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Published:  23 July, 2008

Bruno Besa, Managing director, Astrum Wine Cellars, London. Interview: Josie Butchart

Astrum Wine Cellars 6 Thornsett Road London SW18 4EN Tel: 020 8870 5252

Astrum Wine Cellars, formerly Cerilli & Tondo, was founded in 1997 by Antonio Cerilli and Roberto Tondo. Bruno Besa joined the company in 1998 after working as a sommelier at both The Lanesborough and The Halkin restaurants. The list is exclusively Italian (with the exception of Roger Pouillon Champagne) and has a strong focus on the northeast of Italy. After the founding partners left (Cerilli to set up Latium restaurant in central London and Tondo to return to Italy), the company became Astrum Wine Cellars. It continues to supply both the on-trade and small independent merchants.

Why did you decide to focus on premium Italian wines? In the mid-1990s we noticed that there was an increasing demand for quality Italian wines in London because of major changes that were occurring in the Italian on-trade. Suddenly there were three Italian restaurants with Michelin stars. Before that, Italian restaurants were all serving avocado with prawns, which has nothing to do with Italian food.

How important are Italian restaurants to your business? Italian gastronomy has always been very helpful for Italian wine, but there are also plenty of non-Italian restaurants, from Gordon Ramsay to Marco Pierre White, that now list Italian wines and are prepared to pay a lot of money for them. We sell to both the on- and off-trade but we certainly couldn't do without the Italian on-trade.

What are the main differences between the wines that Italian and non-Italian restaurants choose to list? It is much harder to sell international grape varieties to non-Italian restaurants or the off-trade. We have a lot of wines from the northeast of Italy, where international varieties' such as Merlot and Cabernet have been planted for the last 200 years. If Merlot and Cabernet are not native after 200 years I am not sure what is really, but if you approach a non-Italian restaurant with a Chardonnay, for example, they are unlikely to list it even if they like the wine, because they can get Chardonnay from any wine region. Italian restaurants on the other hand often have a 100%-Italian wine list so they are looking for a full range of grape varieties.

Which regions do you think are most exciting at the moment? There are gems to be found all over Italy, but I love the wines from the south because the potential is amazing. There are a number of indigenous grapes that have not been fully exploited and there are great strides being made, especially by small producers. Campania is an area that is under-performing at the moment because there are only a few producers making great wine, but the potential is very high, mainly because they have a number of amazing world-class grape varieties such as Aglianico, Greco and Fiano.

What are the difficulties in selling Italian wines in the UK? A lot of the producers don't understand the UK market and sometimes they don't make enough effort to promote the wines. There are also a lot of problems with packaging. On the one side there are wines with great labels, but others really need to do better. The problem is that small producers simply don't have the money to consult a designer. Unfortunately, sometimes I have to tell them: The wine is great, the price might be right but we have to change the label or it just won't work.'

What styles of wine do you dislike? Too much residual sugar is something I hate. The trend nowadays is to add lots of sugar to wines, grams upon grams of sugar.

Does it happen in Italy? It does, unfortunately, yes. Especially with producers who pay too much attention to where they want to sell the wines. They make low-acidity, flabby, sugared wines because that's what they think people want. Making wine should be a combination of innovation and tradition. You should never rest on your laurels, but tradition is actually a successful innovation because when something works it then becomes a tradition.

What do you think of the practice of de-classifying DOC/G wines to IGT status? We shouldn't have DOC/Gs that allow such high yields because it damages the name. I can understand why producers do it, but they really disregard their land by de-classifying.

What do you think of the producers, especially in Tuscany, who are producing blockbuster'-style wines ? I find it difficult when a vineyard that has just been established, with vines that are three years old, is charging lots of money for the wine just because they spent a lot of money doing up the winery. I don't have a problem with very expensive wines, but I have a problem with very expensive wines that don't deserve to be expensive. There is so much more to Italy than Sangiovese and Merlot blends, so I don't pay much attention to these wines.

What is the on-trade asking for from Italy? Pinot Grigio. Sometimes I get depressed by the amount of Pinot Grigio that we sell but I also thank god that it's in such demand! Alto Adige makes the best Pinot Bianco in the world but Pinot Bianco doesn't sell because everyone wants Pinot Grigio.