22 September 2022 With the sad news of the recent death of this towering force in introducing fine Italian wine to the UK, we are republishing Walter's excellent 2011 profile of him. See also Walter’s memories of Nicolas Belfrage MW.
27 October 2011 It is 2 pm on a sunny September afternoon, and I am about to see Nicolas Belfrage MW (pictured), the author of three seminal books on Italian wine and the person who has been more of an influence on and example to me in terms of wine than anyone else. When I ring the doorbell of his office in Islington, North London, I feel almost as though I am going for a job interview.
I am led into a plain office by one of his staff and wait. Against the wall is a table full of mostly Italian samples, except for one French rosé from Fronton, cheekily labelled La Dolce Vita. France using Italy as a marketing tool? How times have changed!
The person entering the room is a sympathetic-looking, middle-aged gentleman, although I know from Belfrage's biography that in actual fact he is just past 70. 'Wine is the fountain of youth', I think to myself. He rearranges the papers on his desk to make space for my laptop, sits down and observes me quietly.
Nicolas Belfrage was born in Los Angeles in 1940, the son of British journalist Cedric Henning Belfrage and writer Molly Castle. In the late 1920s, his father had moved to work as a correspondent in Hollywood, where, in 1937, he briefly joined the communist party but almost immediately cancelled his membership. In the eyes of the American government, however, this made him forever suspect, and in 1953 he was summoned before the Kafkaesque-sounding 'House Un-American Activities Committee', following which, after a bout in jail for contempt of Congress, he was deported to England. Nicolas' mother had already returned to the UK in 1954.
'Was your father a KGB spy?' I ask as an opener. Belfrage merely smirks. 'We think that, in the end, he wasn't.' There is still much speculation on the internet about Cedric Henning Belfrage's alleged role in cold-war espionage, but it doesn't look as though I will get a definite answer today. But to my surprise, a few days later I receive an email in which Belfrage elaborates. 'As for my father and his possible connection with the KGB, I dine out on the following story. Some time in the 1980s, I forget which year, the [London] Sunday Times came out with a front-page shock-horror story giving lists of people who had been secret Russian spies – one list for those still living, another for those no longer alive. My father was included among the latter. I rang him at his home in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and said to him, 'Pa, did you know you were a dead Russian spy?' There was a long silence and he finally replied, 'It's true, I do feel a bit dead sometimes' (he had had several heart attacks and strokes, but they had failed to finish him off) 'but I didn't know I was a Russian spy.' My father subsequently sued the Sunday Times and received £1,000 compensation, which he used to come and visit us in Europe. We were never quite sure whether he'd been compensated for being wrongly accused of being a spy, or of being dead. We like to think the former.'
I ask Belfrage if he feels more American than English. 'Definitely English! I have spent most of my time in the UK, and only the first 14 years of my life in the US. My parents were English and I am a supporter of England.' I ask if this refers to the national team. 'That too', he replies.
Why Italian wine? 'Why wine at all?' he returns the question. 'I didn't have a background in wine. My father enjoyed a glass of wine, but that was about it.' So much for parental guidance as an explanation. Instead, in his 20s Belfrage got involved in the travel business, but didn't particularly enjoy it. 'I didn't like to be employed', is how he sums up the experience. He resigned when a friend, Albert Vince, who had started a late-night grocery business in Gloucester Road, a unique concept at the time when all others closed at 6 pm and weren't open on Sundays either, asked him to join. With the grocery store Vince had founded what was later to become Europa Foods, a well-known London wine and food chain at the time, which he eventually sold and which was later taken over by Tesco. Vince convinced Belfrage to scrape up the money to help finance a second store, which he did, and which opened in Craven Road, Paddington. Vince also managed to get an off-licence for that store and this literally opened the route to wine for Belfrage, who was assigned the job of 'buying booze, not just wine'.
The concept of the shop demanded that its merchandise be sourced directly from abroad, and Belfrage, unsurprisingly for that time, stuck to France and, very surprisingly, to Germany. 'German wines at that time were still very interesting – before the new German wine law fatally undermined them', remembers Belfrage. But Italian wine, which was to determine most of his working life, had yet to appear on his vinous horizon. In fact, its reputation was so poor as to be non-existent in the UK at that time.
