Alessandro Pepe Talks Wine

On previous visits to Rome, I’d heard rumblings about this truly authentic Roman experience, Salumeria Roscioli, and its multi-concept deli, wine bar and restaurant. This past July, I was determined to set aside an afternoon to visit Salumeria Roscioli and experience an authentic Italian wine and food tasting, so I contacted ALESSANDRO PEPE to schedule a tasting in Salumeria Roscioli’s tasting room and wine cellar called Rimessa Roscioli.

Alessandro is one of Italy’s most in-demand sommeliers and our afternoon with him, tasting select wines, cheeses, and salumi, was a revelation. Not only did we leave with a greater appreciation for the diversity of Italian wines, but Alessandro was able to connect the history of Italy with the wines he poured as well.

Alessandro holds nothing back and I wanted to share what I learned with you, so I asked Alessandro a few probing questions. We cover everything from the history of Italian wine regions to proper wine pairings to Alessandro’s insider favorites in Rome.

The food shop at Salumeria Roscioli.

Alessandro, when did you develop a passion for wine?
I was 17 years old when a friend of mine invited me to a harvest party in Tuscany (Castello de Rampolla, in Panzano in Chianti). I still remember the flavor of that tight, rustic but not rough Sangiovese, so different from the modern Chiantis and Super Tuscans available in the 1990s. Everything was so unique, the taste, the castle, the people. From that time, I started to drink wine, to research, to compare and spend all my money on great, simple, complex and expensive wines. My friends were drinking beer or gin and tonic and going to the disco while I was going to wine shops, wineries and wine fairs.

What’s unique about Rimessa Roscioli?
I call Rimessa Roscioli my private playground: a comfortable, informal space where you can taste and discuss wine and food. It’s a simple room filled with bottles of wine, balsamic vinegars, extra virgin olive oils, and books about wine and food. I opened this place as a sort of library for wine and food studies (and wine and food parties). We could say that Salumeria Roscioli is the place where I work and Rimessa is the place where I study and have fun.

Your inventory is massive, how do you determine which wines make the cut?
I work with a really good team. First, my mentor Maurizio Paparello, one of the biggest experts of French wines in Italy, and also one of the most generous sommeliers (one day he opened a bank loan of 15,000 euro just to offer an apertif to a small group of friends). Also, Salvatore and Andrea, the other two sommeliers, are really well-prepared and passionate. We travel a lot around Italy, France and Germany to find small, unknown wineries. The Rimessa is also used to meet with producers, test new wines and food concepts.

For my readers, let’s start with the basics: what distinguishes an Italian wine from a French or California wine?
Italy is a complex, messy and fascinating country, more than 850 different grape varieties and hundreds of wine traditions. So, to define Italian wines is not easy. We could say, as a rough generalization that Italian and French wines relate to a tradition, a culture, a soil, an approach to wine that is not only business, but part of our memories. This means that a producer always has to deal with the market on one side and the notes of his grandfather or 800 years of tradition on the other. When he decides to blend his Sangiovese with some Merlot, or to age it in new oak barrels it’s because the market asked him too, he might have a bell ringing, his grandfather from heaven shouting: what the f**k does this bloody Merlot have to do with a Sangiovese? In California, the producers don’t often have the bell ringing.

Which Italian wine regions are producing the best wines?
My favorite region is Langhe in Piedmont (land of Barolo) while new areas are coming from Etna (Sicily), Marche, with Verdicchio and also Gattinara and Boca. They’re not really new regions, Etna wines have more than 2400 years of tradition and Gattinara and Boca were more important than Langhe in the 17th century. It’s more correct to say that some wine regions are getting back to producing quality wines.

Rimessa Roscioli's original tasting room and wine cellar.

Is there a prevailing grape in Italian wines?
Sangiovese is the most popular grape (more than 10% of whole production), but not necessarily the best. Attilio Scienza (a great wine scientist) used to say,”Sangiovese can give you a great Chianti, but will never give you a great wine”. Giacomo Tachis (invented Sassicaia) used to say, “Sangiovese is our Cabernet Sauvignon” (in the sense that it’s part of our tradition, just as Cabernet is part of the French tradition). I agree with both Scienza and Tachis.

