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Behind the Glass: A Q&A with Serge Levesque

Bishop’s Cellar sources wine in many ways.  Sometimes we work directly with suppliers and sometimes we work with wine agents, who have their own portfolio of suppliers- many of which we would not have access to directly.  We have been lucky over the years to work with some of the most respected third-party suppliers in the business.

Our relationship with Serge Levesque from Longo Since 1961 has truly enriched our wine offerings.  I had the opportunity to chat with Serge for an insider’s perspective on the wine industry, especially the agency world.

Q: How do you select the suppliers you work with?

A: We are either specifically looking for something, for example, Etna, and methodically make a short list of people we could be interested in and see how we could be recommended to go there. Or, producers approach us looking to have representation in a particular market, more often than not we say no, sometimes we say yes.  

We look for artisanal producers with a high standard of quality consider the spirit behind how the wine is made. 

We take into account the reasonability of the producers; how many markets are they looking to export to. If they only want to look at Ontario within Canada, we probably won’t take them on.

We are very careful with the personality of the people we work with.  The quality of the relationship is paramount to making things work. I cannot spend my life writing and talking with people, telling them every move I am making for them, that is not my job. My job is to go out and sell things and make things happen.  This is very important as some producers expect you to tell them all the time what you are doing for them as if they were doing it themselves, but I realistically cannot do this, I would need and entire back office and that is a very non productive activity. It is important to have a dialogue, but at a reasonable scale. 

The people and their reliability matter as we are looking to build long term relationships. We want to avoid the situation where Longo builds a brand in a market, then the brand leaves them to sell directly into that market. 

Finally, whether or not we like the wine. We are not selling wine we don’t like. 

Q: What Italian regions are you most excited about at this time?

A: Southern Italy in general has a lot of potential.  But more than particular regions, I am fascinated by the potential of white grape varieties. Campania, Le Marche, Sicilia- all have wonderful potential for autochthonous varieties. This is why Italy is so wonderful.  No other country has such an extraordinary selection of grapes. If you are getting tired of the holy trinity of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio- there is so much potential for high quality whites in Italy. So much expression, even of same grape when grown in different regions. 

Puglia is transitioning beautifully from being a supplier of cheap, bulk blending wine to expressing interesting value-for-money wines. I don’t think that the prices will inflate any time soon as production is big. Puglia has lots of flat vineyards and the potential of quality is homogenous (not like having potential for high quality only on “that hill”….)- the wines are approachable and interesting.  

Campania makes both high-class red and white wines, with a lot of complexity.  Many regions lack white wines, as their reds are so successful. Consequently, their white wines seem a little artificial. Piemonte produces wonderful whites, but the reds are so incredible. Traditional regions that were known for white, Firuli, Alto Adide, are making wonderful reds now, too.

There have always been high quality Italian white wines, but the reds have long received all of the attention.  People are now just discovering this, as they are becoming more curious about wine. I can’t pick a favourite, there are too many, but a few to note are: Fiano, Verdicchio, Greccanico, Friulano, Vermentino specifically from Gallura, and near Genova…. even Trebbiano has some wonderful expressions.  Trebbiano can be interpreted in some very inexpensive, but also extraordinary and long lived expressions in Abruzzo and Lugana.

Q: There are many Italian white wines that were historically made with some skin contact. What do you think about modern day white wines made with skin contact?  

A: It is a winemaking method that suits some varietals more than others.  If you don’t use this as a “trick” to try to upgrade, or what you perceive as upgrade, your wine; it can make sense.  Every grape has a different process.  

Q: Can you comment on innovation in Italian wines?

A: Vineyards today are planted and managed for quality- winemakers are fine tuning winemaking and ageing methods to craft wines that have something to tell at a high quality level. Not all producers everywhere are doing this, but there is always an elite in the region going that way. 

Innovation in wine is an interesting thing, as it is mostly about rediscovering things that were done before, but now you know why it works,  or why you should not have discarded it 20 years ago. A lot of winemakers who were complete outcasts have become gods: Gravener, Emilio Pepe, Quintarelli, Mascarello. Montevertine – in the 1990s got 82 point ratings in Wine Spectator! This wine is light, acidic…you name it.  The wines didn’t fit the standard tastes of the time. Yes, they had their followers and distribution, but it was all very niche and worked for the small wineries. The really off-the-chart wines – Gravner, Emilio Pepe- who were making natural wines and orange wines before the world took notice, are now the absolute gods. Such movements are sometimes very artificial but, in the end, whatever has the merit of bringing the light back to vine growing is a benefit to everybody. Now people can afford to think like that – big efforts have been made in the vineyards.  

