Interview with Nico, ex-head somm of Noble Rot
Updated: May 6
Nico Sciackitano, export manager at La Stoppa, left Noble Rot as head sommelier in 2017. He talks about good and bad natural wine, what makes a good wine list, what he has been drinking recently, etc.
I met Nico in 2017 at Vinitaly, when, for the first time, I tried the iconic Ageno.
Nico's drawing of Ageno
Since first sight, Nico is a very easygoing person. We became very good friends during his trip to Shanghai and Beijing last year in November. He shared lots of memories with me and one in particular still stays with me. I would like to share this story as it the reason why he ended up working as a somm in the wine industry and I believe it is also the experience that defined his amicable and caring personality.
Once, when he was at university in the US, as he was on his way home, Nico received a phone call from his sister telling him that his building had just burnt down entirely. Suddently, he found himself owning only what was left on him. He had also lost his dog. At that time, Nico was a photography student; losing all his equiment and his portfolio was davastating. Not having the money necessary to buy new cameras and start over, he decided to change career. It was at this time that Nico chose to become a sommelier.
Old photo of Nico at university
He admits that this traumatising experience changed his life and transformed his lifestyle. In the following years after the accident, he only wore black and owned very few objects, living an extremely minimalist life. It is understandable that whoever survives such type of events would reconsider the meaning of life and the value of the objects he owns - some might in fact start giving more value to human relationships, freedom and nature whilst others might lose sight of their meaning.
After hearing this story, I suddenly understood why Nico would prefer put down roots in a 6 people town in Emilia over the colourful and bustling London metropolis. I have also come to believe that his new personality, shaped by this experience, makes him a sincere and convincing ambassador of the natural approach to wine making. Only the essential matters!
Valentin Hennequin, Nico's husband, is also a talented free-lance photographer, who shoots incredible campaigns for global luxury brands such as Prada and Burberry.
Photo from Nico's Instagram
Follow them on Instagram @Valentin_hennequin @Nico_sciacchitano
Q1 ：What makes a good natural wine from a bad one?
Tough question as wine is a very subjective topic and there is no legal definition for what ‘natural wine’ actually is. I would say it makes more sense to call most natural wines just wine, and everything else made with a more industrial approach should be called by another name i.e. wine beverage.
Nico's drawing of Barbera from La Stoppa and Dinavolo
In my opinion, I appreciate a good natural wine when I know that the producer behind the wine farms with utmost respect to their land: whether organically, biodynamically, or using permaculture with minimal impact on their surroundings. Furthermore, when the producer is a steward to the vines and uses their observations to create a wine that reflects their terroir with respect to the growing season. And of course in the cellar, the grapes should be transformed into a wine without the adding or subtracting anything, or in other words to make as minimal intervention as possible.
There is no SET formula to making a wine; it takes a skillful winemaker to take what nature has given over the season and work through observations and past experiences to attempt and accurately interpret what the vintage has given you without manipulation. Its a matter of excellent farming, excellent intuition, and practice. If I can taste a wine made this way and be able to understand the grape, the climate of the place, and terroir in general, this to me makes a good natural wine.
Q2 ：La Stoppa has moved towards natural approach wine production in the past decade. What changes in the vineyards and winery were implemented in order to be more sustainable? How long did it take to make these changes happen?
It has actually been over 25 years that we have been working towards this natural approach to our production. We began the transition to working organically in the vineyards in the beginning of the 1980’s. And through 1988-1993, our cellar began to take the same approach as the vineyards and we began producing wines in the same way that we produce them today. In our vineyards, we work organically without the addition or any pesticides, fertilizers, or weed killers, only copper and super treatments when necessary.
Elena Panteleoni, owner of La Stoppa
Our vineyards have been certified as organic by the organic standards regulator Ente Suolo e Salute since 2008, but we have already been working with these standards for many years. Certifying your wines in the cellar as organic is a whole other story, and under these certifications one is still permitted to manipulate the wines with a list of processes and enological products. By already knowing how we respect and work in our vineyards, it goes without saying that we work in the same way in the cellar.
Q2 ：Which market is the most important for La Stoppa? and for Ageno? And what is your biggest challenge so far as export manager?
The markets are always changing! Our wines are in 35 different countries and counting. I’ve travelled to quite a few at this point and I think all of them are important in different ways. The most important part of our our wines traveling to so many locations is understanding that we are not trying to get them on every shelf in the world, but we want them to land in the hands of the curious and those with the understanding of the importance of the work we are doing to transmit the identity of this beautiful place.
Nico at Bird restaurant in Shanghai
All of our markets are important and for me to travel and see how our wines are received is one of the biggest joys of my job. Its interesting to see which wines work with different foods from around the world, especially being based here in Italy where food and wines are so intrinsically tied to one another.
Local hams from Emilia pair heavenly with local wine
As a former sommelier, I think it is important to take my people skills with me and communicate our message and wines in an approachable way to every client I meet. The challenge can be reading someone in a very quick amount of time and being able to transmit the wines in a way that is digestible for everyone. You never know who you are talking to, but it is important to make wines accessible and present them in a way that gets even the most novice of taster excited about wine.
Ageno is a wine that changed my life. I remember blindly trying it for the first time out of a black glass and thinking … ‘sweet wine?’ then tasting it thinking ‘red wine?’ then seeing it in another glass and being completely befuddled by it’s deep amber color. I’ve had countless people share similar first experiences with Ageno. This intensely aromatic and tannic skin-contact white wine is truly a wine that can marry well to so many different foods and types of cuisine.
Q4：If we may have a few words on your previous job: Noble Rot is the best know wine bar in London - as ex-head somm, what makes a good wine list for you? Value? Diversity?
A good wine list should have something for everyone but also something to seamless pair with the food from the restaurant. The wine list should be balanced crossed the board: many styles, many price points, many options. Or if you are in a restaurant with a high focus on one idea, apply the same rules but with more precision. I learned a long time ago that you have to think about the guest first and foremost. You can’t always curate a list with only the wines that you like, because everyone’s taste is different.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be the wine list that can make the restaurant: I think whomever is presenting the wines should think of themselves as an ambassador to the producers on the list. Not only presenting the producers wines, but also sharing their histories, local traditions and familial stories. In doing so, the wines are presented as so many wonderful producers would have wanted: to be shared and enjoyed with laughter and good food.
Noble Rot’s list is top in my eyes, but it is also the handwork of the team behind the list and their excitement and passion behind the scenes and on the floor that makes the list so successful. Not to mention, you can find some wines on that list that you would have trouble finding anywhere else in the world at unbeatable price points.
Q5：Finally, what do you enjoy drinking the most at the moment? Any new discovery on regions/producers?
Beer! Sour beer in particular. Whether it be Belgium gueze, lambic, kriek lambic… I am down for a sour beer. Of course I have my favorites, in the old world Cantillon is top. In the new world, I love what Logsdon Farmhouse Ales are doing in Hood River, Oregon. But the artisan beer world is quickly changing and there are so many new producers to discover.
As for wine, I would say that the wines from Greece have been turning my head quite often. With and 6,500 years of winemaking history behind them, Greek wines are far from a new discovery. There are incredible producers working to preserve their patrimony with the decision to continue working with the indigenous varieties and not head down an industrial path. Producers like Hatzidakis, Ariousios, Acroterra, Ktima Ligas all working with varieties that have always been worked with and the wines have and approachability and drinkability that would turn any head.
Elena and Nico during harvest
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