31 years old, from Puglia, graduated in Viticulture and Oenology and Head Sommelier at the Four Seasons Grand Hotel in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Alessandro Nigro Imperiale has conquered the highest AIS podium as the best sommelier in Italy. We had the pleasure of interviewing him.
Interview with the best sommelier in Italy AIS 2022: Alessandro Nigro Imperiale.
1. Meanwhile, congratulations on the recently won title of best sommelier in Italy AIS. How was your exam?
I'm a perfectionist by nature but it was a good exam, and I'm still on a little cloud of satisfaction...
It was a world tour : I went from Argentina, with the Mendoza region, to Angelo Gaia's Barbaresco, to Australia with Penfolds Winery's Grange Hermitage.
2. Let's start from the beginning: how did your passion for wine begin?
At 18 I started working as a waiter in a restaurant in Foggia: I was still studying and actually sold bottles of wine. So I started to get curious, fascinated by the fact that behind each one there was a world, a land, a producer, a region... and so I started studying a lot. I chose the faculty of Oenology at the University and started attending sommelier courses. I have traveled a lot and worked as a winemaker at Villiera Wines, in South Africa , and Roussillon Domaine Grier, in France .
Then I chose: five years ago I decided to become a sommelier because I like contact with people, and I went to work in Paris at La Dame de Pic and then at the Four Season Hotel George V. Today I am on the French Riviera , at Four Seasons Grand Hotel in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Head Sommelier of a group of 6 restaurants, including a starred one, where they initially called me to renew the wine list , which was previously traditional and focused on the great French classics.
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3. How did you prepare for the best sommelier exam in Italy?
I had been working for this competition for three years, for which there are no boundaries, unlike the title of best sommelier in the region, which I won in 2019 for Puglia, and after which I was automatically catapulted into the national team. The studio is completely different, larger, ideally without borders : there is not only wine from all over the world but you also have to know spirits, cocktails, gastronomy...
The study for the best sommelier competition in Italy is prepared by studying a lot, on many books and not just Italian or French. I think of The World Atlas of Wine by Jancis Robinson for example…
I prepared it considering it another job, extra compared to the many hours of service, so I studied early in the morning and late at night.
You might think that the competition is easy for those who work in the sector but this is not exactly the case. For me the advantage was not being afraid of the stage, because what I do every day is an activity - almost theatrical - that get used to the performance.
4. Is being a sommelier like a theatrical exercise?
For me, yes: as a sommelier you certainly talk about the wine but above all you sell it and do it from a very special stage, you are like an actor on the stage . With the difference that you have to be very attentive to the feedback of those in front of you, understand their taste, gain their trust and interpret their needs.
AIS is very strong in this because it puts the awareness that the sommelier is first and foremost a communicator at the center of the training. That is, apart from knowing when the first vintage of Sassicaia was, which you also need to know, it requires you to be able to transfer this knowledge.
5. So what, for you, is the most important skill for a sommelier?
Communication is a key quality, to restore the magic of wine. Added to this is the need to have great empathy : you need strong emotional intelligence and to read the psychology of those in front of you.
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6. The best moment of your job?
When I understand that a client is open to discover, at that point I ask: “Can I advise?” I do it with my accent, and it's already clear that I'm Italian. At that moment there is a great opportunity for opening : if it works it's wonderful.
If a person asks you for a red Burgundy it is because they want great refinement, to counter-propose something different you must always do so starting from the needs and tastes of the person in front of you. And to do it well you need to have tasted a lot .
After all, sommeliers have to do this, make you discover something you didn't know : discovery brings more pleasure than traditional things, those you already know.
7. A way of experiencing wine is emerging, above all made up of relationships... is there another aspect, of the many that characterize this world, that you are particularly passionate about?
Sharing is the main element. The strongest emotion that wine can give is opening a certain bottle with certain people .
This moves me, because at the base there are years of work on the part of the winemaker and on the other the choice of a person to uncork that specific bottle with those people, for a precise reason . This is the beauty of wine.
8. We couldn't agree more. Future projects and challenges?
I work abroad, in one of the most important places in the world for wine like France, this alone gives me a lot of adrenaline. The title adds responsibility : now I have to harden my shoulders, aware that having climbed onto the national podium makes me doubly an ambassador for Italian wines beyond the Alps.
In the last period I have studied a lot, the work objective now is to prepare for 2023, for the reopening in February. For example, I have to train new sommeliers.
More generally, I know that I have to do well, aware that many will come to us also because of my title: I must not disappoint them and focus so much on the wine list .
9. What's your wine list like?
I have a card that is 60% French, 30% Italian and the rest is divided between the Mediterranean coast and the rest of the world. I interpret my job as that of an ambassador for Italian wines, for which there is a rapidly growing trend.
10. Is there a wine region that you are particularly passionate about?
As for the Italian regions, I am passionate about the Langhe , therefore Barolo and Barbaresco. Then there is the emotional side, and therefore without a doubt Puglia.
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11. Do you have any advice for those new to the world of wine?
Personally I have a precise approach to everything: set goals and be determined. In the case of wine, if you want to approach this world to understand whether to make it a reason for living, the most direct thing to do is to go to a producer and listen to him speak : in that moment he is transmitting to you at least a year's work, but generally much more, and talks to you as if he were telling you about a son. At that point a spark can really strike forever.
12. Finally, can you tell us what your favorite wine is?
Nero di Troia because for me it means home: it is a great wine and over time I am sure it will assert itself more and more.