I was lucky enough to get a slice of The Ledbury action in late November, having been invited by wine whiz kid Gareth Birchley of fine wine trader Bordeaux Index to attend an Aldo Conterno dinner hosted by Conterno's son Franco. The Conterno family is arguably Barolo's premier winemaking dynasty – Aldo's father Giacomo was one of the stalwarts of the region. But, rather than joining his brother Giovanni in the running of the family estate, Aldo struck out on his own in 1969. While Giovanni continued to make benchmark Barolo under the Giacomo Conterno label, Aldo ploughed his own furrow, making a more accessible style of Barolo than his family's traditional style.
Arriving fashionably late, the restaurant, which had been closed to the public for the event, was already buzzing with animated banter, helped along by glasses of ice-cold Pol Roger NV. Each and every canapé was a thing of beauty, from foie gras fancies and precise oysters prettified with hake snow to crunchy wild boar croquettes oozing white truffle oil. Ushered to our seats, we were immediately offered warm bacon brioche, enriched by an awaiting slab of salted butter. Sporting a silver gray suit and slicked back black hair, Franco Conterno held court, talking us through the first wine duo of the night: Bussiador Chardonnay 2003 and 2006. Expressing a love of Burgundian Chardonnay, Conterno explained that his father had planted the vines 30 years ago with the intention of ageing the wine in new French oak.
The Aldo Conterno estate lies in Bussia, in the village of Monforte d'Alba at the heart of the Barolo region. Aided by sons Franco, Giacomo and Stefano, Aldo tends to 25-ha of vines on calcareous marl and sandy soils surrounding the family home. The jewels in the Conterno crown are the trio of cru vineyards: Romirasco, Cicala and Colonello, from which the estate's three single vineyard wines are grown. According to Franco, wines from the Romirasco site are powerful and spicy, with the greatest potential for ageing, while the Cicala wines are full bodied and the Colonello more gentle, feminine and floral.
The Bussiadors were delightful. Glinting gold, the 2006 stole the show with its mature, Montrachet-like honeyed nose. Unctuous, rich, elegant and textured, with incredible length, it showed sweet caramelised notes of toffee apple on the palate and proved a divine wine to begin the night. The wines were paired with a rosemary and buttermilk curd in a soothing, herby broth of grilled onions flavoured with juniper, accompanied by deliciously decadent truffles on toast.
We were then treated to a trio of 2006 Barolos from each of the single vineyards, as a way of comparing how the different terroirs influence the wines. The clay-rich soils of Cicala gave a robust but elegant example of Barolo, while the limestone soils of Romirasco made for a more powerful, spicier wine built to age gracefully with a rich nose of black cherries. Finally, the Colonello from sandy soils was lighter and more elegant. The most approachable of the three, it had a silky palate of sour cherries. To pair, we devoured a rich, log-like boudin of grouse in a creamy cep and chestnut sauce.
Our feast continued with a 2004 comparison of the Colonello and Romirasco single vineyards, the former exhibiting a wonderfully perfumed nose and the tar and roses you expect from Barolo, along with hints of licquorice and tea, while the latter was punchy, weighty and tannic, and clearly needs more time to shine. Holding its own against the might of the wines was a faggot of Berkshire hare with tea-soaked prunes and a puree of parsley root flavoured with chocolate. The achingly tender hare was expertly cooked, showing off Graham's precision and flair.
Our next wine flight took us to the 1999 vintage of Cicala and the estate's crown jewel – Granbussia, a blend of the three single vineyards – 70% Romirasco, 15% Colonello and 15% Cicala, which is only made in exceptional years. The Cicala was surprisingly Port-like, with a rich nose of raisins and Christmas cake, and an almost PX-like sweetness, while the Granbussia displayed similarly sultana-like dried fruit notes. To match, we indulged in a risotto of celeriac with grated duck egg, smoked bone marrow, parmesan and generous slithers of shaved white truffle that blanketed the plate. A hedonistic combination, the textured dish was rich and almost poignantly comforting.
The final flourish came in the form of 1978 Barolo Granbussia, one of the greatest wines the estate has ever produced. A class act, it showed attractive savoury notes of smoky bacon and green pea. The tannins had all but disappeared, leaving a wonderfully approachable silky texture, making it a joy to drink with the accompanying loin of silka deer with walnuts in a dried chicory reduction. The ruby red slither of deer glistened on the plate, the juicy meat proving an ideal companion for the savoury wine. Stuffed as a pillow from the heavenly onslaught, I managed to find room for a salted caramel (or three) as the petit fours did the rounds. Sauntering down Ledbury Road post feast, head slightly fuzzy from all the wine, I lost my way in the backstreets of Notting Hill and stumbled upon a secret garden. Where's Hugh Grant when you need him for a leg-up?