Addio Nicolas Belfrage MW

Nicolas Belfrage MW

See also Walter's fascinating profile of his mentor, with his penetrating blue eyes and intellect, and light American accent, who is much missed already.

Last Saturday, Nicolas Belfrage, a titan of Italian wine, was granted his last wish. In 2020 I saw him for the last time after a short lunch in a completely deserted sushi bar in London’s Victoria. Just before taking a bus back home to Putney, he turned to me and, able only to whisper, said jokingly, ‘I can’t wait for the grim reaper to come’.

Weakened by Parkinson’s, which precluded him from writing, but armed with an extraordinary sense of irony and a brilliant mind, this eloquent man managed to make me laugh, although I felt a chill in my heart. As I explained in this 2011 profile, Belfrage has been my mentor and guiding light in all matters relating to Italian wine since I came across his book Life Beyond Lambrusco – Understanding Italian Fine Wine, published in 1983, in a second-hand book shop in Berlin at the end of the 1990s. It was Jancis, in her role as editor of a series of wine books for Sidgwick & Jackson, who had commissioned Belfrage to write it.

That book was a lighthouse to me, because it dared to refer to Italian wine as fine, at a time when that distinction was only bestowed on French wines. Although Germany has always been passionate about Italy – its closest ‘exotic destination’ just over the Alps and where, after the Second World War for a long time, a shared sense of shame crystallised out in a silent understanding and fast-growing tourism – French wines were still considered the pinnacle of quality.

I was acutely aware of that while working as a sommelier in Restaurant Schwarzenraben, then the pinnacle of cool in Berlin’s resurrected Mitte. The general manager Rudy Girolo was the first to push the price of a plate of pasta over the critical €20, the absolute pain barrier at the time. But we had a hard time convincing our customers of our wines, inevitably from indigenous varieties and shipped directly from Italy to help cover the place’s phenomenal rent by cutting out the middle man. In the end we bought a couple of cases of Gaja and Sassicaia to give the list the credentials the market, and not just in Germany, demanded at the time. 

In his book Belfrage redressed the balance by describing in great detail the diversity of the Italian wine world, its indigenous varieties and, crucially, putting everything in a historical context. Belfrage gave Italian wine back its much-deserved dignity. From the 1980s onwards, out of a misplaced sense of inferiority and for over three generations, producers fell into the trap of prioritising international wine styles over their long, indigenous heritage.

Italian indigenous varieties are now in the international spotlight, but it was Belfrage – together with Burton Anderson, who was also obstinately convinced of Italian greatness – who was way ahead of the game. While Anderson wrote book after book to prove this very point and for years slept in his car to cut down on travel costs while crossing the country to collect the evidence, over the decades, Belfrage built up an impressive portfolio as in importer of fine Italian wine. This culminated in Vinexus, one of the UK’s leading agents of the very best vinous Italy has to offer.

Belfrage’s magnum opus was the two-tome Barolo to Valpolicella: The Wines of Northern Italy, published in 1999, with a second volume Brunello to Zibibbo – the Wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy in 2001. These two books, part reference, part travelogue, part producer profiles, opened Italy up to me like never before, describing the wines, the people who made them and a host of indigenous varieties anchoring their origin in history, culture and tradition. It made Italy an adventure with seemingly endless discoveries, especially of places off the beaten track. Until this day this fascination and the pull of this unknown Italy, often intact, I still feel as strongly as the first time I read his books.

These two books were never surpassed and were on a par with Burton Anderson’s ground-breaking The Atlas of Italian Wines from 1990 – alas never recommissioned. Although Belfrage had sworn to himself never to write again without first being commissioned, we started to discuss how we could collaborate to update the books, but the increasing onset of Parkinson’s made that impossible.

Belfrage and I shared a fascination for the unknown and the besmirched and the ridiculed. Frascati was such a place, where Belfrage had sniffed out a producer of classic Frascati, Casal Pilozzo, which in 2014 we visited together. Signor Pulcini, its lively 74-year-old owner, pulled out all the stops by letting us taste wines going back to 1992. These wines, 100% made from the local Malvasia Puntinata, couldn’t be called Frascati since the insipid Trebbiano became a mandatory ingredient thanks to the then-powerful local co-ops interested only in volume. This spelt Frascati’s downfall, from which it has yet to recover.

Belfrage was also a huge supporter of Nebbiolo Day, an all-encompassing trade tasting in London with producers from all over Italy’s north showing their Nebbiolos, which I organised in 2017. It was a daunting enterprise, corralling 80 Italian Nebbioliste in a single event, which I could never have done without Jane Hunt MW, another proponent of fine Italian wine who has effectively taken on what a generic body should do. Always ahead of his time, Belfrage had a personal liking for the Nebbiolos of Valtellina, which, back in the 1990s when he first discovered them, were a hard sell, but which are now decidedly trendy.

In 2019 Jane Hunt MW and I had the idea of celebrating Belfrage’s 80th birthday the following year with a special tasting also involving Nick Bielak, Belfrage’s business partner at Vinexus, and who passed away much too early this year. It was unclear whether Belfrage would be able to attend, but he was adamant that in any case it should be a tasting of Italian white wines, the most misunderstood and under-appreciated category of Italian wine according to him. Unfortunately, the pandemic prevented that.

Before writing this, I went to down to my cellar to pick out a wine to accompany it, but nothing seemed right. There isn’t one single wine that could do justice to Nicolas Belfrage; it is all of them or nothing. And while I am sitting at my kitchen table doing a bad job at fighting back the sadness while typing this, I am aware, more than ever, that I am standing on the shoulders of a giant.

In an impossible task, the torch has been handed on.