Lunch with an Italian Sommelier

Avant garde food and wine pairings are a foregone conclusion when you break bread with a sommelier, specially one with a strong pedigree. Alessandro Nesi works for the Tuscany based Piccini – wines since 1882, and was in India for a 5 month stint with the Piccini’s importers, Prestige Wines and Spirits Pvt Ltd. Alessandro’s brief was simple – to disseminate the essence of Italian wine and food in India – and he travelled from Delhi & Gurgaon to Chennai, Goa and Mumbai leaving the fine dine loving Indian in awe.

I was invited to share a meal with Alessandro by Sumit Sehgal, CEO Prestige.  I readily accepted in anticipation of the opportunity to exchange notes with a professional from the land of pastas, tomatoes, herbs and fromaggio- all very discreet ingredients for pairing with wines that he perhaps understood the best.

An Italian speciality restaurant in New Delhi – 28 The Capri was the venue for our rendezvous where Alessandro arrived with Sumit and his Marketing Manager, Sarang Kumar. We started off  like a Golf “fourball” – goblets and plates substituting the tees.

Inside '28 The Capri'
Inside ’28 The Capri’

The wines

Given our time constraints, Alessandro selected two wines from the Piccini portfolio. We warmed up with a customary standalone tasting, as we browsed through the menu.

Piccini Pinot Grigio 2013

Pinot Grigio is known for its light but refined temperament and Piccini has preserved this essence. The varietal grows mostly in the cooler regions of North-eastern Italy, most prominently in Veneto. This wine has been produced with an affiliated winery in Veneto, to save the significant logistical challenge of transporting the fragile berries. With floral and subtle stone-fruit notes, the wine is all about freshness, whilst maintaining its easy going demeanour. This wine can be enjoyed even subconsciously while poring over a book or amid intense discussions at a working lunch.

The wines
The wines

Piccini Toscana Rosso

Alessandro suggested that this could be Chianti’s younger sibling owing to its Sangiovese dominated character in the blend of Malvasia Nera and Cillegiolo. The wine had delicious red fruit aromas, earthy undertones, a medium body and very supple tannins. A hard core red wine lover would desire more structure, if enjoyed on its own. But exploring it with food could reveal its dexterity to match its cousins in Chianti with equal aplomb.

Our lunch

We ‘teed off’ and ordered what each one of us thought would be probable matches from the menu. With the crisp Pinot Grigio, I chose the Caesar Salad with Bacon and Parmesan, while Alessandro preferred the Greek Salad with Feta, and Sumit and Sarang went for Grilled Chicken Bruschetta. Each of these dishes had some connect with the wine, and I discovered that good pairings can be bettered too, as the tangy and creamy character of the feta on Alessandro’s plate matched far better with the wine, than the bacon and parmesan on mine.

Caesar Salad with Bacon and Parmesan
Caesar Salad with Bacon and Parmesan
Clockwise from top: Grilled Chicken Bruschetta, Pasta Primavera and All Chicken Pizza
Clockwise from top: Grilled Chicken Bruschetta, Pasta Primavera and All Chicken Pizza

Next up, the pastas and pizza with the red. Alessandro ordered Pasta Barberesco and I went neck in neck with a Pasta Primavera. Sumit and Sarang provided a different dimension with the savoury All Chicken Pizza. The texture of the pastas being the same, the flavours ranged from vegetal to herbal and spice. And both pastas were equally good with the wine. The thin crust pizza with its savoury topping providing a nice angle to the overall meal that we all shared.

Wine is my calling

As the conversation winded through the meal, Alessandro’s wine story came across as absolute passion personified. I felt more to his personality than classic Italian charm. Inspite of clocking 20 years in the trade, he showed great composure despite his deceptive youthful appearance. He started in the trade without formal education, and studied at the prestigious FISAR Sommelier School after realizing his true calling. His approach towards wine changed and he transcended from mere technicalities to a deeper focus on appreciation, with a special focus on the consumer. And that, he believes, has made him relate to his wine customer better.

Across the glass with Alessandro
Across the glass with Alessandro

In Italy, Alessandro’s typical workday involves travelling to the various estates of the company, helping the wine maker choose blends and contributing to winery works. He also takes care of the promotion of the Piccini portfolio at tasting events and international fairs. His favourite wines from Italy are Chianti and Franciacorta. From outside of home, he has several favourites but bets strongly on Porto wines. Considering how young the Indian wine industry is, Alessandro feels that Indian wines are pretty decent, but has not tried enough to have a favourite.

On the Indian wine landscape

Speaking about his Indian séjour, he found the restaurants that were on his itinerary well prepared and very interested in continuous learning. On the wine storage front, he believes that a lot needs to be done. “I found very different situations regarding storage. Wine requires specific storage conditions viz. no light, temperature control, horizontal storage for cork closed bottles etc. As this represents high costs, many businesses are unable absorb them.” But he is optimistic though, and feels that as the wine culture grows in India, people will get more and more particular about their wines and things will be better.

I asked him the burning question, what about his best pairings with Indian food. He believes that spiciness is the main challenge, and wines that are rich in perfume, with low acidity and soft or no tannins would pair well. He vouches strongly for an extra dry Prosecco or an ‘appassimento’ (high residual sugar wine made from shriveled grapes) as complementary to Indian food.

The course ‘played’, and all players scoring well, it was time to pose for the ‘clubhouse’ photos. I insisted that Alessandro put on the elegant stole around his neck that he entered with, rather than his Sommelier’s jacket. Sure enough, the classic Italian charm reflected on the photo too!

(This writing has been adapted from my original work in vino india– news views and reviews from the market for wine in India)

Col Joe
wirtten by: Col Joe
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