This is not really focussed on wine, so please forgive me, or just skip to the end where I will get back on track I promise. But tumbling temperatures, fluttering golden leaves and the return of rain usually makes wine and food lovers think of things Italian, porcini mushrooms and tartuffi white truffles. The gold is either white or black, depending whether your dog is sniffing under Alba hazel trees or Perigord oaks (though these days the largest source of tuber melansporum comes from neatly planted rows of cultivated and impregnated trees in Spain).
But that ignores the other gold of autumn, one far less well known and much prettier, a triple flame of scarlet dressed in purple robes. And, of course, equally ludicrously expensive.
We were watching a tv programme about spices and French restauranteurs when we found ourselves as it were on the flat roof of the Opera Bastille in Paris. The French have a talent for lyrical food production – the glorious Opera Garnier has beehives atop, but here we found an entrepreneuse who had come up with the brilliant idea of charging people to do her back-breaking work for her, for it is this labour that causes the stratospheric price.
It's been around for thousands of years, as a medicine, dye or foodstuff. It was in high demand in the fourteenth century to try (vainly) to ward off The Plague, named a village in England that became famous for producing it in the sixteenth century and even sparked a war.
You can argue whether you prefer the word syrah or shiraz (or the taste of Cote Rotie versus Barossa for that matter) and whether it really originates from Iran/Persia, but the Persian word zarparan gave us the golden etymology of safranum, safran or what we now call saffron.
It’s a crocus that flowers in autumn, not to be mistaken with the autumn crocus colchinum autumnale which is poisonous and sometimes mistaken for wild garlic (not quite sure how as one flowers white in May and the other mauve in autumn). Funnily enough the first time I saw them was indeed in November with friends in the forests near Lake Como after a trip to Barolo. Our hosts are Milanese, but fortunately we were not lured into picking the very pretty flowers to make the eponymous risotto.
Anyway, crocus sativus is the real thing, has lovely mauve-purple flowers and three brilliant scarlet stigma, which is what turns your dishes and your wallet to gold. Delicious, but expensive and therefore fraught with fraud. The tasty bit is only the red stigma, the yellow styles (which join it) add no flavour but of course bump up the weight, as do utter imposters such as other ground up flowers. Given the literally thousands of pounds/dollars per pound/kilo that the dried stigma cost, anything to bulk it up and add weight is the proverbial gold dust. Oh, and it’s only very mildly toxic – eat a dozen bowls of risotto at one sitting and you might regret it for more reasons than that of pure gluttony.
All of which brings us back to that tv set. Yes, you may require 440,000 hand-picked stigmas to produce a kilo of the stuff, but if you are not looking for industrial production, surely you could make the spice yourself? All you need is some crocus bulbs (or corms), some well-drained soil and a sunny spot. Oh, and decent knees and a bit of bending. Well, a lot really. If they can do it in Saffron Walden in Essex, or the roof of the Paris opera, so can we. The fact that 90% of the world’s saffron comes from Iran, (otherwise India and Spain) is purely down to labour costs. You can buy English and French saffron if you are willing to pay the price of the pickers (presumably even rarer in England now post Brexit).
As we love saffron risotto (Milanese or of course paella or biryani) and are fed up with expensive and often not very high quality saffron, it seemed obvious. I rushed out to the garden centre and bought a bunch of plastic pots, some drainage beads to put in the bottom, a bit of sand and soil to mix and there we go. A row of receptacles ready for action. I ordered the highest-grade saffron bulbs online and when they arrived, planted them in August, watered them just once and left them in full sunshine wondering whether this could really work. It seemed way too easy for the world’s most luxurious spice.