Wasn't it a daunting task to buy wine without any formal training or knowledge? Wine information and education must have been only a fraction of what is available today, so how did he acquire the necessary knowledge? 'I felt very confident, as I knew I had a good palate, or at least I could tell good from bad', Belfrage explains. The fact that there was much less information and training on wine in those days wasn't a disadvantage for him at all. The wine world was much smaller then, but has become so complex that he confesses he doubts whether he would pass either the Master of Wine (Belfrage has been an MW since 1980) or the WSET diploma exams if he had to sit them today.
Another reason to suspect that his buying skills were rather good was the fact that the wines he sourced sold very well, and when Vince opened a small chain of wine shops called The Grapevine in 1971, it was Belfrage again who was responsible for the wine buying.
The next step came when Vince's financial director, Colin Loxley, parted with the company. Not long after, Loxley became Belfrage's business partner in a new joint venture in 1973, The Market Food & Wines in Upper Street, Islington, of which a certain Ms Robinson was to become a regular customer. Even more convenient for her was the fact that this shop was followed by Le Provençal, a fine-wine merchant and part of the Market Food & Wines Group, which opened on her next doorstep in Hampstead.
After Belfrage split up with his first wife, Baiba, in 1974, she went to live in Bergamo, 25 miles east of Milan, where she became (and still is) involved with the international Montessori movement. 'After we split up we became more friendly', Belfrage observes smilingly, as if to explain why he visited her so frequently after the marriage was over. It was during those visits to Bergamo that he started to drink the local wines, especially those from Valtellina. While he laments the fact that the wines from Valtellina never caught on in the UK market, he confesses in the same breath that it is the only wine region in Italy he has never visited, a fact for which Franco Ziliani still scolds him. So while this man has seen the length and breadth of all Italian wine regions, from north to south, from the isolated Abruzze and Molise to the deepest south, he never went to Valtellina? 'It is just such a detour to get there, so remote. Perhaps when you write this, they will invite me', he cheekily adds.
It was also the same period in which new wines such as Sassicaia and Tignanello were emerging. At the time Belfrage frequented Cozzi, a wine bar in Bergamo, which poured new wave-wines such as the Supertuscans and Friulians such as Schiopetto, to name just a few, as well as those of the 'old school' such as Giacomo Conterno and Bruno Giacosa. Together with a friend of his ex wife, he started buying Italian wine, and it didn't take long before he made his first trip to Barolo. 'I was completely enchanted by it', Belfrage recalls. 'It showed that not only was there already good, but even great, Italian wine in existence.' What Belfrage clearly saw was the immense potential of Italy, and especially of its many grape varieties.
Belfrage stresses the fact that there has always been great wine in Italy, after I mentioned a comment made by Maurizio Zanella, of the Franciacorta estate Ca' del Bosco, during a lunch I had attended the day before this interview. According to Zanella, Italian quality wine has existed only for the last 50 years or so. It provoked me to reply that great wine styles, such as Barolo, Soave, Chianti Classico, Marsala, Brunello and Recioto della Valpolicella could never have been established in only 50 years. But Zanella, perhaps starstruck by Michael Broadbent sitting opposite of him, insisted that French wines, even in times of crisis, such as phylloxera and two world wars, always had great representatives in the international market, whereas wine in Italy was not much more than a nourishment, with great Italian wines far and few between, and very erratic at that.
I call this tendency to self-flagellation Italy's ongoing inferiority complex. It persists in the erroneous belief that the country has been and will always be France's underdog, an attitude I encounter time and again in dealing with Italian producers. Hence the refreshing contrast Belfrage's comments provide, and they are dearly needed in a market that is still not very knowledgeable about one of the world's largest and most important wine-producing countries, the UK.