Now, if you could share some wine and food pairing recommendations:

What would you serve with an antipasti?

-for a fresh fish salad, a white wine like Greco di Tufo 2010.
-for a burrata with anchovies, a white wine like Timorasso Derthona 2010.
-for a Ciauscolo salami, a dark rosè like Cerasuolo ‘Piè delle Vigne’ 2009.

with Prosciutti?
Generally, prosciutto pairs well with medium, full-bodied wines but more specifically:

-for San Daniele, a Nobile di Montepulciano not too strong like Boscarelli
-for Cinta Senese, a traditional Chianti like Monteraponi
-for Culatello ham, a Barolo like Palladino
-for Nero dei Monti Nebrodi (black ham), a Gattinara Antoniolo Osso San Grato 2005

with Parmigiano Reggiano?
A great vintage champagne like Krug ’95. Even a good Brunello like Pietroso 2007.

with Wood-fired Pizza?
I wouldn’t serve wine with pizza. (laughs) But if you insist, Yolanda, it would have been a sparkling Gragnano that does not exist anymore (not the real one anyway).

The wine room set up for our tasting.

with Pasta in Red Sauce?
Red sauce is a problem with wine. I would go with a Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo 2009, Valentini.

Which dry, white wine would you serve with Roast Chicken?
Chicken, what a stupid animal. But maybe a Friulano with a few years, like Borgo del Tiglio 1999.

We like chicken in America, Alessandro!
I know, it’s still a stupid animal.

What’s the best red wine to serve with Grilled Fish?
A Nerello Mascalese like I Custodi but it depends on the fish, a light fish is better with a Schiava from Alto Adige like Fass No. 9, 2010 Girlan. For a grilled, fattier fish, I’d go with a Schioppettino 2009.

with a Steak?
If it’s rare with little fat, I’d go with a Grignolino 2010 Spertino from Piedmont.

Rimessa Roscioli's wine cave.

What would you serve with Grilled Lamb Chops?
A Pallagrello and Aglianico like Nanni Copè 2010, or a Cesanese like Silene 2009, Damiano Ciolli.

Are there any great Italian dessert wines?
Yes. Some of them have a tradition that is lost in time. Like Greco di Bianco, probably the oldest wine tradition in the world (2400 years old). I also really like the Malvasia di Bosa from Columbu.

I know the answer to this, but for my readers, what is your favorite Prosecco?
Uh, Yolanda…Prosecco? The Italians answer to Zinfandel? Truly a stupid sparkling wine that is massively produced with no respect for quality or tradition. But there are a few producers that are working in a different direction like Silvano Follador, Loris Follador, Ruggeri and Nino Franco.

Thousands of wines are stored in the wine cave.

OK, let’s talk about Rome…what’s your favorite restaurant?
Il San Lorenzo, the best fish in town, although it’s not cheap.

Your favorite wine bar?
Apart from Roscioli, I don’t want to show off, but we are the best. There’s not a big tradition of wine bars in town. Well, let’s say Remigio, a small, cute place with a great selection of interesting wines.

What are your favorite sites in Rome?
Rome itself…with its traffic, dirtiness, stupid Romans, nonsense organization, the mess, the noise, the anarchy, the hundreds of layers of tradition, architecture, cultures, and the horrible and beautiful sites. Sometimes my colleagues and I do archeo-tastings where we buy a bottle of wine, and with our wine glasses, sometimes an ice bucket too, we match the wine with an archaeological site like a bold Super Tuscan in front of the Colosseum; a gothic and austere Barolo in front of the Palatino…

Sounds like fun! I’m in, the next time we’re in Rome.
Let me know.

Interviewed July 2012 by Yolanda, editor of Zavvi Rodaine.
Photos © Salumeria Roscioli and Zavvi Rodaine
© Zavvi 2012. No part of this interview may be used or reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the Editor of Zavvi

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