By October the thin, blade-like leaves of crocus were slicing out of the soil and when we’d normally be in Barolo (school holidays, the last week of October before the clocks turn) I had these beautiful and ephemeral flowers appearing. They only last about a day, and you need to wait until lunchtime to be sure that the flowers are fully dry and ready to pick. Each corm actually produces 3 or 4 flowers with their 3 stigma, so you find the total mounts quite quickly. You can pull off the whole flower, but that leaves nothing for the bees or the eye, so I just used nail scissors to extricate only the scarlet part. After all, this was not large-scale production. Dry it briefly in a super low oven and seal in a glass bottle and there you have it…
This seems to create great surprise and excitement amongst our friends, but, yes, it is very possible and straight forward to grow saffron in your garden in northern France. And you end up with the highest quality product, no adulterations and fresh (it goes off, or loses potency, after a few months so what you buy in that miniscule bottle in the luxury spice shop may taste of pretty much nothing other than your bitter frustration).
It is also a super wine-friendly condiment – going as well with rice, chicken or fish and perfectly unbiased in its colour preferences. To celebrate the first crop, I cooked up, very simply, some prawns briefly fried up with garlic, onion and just a whisper of fresh chilli (also from the garden), splashed in a bit of prematurely oxidised Puligny and a heavenly drizzle of our saffran, watched it turn gold and poured over some pasta. Perhaps a squeeze of tomato puree and spoon of thick cream to add to the luxury.
On the wine front, such a meal fit for the shahs, maharajahs and princes of the realm demanded an effort. All that grovelling about on my knees with surgical scissor precision… So I found a 2012 Meursault from Domaine Roulot. A wine of chiselled purity and beauty, lots of minty-licorice on the nose and palate, a core of ripe fruit, nice acidity and, the longer it stayed in the glass, the more chalky density. Just an amazing village wine and one of class and delicious balance. One of those bottles that imprints a smile on your face and desperation as the last glass empties. Squeeze that bottle for the ultimate drop.
Of course, I then did something stupid and looked it up on the web to see what the great and good thought. To be honest I don’t care about the critics as the real ones are scoring it by hierarchy not actual pleasure delivered, and the rest don’t really know what they are doing. After all, if a ‘humble’ village wine (and this was not even one of the named single vineyard village wines for which Roulot is so famous) scores will into the 90s, which is tempting given its elegance, class and sheer deliciousness, then what does a Charmes 1e score let alone the mighty Perrieres?
The trouble is that I also spotted the price, the so-called value today. For a generic village wine. Over four hundred quid. Mind-bogglingly obscene and stupid for a wine that from the domaine cost a few tens of euros, and I mean few…
Sad. I note that the domaine has just now released a new product, a very smart box of I think 7 little bottles from each village vineyard, but not wine. Apparently this breaches the ridiculous bureaucratic rules so cannot be termed marc de Bourgogne but is downgraded to eau de vie. I somewhat suspect the price was not downgraded too.
I would put Roulot as one of my favourite one handful of white wine producers, but all of them are now off limits unless you have a grandfathered direct allocation. Who is stupid enough to pay the market prices I do not know as for the price of a simple village wine from here you can get serious grand cru wines from elsewhere and that’s just never going to be a fair fight. I guess money must just not matter, and the label be primordial for those who can afford it. Such a shame.
Anyway, Meursault and saffron is a splendid combo.
But before I leave the whites I need to throw in a complete surprise from the Langhe, in fact from Verduno, one of the principal villages of Barolo, famed for its Monvigliero vineyard. I bought the 2010 from Burlotto for 55 euros and to be honest didn't really know what it was. Five years later it was about 250 and now the retail price of the 2019 will I guess be 450+.
But, and it's a happy BUT, Burlotto also makes a sauvignon blanc from the same village. Now I am not a huge fan of whites from the Langhe as most of them I find rather bland, (with the exception of the rare Derthona timorasso and Manzone's equally rare rossesso from Monforte). I also tend to keep clear of sauvignons grown in unusual places as they are often caricature tropical fruit/herbaceous in an overtly New World or New Zealand style. But this wine cost under 20 euros, was from a great winemaker and a famed village. Surely worth a shot?
