Nicolas Belfrage MW (1940–2022) by Simon Loftus

Nick Belfrage with Gratis at Villa di Vetrice

The man who turned Suffolk brewer Adnams into a dazzling wine merchant remembers his travels with the late Nicolas Belfrage, seen above (left) at Villa di Vetrice in Chianti Rufina with two generations of the Grati family. All images from Simon Loftus's 1983 photo album.

Nick Belfrage acted as my guide to the Italian vineyards and winemakers on two separate occasions, both of which involved slightly surreal episodes.

The first trip, in 1983, was precipitated by my sudden realisation, during a holiday in Piemonte with Irène and our baby daughter, that I wanted at last to discover the tastes of a wine culture which had always until then been a blind spot. So I asked Nick to go with me, with Adnams paying all expenses, and he leapt at the chance – putting together an itinerary that soon proved wildly optimistic, partly because various producer organisations laid on large and unscheduled tastings at several of the stops on our journey.

Tasting hundreds of young wines, always overstaying our visits, we ran way behind plan – with Nick cheerfully saying ‘we’re not late yet’ a few minutes before the intended time of our next meeting, at which I had to protest, in a weakening whisper, ‘but we’ve still got 60 miles to go’.

Thus it was that when we arrived at Volpaia, long after the promised supper that by then seemed a mirage in my fevered imagination, I collapsed with exhaustion and was unable to continue the journey. Nick went off by himself and promised to return a few days later, while I rested in bed, unable to move. From time to time the Calabrian cook would appear at the end of the bed, proffering a dish of cold rice with olive oil as her remedy for all ills – which I waved away with a plaintive groan.

Giovanella Stanti at Castello Volpaia 1983

I recovered only when Giovanella Stianti (pictured above), owner of the estate, came to wish me well and laid a cool hand on my brow, whereupon of course I fell in love and soon felt well enough to continue the journey. The upshot of it was that Irène and I and our daughter Hana became close friends with Giovanella and her husband Carlo, staying often with them at Volpaia. And the Calabrian cook, Nuccia, taught our seven-year-old Hana how to make gnocchi.

Two years later Nick and I published our first books, commissioned as part of an intended wine series by Sidgwick & Jackson [with me as series editor – JR]. The other authors were all professional wine writers, each of whom failed to deliver, whereas Nick and I (with families and full-time jobs) completed more or less on time and then had to suffer the indignity of an awards lunch organised by Wine magazine, at which we (the runners-up) were forced to listen as that year’s winner, Pamela Vandyke-Price, used her acceptance speech to lambast amateurs such as us for stealing the bread out of the mouths of hard-working professionals.

Simon Loftus and Nicolas Belfrage

Our second trip together, 14 years later, was intended to cover the vast range of vineyards in southern Italy which we had not been able to include on the previous occasion. We ended in Sicily and, as before, we were running late – so we reached the isolated restaurant in the hills where we had planned to have dinner an hour and a half after our appointed time. The place was empty and the owner looked most unwelcoming and rather nervous, only reluctantly agreeing to serve us.

Half an hour later, at 11 o’clock, a group arrived, twelve men and two women, most of the men wearing dark suits and carrying mobile phones. They sat at a long table, at the head of which was the oldest man, almost the width of the table, and beside him a nearly identical but younger version, evidently his son. On the Capo’s other side was someone who looked like a lawyer. All the rest were younger – sometimes taking calls on their mobiles, sometimes giving each other expressive glances and raised eyebrows as a signal to go outside in groups of two or three, for a private discussion. They drank nothing but Coca-Cola and Heineken. After a while there was a short speech, in impenetrable Sicilian dialect, and father and son swapped places. It was evidently the handover of power.

We quietly paid our bill and left, trying to look inconspicuous, and the gate to the restaurant car park was slid across and locked behind us, leaving this shady group to continue their meeting uninterrupted. I described this incident the next day to the president of the local wine co-operative and asked him what business they were in. ‘Life assurance’, was his bland reply.

For details of Nicolas Belfrage's memorial on the afternoon of 25 October, please contact his daughter Ixta Belfrage at