italy a few days beforehand and was still recuperating from tasting 400 Barberas. But the dishes kept coming.

For a terzo piatto, we ate – or tried to eat – fregola ai frutti di mare (seafood fregola), essentially a seafood risotto but made from a particular Sardinian pasta that is more like couscous. The seafoods included calamari, prawns, langoustines and mussels, with a pinch of chilli for some spice – and plenty of salt.

Cantina Sociale di Dorgali’s Norìolo red wine was also tasted. Made from 80% Cannonau (aka Grenache) and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, it was sweeter and more generous than the Grotta Rossa.

A piatto quarto was served! Culurgionis all’Ogliastrina is like ravioli: Sardinian dumplings filled with potatoes, cheese and mint and topped with a tomato sauce.

And they still weren’t finished with us… The sixth and final dish was malloreddus alla campidanese, shell-shaped Sardinian pasta with sausages. The Is Argiolas Vermentino from Cantine Argiolas was poured with the malloreddus, though I would have preferred a red wine here and to have drunk white with the antipasti and calamari ripieni. The wine was dry, crisp and had some pear aromas. Again, it seemed a bit expensive at £30.

Not content that we had tried enough of the menu, a tagliata di tonno all’isolana, or charcoal-grilled tuna steak in a crust of poppy seeds, landed on our table. It was a bit too grilled for our liking.

Finally, I was allowed to retire from the main courses and have some desert to perk me up for the journey back home. The ice creams are bought-in rather than made on the premises but the chocolate gelato we had was nice enough, especially with a glass or two of mirto di Sardegna, a liqueur made from myrtle. Not as bad as it sounds!

As guests of Martin, we were given rather too much to try and it is difficult to put a price on what a typical dinner here would cost. But I would guess that a shared starter and two or three shared mains would be about £50. Two bottles of wine would be about £50-60, so dinner for two comes in at about £100. That does seem quite a lot but a comparable meal in the West End would perhaps be twice that much and the service would be more surly.

I have been to Sardinia only once and was struck by how different it was from the mainland – much slower and gentler. In his travelogue Sea and Sardinia, D.H. Lawrence wrote that Sardinia was “strange and rather wonderful, not a bit like Italy.”

With Tuscan-style restaurants ubiquitous in London and elsewhere, it’s good to see something a bit different from Italy. Bravi!