How did your passion for wine begin? And how did you first start collaborating with Slow Food and then with Gambero Rosso?
My love for wine started … out of love. I only got into it because my girlfriend was a wine aficionado, while I didn’t use to drink at all. At the time, she was taking a sommelier course, and as I wanted to share her passion, I began to attend the Slow Food wine courses, which back then were held by Sandro Sangiorgi. Those were the years of the Roman Slow Food school: besides Sangiorgi, there was also the great Egidio Fedele Dell’Oste. Their lessons were successively collected in a volume published by Slow Food, Il piacere del vino, a book which should be on the shelves of all wine lovers. Not long after that, I joined Slow Food and shortly thereafter, in the nineties, I became the person in charge of Slow Food’s wine courses in Rome. When I left Slow Food in the early 90’s, I started working for Gambero Rosso as a wine taster, first in Montepulciano and Scanzano, then in Montalcino.
Leonardo Romanelli defines you as the “guru” of Montalcino. Will you tell us about your experience with Brunello?
I started collaborating in Montalcino through Gambero Rosso. At that time, in the early 90’s, Montalcino was not at all renowned: suffice it to say that only four or five Montalcino wines had been awarded recognition in the first editions of the Gambero Rosso Guides. There were more or less eighty producers, certainly not today’s 150, and the hectares of vineyards were a thousand at the most, against the current 2,500. The Montalcino phenomenon is therefore very recent, as it started to develop in the 90’s, under the tutelage of Gambero Rosso and myself.
In the Eighties, Chianti and Bolgheri were much more famous wine-producing areas. What was it that determined Montalcino’s success?
There were two main factors in a long process that started in the early 80’s. The first was the presence of an outstanding historic producer that lent prestige to Montalcino’s wines owing to its superior, characteristic longevity. The producer in question is Biondi Santi, whom I define supreme without fear of exaggeration. In its cellars, Biondi Santi had historic reserves that could only be described as extraordinary, such as the mythical ’47 or ‘55 or the 1888. But the key-point that determined Montalcino’s success was Banfi’s arrival from the United States, drawing the attention of the whole of the American press to Montalcino. The interesting aspect of this is that Banfi invested heavily in a comprehensive project in an area which, back then, seemed lost in the middle of nowhere; and that is how American interest in Montalcino originated. Montalcino’s success is therefore rooted in a combination of the historical significance vested in Biondi Santi, on the one hand, and the Banfi-led media interest on the other. This produced a generational change, which led many people coming from different backgrounds to invest in Montalcino, giving life to prestigious labels and better wines than those that had previously been produced.
When thinking of Brunello, the mind sets on rather expensive bottles. But is it always necessary to spend a considerable sum of money in order to drink good wine?
No, not always, but in Montalcino it is necessary to choose very carefully. The average quality is very high, but there is nothing under €20-25, while in Chianti, for example, a good wine can be enjoyed at €10.
After many years with the Gambero Rosso Guides, now you are undertaking a new venture with Doctor Wine in the company of Daniele Cernilli. What brought this change about?
A year after Daniele Cernilli left Gambero Rosso, I decided to follow him because we share the same ideas on wine and had already worked very well together. I wanted to start anew with him in a situation that was perhaps simpler than Gambero Rosso, but in which I had a deep conviction. Compared to Gambero Rosso, Doctor Wine offers me much more freedom to express myself and explore territories that are different from those that I was accustomed to, such as Friuli, Basilicata or Piedmont, for example.
Wine and prosciutto. What do you like to match with San Daniele?
I would never match a Brunello or a Tuscan wine. San Daniele pairs well with Schioppettino di Prepotto because it is a peppery wine with good acidity that does not overwhelm the flavour of the prosciutto, but rather exalts its lightly salted taste. As an alternative to Schioppettino, I would choose a well-made white wine from Friuli, such as a classic Friulano.
What about your relationship with food? What do you like and dislike?
What I don’t like is an overly “creative” cuisine. Good cooking should be a question of flavours, not only of ideas. I love defined flavours and properly prepared dishes. For example, before Ferran Adrià’s “El Bulli” closed, I was fortunate enough to eat at this restaurant, famous for the mousses and creams he made. But that was only one aspect of his cuisine, because he also prepared fantastic local dishes that nobody ever mentions, which instead highlighted his great skill. Ferran Adrià was able to do both: he was a little like Picasso, who invented cubism, but also went through his blue period. When a chef never goes beyond cubism, I have my doubts …