Vine growing is actually the only criteria worth mentioning when discussing quality wine.  Being a great winemaker is about being as little intrusive as possible. Firstly, one must be a fantastic vine-grower.  The rest is artificial. The consultants will always bring you back to your vineyards; to ripeness, grapes, how you express your soils, make sure your vineyards have been plotted properly so one knows what to work with (in the winery).  The times are long gone where you have a consultant enologist who comes in for the harvest, talks temperature control, micro oxygenation, ageing, barrels, blah, blah, and there you go – 95 points! That was 20 years ago. Even though the enologists did that, they were responding to what producers were looking for at that time.  Michel Roland, Carlo Ferrini; they all initially want to start at the beginning by looking at the grapes, not the middle. Now this is a completely outdated approach. 

The strength of European wineries is being different; if you are different you are not going to be outdated at some point.  The ultimate goal is to express terroir. We are in the most expensive place in the world to produce grapes, so we should be focusing on expressing the unique identifiable aspects of these wine regions. 

Burgundy is viewed by many as the ultimate destination for the expression of terroir.  There is no more terroir, no more personality beyond Burgundy at its best. This admiration for Burgundy, does not mean that no other region can achieve greatness in terms of expressing terroir.  Barolo has long been viewed in a similar light to Burgundy by some. Today, even the wines of Saumur Champigny (Loire, Valley) and the Jura are revealing that potential to solicit demand and high price points, because these areas have reached that level of “ultimate destination” for some customers.   

If you are focused on terroir-oriented wine production, on expressing  the potential of your soil, land etc.. you devote yourself to this goal.  If you are not very big, you will have a small following of very devout followers. If your followers increase, here the producer begins to financially profit from the endeavour.  As long as you keep being yourself and improving on being yourself you can’t lose.       

Q: Do you have a favourite wine and food pairing? 

A: Impossible to name one!  I’ve always like wines of moderate intensity and concentration, at any level. Sangiovese, Valpolicella, Rosso di Montalcino, Nobile di Montepulciano- wines with good acidity and freshness. At a premium level, I really enjoy solid wines (bold, structured).   

There is currently a lot of attention on high-end wine. There is such a large scope of choice today- of interesting high end wine available- but I am personally more inclined to buy wine in different, more approachable price categories. I think good quality Beaujolais Cru is still an interesting wine. I get lots of enjoyment from Barolo, Burgundy, top Bordeaux- but they require more planning to make sure they are opened properly and on time, but mainly, to have the right people there to share them with, the time to prepare a lunch or dinner etc.  The equation does not always match with lifestyle. These situations for opening really high end bottles are fewer and far between today. For the most part we live in a way that makes this part of enjoying high end wines a little challenging. I am most happy to find a nice fruity, elegant wine with personality so I don’t need to overthink how to enjoy it.

Q: Can you provide any wine and food pairing advice? 

A: When you have a special bottle, you need to have a good food match but it needs to be very simple.  A good quality meat prepared in a simple way with a high quality of wine. I can think of more disastrous food matches than any one incredible match. Some restaurants create these puzzling, complicated food preparations that are so elaborate and neither the wine compliments the food or the food the wine.  Cheese is so simple and so good.  

One really interesting food match is warm asparagus with a mousseline sauce or mayonnaise and dessert wine, like Sauternes or sweet dessert wines from the Loire Valley that express great balance. The sugar matches the structure of the asparagus and the aromatics of the wine compliments the strong aroma of asparagus.  We have to convince people to drink more dessert wine and that these are some of the most interesting wines in the world. I rarely have them with dessert, I enjoy them with cheese or sometimes even with fish or poultry in cream sauce.  

Speaking with someone like Serge Levesque, who has so much experience and insight into the wine business, is always a learning experience and very inspiring. 

As you can see, the world of wine is rich and complex with so many aspects that stimulate the mind, the heart and the stomach! The appreciation and business of wine draws so many of us in.  It is an ever changing and evolving landscape with seemingly endless opportunities for discovery. -Alanna

Photo credit: Longo Since 1961 website.

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