But before Belfrage started to travel regularly to Bergamo, he had already visited Italy when he was much younger. He studied Italian in Siena and fell in love with the country. I ask him if the vineyards in Barolo at that time were different from now. 'Bad barrels were a current problem and in the absence of refrigeration technology, only the likes of Giacomo Conterno could get away with 38 ºC during fermentation and still come up with something exceptional, while hardly anyone else could', he recalls. But already at that time some of the vineyards were cordon-spur trained. What did change was that producers became more and more aware of canopy management, green harvest, bunch thinning and lower yields.
While Belfrage is someone who has triggered my ongoing fascination with Italian wine, he tells me that for him the trigger was and still is the very complex nature of Italy as a wine-producing country. But surely this can become frustrating, I venture, thinking of my own impressions and experiences, especially with the bureaucratic and often nonsensical side of Italian wine. 'Italy is very fragmented in a good and in a bad way', he replies. According to Belfrage, to get producers to work together and market and promote the wines internationally (in the absence of a country-wide government-funded promotional body – something Italy acutely lacks), you need someone from the outside. He mentions Jane Hunt MW, who set up – without financial or any other support from the Italian government – the Definitive Italian Wine tasting, the largest Italian wine event in the UK.
While Belfrage was begining to specialise in buying Italian wine, he founded Winecellars wine store based in Wandsworth together Colin Loxley (who sadly passed away in 2006), which was sold to Enotria in 1994. Belfrage recalls that 'the idea was to establish ourselves as the first non-Italians to ship and distribute quality Italian wines, as distinct from the mediocrity that seemed to be on offer from the Italian importers at the time'. Winecellars could also be rightfully considered a forerunner of Liberty Wines. Belfrage and Loxley employed David Gleave MW, who was made director until he founded Liberty Wines.
In 1983, Jancis, in her role as editor of a range of wine books for Sidgwick & Jackson, commissioned Belfrage to write a book on Italy. At that time he already wrote about Italian wines and his articles were regularly published in magazines such as Decanter.
Jancis initially wanted to call the book The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. 'Lambrusco was king of the market in those days, the Pinot Grigio of the 1980s', explains Belfrage. He objected to the title because he believed there was plenty of Italian wine out there which went beyond the generally perceived low quality. Instead he chose Life beyond Lambrusco: Understanding Italian Fine Wine. For Belfrage, the book had to have an upbeat title as well as emphasising that fine Italian wine existed, even if few people were aware of it at the time. Without Belfrage's permission, the title was later used by the publisher to publish another book, Life beyond Liebfraumilch.
This first comprehensive work on Italian wine was followed in 1999 by the monumental Barolo to Valpolicella: The Wines of Northern Italy, with a second volume Brunello to Zibibbo – the Wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy in 2001. How did he manage to write such detailed books when not living in the country itself, I want to know. Belfrage explains that although he started living on a part-time basis in Italy from 1994 on, for years and years prior to that he had already investigated the country in depth as a wine buyer and a journalist.
His books are typified by great eye for detail, a strong historical perspective, and he has this rare gift of explaining complex matters in very eloquent and entertaining prose. 'One thing I haven't mentioned yet is that before the travel business I wanted to be a writer', is how Belfrage explains what I call the 'literary qualities' of his books. And writing is something that clearly runs in the family. Belfrage himself wrote three novels, sadly none of which was published. 'I was very interested in existentialism, Camus, Dostoevsky, the meaning of life, ta-daaah…' But he had to make a living, 'and I was disgusted by being rejected all the time'. This, arguably, is one of the reasons his two middle books, which are the textbooks on Italian wine, have not been reprinted. Belfrage swore to himself never to write again without first being commissioned to do so, but perhaps he should for once forsake that promise to himself, for the general good, obviously. Belfrage also wrote a book on Dante Alighieri, and while he tells me this, he wonders aloud whether he should try and get that published. Publishers, take note – this could be a double deal!
