I was fortunate enough to dine at Brawn recently and I enjoyed some of the best food that I have eaten in quite some time. An exceptional dish of grilled duck hearts on fresh broad bean purée was followed by an equally delicious confit rabbit leg served with wet polenta and a delicate gremolata. As enticing as everything on the menu was to me, I found the wine list to be an entirely different story. My issue was not with the quality or with the variety of the wines offered, my issue was with the format of the list.
With the increasing influence of sommeliers has come a trend for ever more exclusive and unfamiliar wine listings. This is great news for wine lovers, wine producers and wine merchants alike, but selling such wines requires a substantial investment of effort to interact with and to entice the customer into spending money on an unknown quantity. The wine trade in general is often accused of failing to engage with the average wine drinker and it falls to independent wine merchants, wine writers and sommeliers to bridge the gap and to generate interest in and excitement about regions, grape varieties and styles of wine. Selling any product requires effective communication with customers; this is particularly true in a restaurant where the food and the wine are such important contributors to the overall experience and to the memories it creates.
Brawn’s wine list ran to six pages and was divided into sections with titles such as “Vins de Soif”, “Volcano”, and ”Sunbaked, cicada-loud, ageless country of scrub and terraced hills”. Evocative? Certainly. Helpful? Only to the reasonably well-informed wine lover, I suspect. I like to believe that I have just about enough knowledge to navigate a wine list, but there is a minimum amount of information that has to be given to enable me to make a decision. When only the scantest details are provided for the wines listed – the name of a very small, artisanal producer and the highly personally relevant moniker of his or her wine – and when the wine comes from an appellation or region that is home to a wide variety of wine types and styles, then a request for an additional line of information does not seem to be excessively demanding. Even just the grape varieties would suffice, especially when most of the wines sold are made in a natural/minimal intervention style.
Brawn is happy to allow you to taste any of the seventeen wines that it sells by the glass and the lady who served us was able to give me a general impression of the wines I was considering. However, the contrast between the menu, that read so appealingly I could happily have ordered every dish from it, and the wine list, that I wanted to take full advantage of but couldn’t, left me somewhat disappointed. I’m certain that there were many interesting wines on the list and that they all deserved to be tried, but what I can only describe as the perverse insouciance that pervaded the layout of the wine list did Brawn far more of a disservice than a favour.
Being something of a wine nerd, and already knowing about the ethos of the wine list, I managed to do a little research before my visit. I was definitely keen to try a natural/minimal intervention wine, and particularly a Georgian qvevri wine if possible, but the closest options were various wines made in amphorae in other parts of the world. I had written a shortlist of possible wines to choose from, depending upon everyone’s choice of dishes, and I actually ended up ordering my first candidate of whites. This was the Cristiano Guttarolo Bianco Amphora 2013 (12% ABV), of which more below.
About 40km south of Bari, Puglia lie Cristiano Guttarolo’s vineyards on the surprisingly cool Murge Plateau. This raised plateau of fossilised limestone sits at an altitude of 430m and it is constantly cooled by stiff breezes that blow in off the sea. The combination of elevation and ventilation creates substantial diurnal temperature fluctuations and provides a freshness not usually found in the wines of so hot and arid a region.
As well as practising organic and partially biodynamic viticulture, Cristiano ferments the best parcels of his grapes in terracotta amphorae for several months allowing both the reds and the whites an unusual amount of skin contact before they are racked and bottled without being filtered and without the use of sulphur dioxide. Cristiano believes that whichever type of fermentation vessel is used, it is simply a vehicle that moves the wine closer to the ideal point in its evolution. As much as he relishes the points of difference bestowed by amphorae, to his mind it is always the terroir, rather than the winemaking techniques, that shines brightest in the end.
Only just off transparent when first poured (it must have settled), by the final glass it was as opaque as cloudy apple juice and similarly coloured. The nose was high toned, noticeably volatile and faintly cidery at first but it had bright, ripe pear fruit underneath mingled with wild meadow herbs and a faint savoury/toasty element. The palate was dry and initially somewhat tart and cidery, but as with the nose this evolved into rich pear fruit with a fragrance of woody stemmed herbs – thyme, rosemary – and a minerally, softly salty tang. Rich fruit balanced by tart acidity continued through the long finish. Perplexing, challenging and unlike much else, yet beguiling and really rather moreish to drink.
I found out subsequently that this wine was 100% Chardonnay, although I recognised none of what I have come to regard as the typical aromas or flavours of that grape on either the nose or on the palate. One of the arguments in favour of natural/minimal intervention and amphora/qvevri wines is that they truly represent the unadulterated characters of the vineyard and the grape variety, unlike “conventional” wines with their micro managed vineyards, cultured yeasts, fining, filtering, oak influence and sulphur dioxide controlled winemaking. There is undoubtedly an element of truth to this in its most literal context, but with conventional wines the characteristics of a specific grape variety, and a specific vineyard in certain cases, can be recognised consistently irrespective of the producer or vintage. This might well be simple indoctrination that could soon be reversed through increased exposure to natural/minimal intervention wines, but in my limited experience it seems that, despite the intentions to the contrary, ironically it is the winemaking style that actually overwhelms the varietal, geographical and geological input. It would be genuinely fascinating to taste natural/minimal intervention versions of a collection of well documented wines such as the seven Chablis Grands Crus to ascertain the nature and the extent of their differences, both from each other and from their conventional equivalents. I also wonder if red amphora wines would be more immediately acceptable to my as yet untrained palate? RAW here I come…
Despite my apparent negativity about the presentation of Brawn’s wine list and my lack of experience with natural/minimal intervention wines, I thoroughly enjoyed everything about my evening and it is because of this I have felt compelled to raise these points. I’m very keen to try Cristiano’s “rusty” hued rosé and his amphora-aged Primitivo, so I will soon be in touch with Alex at Tutto Wines to purchase a selection.