And yes it was. Nothing like NZ, or the Loire for that matter. No this was slighty minty and full or ripe dried melon and reminded me strongly of Bordeaux's sauvignons. Nice and, again, great value.
Which brings us inevitably to the classic rice dishes, and what better than a bowlful of Milan’s signature dish? Comfort food par excellence, but with a dash of luxury. More premoxed burgundy, a spoonful of stock and then the precious threads – it’s always fun to watch the simmering broth change colour to a brilliant yellow even though the scarlet strands remain bright.
Being in northern Italy, and given the glutinous weight of risotto, something with a certain cut is needed and the obvious choice is Nebbiolo, with enough acidity and tannin to scythe through the starch, but the perfume and delicacy to match the saffron and not overwhelm it as, say, a Barossa shiraz or big Chateauneuf would.
And some age, a wine that has softened with time just as the bullet-rice has becomes gently chewy and creamy. I might also add that Milan is in Lombardy and their great wine is Nebbiolo (or chiavvanasca) from Valtellina, Alpine wine grown on vertiginous terraces and with all the floral red fruited Nebbiolo charm you need, plus an elegance and lack of heavy weight born of altitude. The valley flows under the fur coated ski millionaires of St Moritz into the movie-star lakeside villas of Como. Lovely wine and, for the most part, underappreciated and under-priced, a rare commodity in the wine world these days. Yes, some are a little rustic, but the best (Ar.Pe.Pe, Menegola, Prevostini to name but a few) are lovely and, for once, the beneficiaries of global warming.
We tried a village wine from Grumello, next to the remains of a castle, and to be honest the floral aromatics were there and the candied red fruit, but the finish was a bit rustic and green. I don’t know whether it was the vineyard, the bottle or the day, but it was nowhere near as satisfying as a 2017 from the neighbouring Inferno. The finish left a slightly disappointing, bitter taste.
Time to get back to the Langhe and the Nebbiolo’s more revered homeland, but in search of a bit more elegance let’s head to Barbaresco and the village of Neive and another castle, from the 1700’s. Calcareous soils not far from the Tanaro river and one very famous vineyard, Albesani, or rather the Santo Stefano vineyard within.
It was in fact Bruno Giacosa, the quiet doyen of Barbaresco, who made it ultra-famous and, these days, expensive, though he did not own the vines and in fact the grapes came from the Castello di Neive. The only bottle of this precious wine I ever had was the 2005, the last year before the great man suffered his stroke and it was corked… I wrote to the winery but all they did was apologise, no replacement bottle in the post. For some reason in 2011 he gave up the contract and that was the last vintage of Giacosa Santo Stefano. I have one in the cellar which I pray will suffer a better fate than the 2005.
Anyway, I had the 1997 version of the Rocca di Santo Stefano sitting in front of me, an inexpensive wine from what Kerin O’Keefe in her book deems ‘an extremely overrated vintage… most are fading quickly as the fruit dries up.’
Luckily, I only read that just now.
I decanted it, and the colour was good – still red, bright and a touch bricky. On the nose it was softly red fruited and promising. After half an hour it became quite meaty and I feared it might be one of those over the hill Nebbiolos that tastes overpoweringly of meat stock, which is fine in your stew but not in your glass. You just never know with old wines, especially 25 year Barbaresco from a somewhat iffy vintage and good but not star grower.
I stirred the risotto and watched it transform colour and poured out a glass. After an hour the meat was fading and the curranty red fruit growing, and, if anything getting riper. Sweet almonds, aromatic, delicate but lovely ripe fruit and that delicious sour creamy taste you often find in old Italians and Burgundies. There were still tannins, but soft.
You can always tell a really good wine as the last glass is the best and sorely missed once gone. Luckily the sediment was thick tea leaf sized and only took up a couple of tablespoon-fulls of liquid, so I managed to get almost every drop.
I have to say it was even more compelling than the two Angelo Gaja wines from the 90s that a friend very generously served me recently.
Oh, and the risotto was pretty good too.