I have always marvelled at the historical background Belfrage depicts throughout his books. For him, history is an essential part of Italian wine: 'It is not just all Amarone and Brunello, there are historical roots to every wine in Italy'. And it is this history that puts Italian wine in its proper context. 'Perhaps Italian wine [from a quality and general perception point of view] had its ups and downs, but in the 19th century in Italy, before the triple whammy of oïdium, peronospora and phylloxera, there was a boom in wine science'. And throughout each of his books, Belfrage cites sources as diverse as the 14th-century Pietro de' Crescenzi and a host of of scientific documents and ampelographic manuals written in the 19th century to prove this. Quality wine production in Italy is not an oxymoron, nor a recent historic trend. One only has to think of the Romans, who were doing research in viticulture and training systems long before vines were common in France.
This topic leads us to discuss the level of knowledge about Italian wine in the UK, which, we agree, pales in comparison with that of French wines. 'The knowledge of Italian wine is so poor in this country firstly because the press struggles with the Italian language. They can speak French and cope with Spanish, but Italian is a problem'. Another obstacle is the bewildering number of Italian grape varieties [I know a book that might be able to help when it is published next year – JR], and the fact that there is no effective official Italian body for the promotion of wine in the international markets to explain this huge variety consistently.
But it is especially the indigenous grape varieties that are Italy's core strength in a market dominated by a handful of French ones, and the reason Belfrage recently jumped on the barricades to defend Rosso di Montalcino against dilution with international grapes. 'I have nothing against these blends [of Italian and international varieties] and Italy can produce great wines from these, but I do have a problem with historic denominations such as Chianti. It can be a blend, but not a blend from another tradition. I want to see Chianti take out the French grapes, and allow it to be a traditional Tuscan wine.'
I volunteer that the international grape varieties made it easier for the international markets to understand the complexity of Italian wine. Especially the so-called 'Supertuscans', big, bold wines made predominantly from French grape varieties or blended with Tuscany's Sangiovese which were a huge success in the 1990s. 'The Supertuscans docked in on the American-led trend of "massiveness", massive extract and oak, and this example was followed by the Japanese market. And it had more to do with points than with anything else. In order to get the points you had to have the colour, the extract and the concentration. Points have to a large extent distorted the market. But there was and always is a core of people who were looking for the real thing.'
Belfrage tells me it saddened him that people thought he wanted to 'knock' Cabernet Sauvignon et al., which couldn't be further from the truth. The attentive reader of his books will know that he openly admires not a few Italian wines made from international grape varieties, Sassicaia being just one of them. The point he is making is merely that a historical wine cannot be made from foreign grape varieties. 'It is not even a question of quality but a question of personality'. Is he disillusioned? 'Not yet, we won the fight last week', Belfrage answers, referring to the fact that a majority of Montalcino producers voted against a change in regulation that would have allowed 15% of foreign grape varieties in Rosso di Montalcino.
I want to know from Belfrage what he thinks has been the most radical change in the Italian winescape in the past 10 years. 'The psychology has changed a lot', he tells me. 'We are in a post-boom period and producers still remember when they could ask a lot of money for a bottle of wine – and get it. These days it is not so easy. The Supertuscans are dead, and that has a lot to do with price points, and it's got a lot to do with the fact that people can get genuine Italian wines at a much lower prices. The prices of the Supertuscans were jacked up, while the DOC wines were left more or less to their own devices.' Although the latter category represents 'genuine' Italian wines, they never saw price increases as drastic as those of the Supertuscans, and it is these relative bargains that people tend to seek out instead, according to Belfrage.
At the end of the interview I ask Belfrage what he thinks about the never-ending, nagging question of the perceived conflict of interest if one is a wine writer as well as a broker. In the past Belfrage's integrity as a journalist had been called into question more than once because of this parallel commercial activity. 'Well, in my case the journalistic activity has been greatly helped by the commercial activity and vice versa. It is true that I have been attacked, but it is all part of the game', he observes. 'I have no intention of changing what I do. I started with the commercial side and I took up writing, and I think I contributed quite a bit [to the Italian cause], but without the commercial side there wouldn't have been anything at all.'
• Life beyond Lambrusco (1985)
• Barolo to Valpolicella: The Wines of Northern Italy (1999)
• Brunello to Zibibbo: The Wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy (2001)
• The Finest Wines of Tuscany and Central Italy (2009)