Andrea D’Ercole is an Italian who is passionate about the food and drink which hails from his native country. Julie Marshall met him.
Italy has been producing wine for thousands of years – longer even than France. It has a rich diversity of grape varieties and its position at the heart of the Mediterranean makes for ideal growing conditions.
But ask anyone to name an Italian wine they have tasted, or are even familiar with, and they may be hard-pressed to come up with anything other than Chianti or Pinot Grigio.
Leeds-based Italian wine entrepreneur Andrea D’Ercole is on a mission to change all that.
Last November he opened Ipsum Vinoteca, a wine bar,store and restaurant in Munro House, Duke Street, Leeds, in what was once the local headquarters of the Auto Trader magazine.
The decor is minimalistic with light wooden flooring and high shelves filled with bottles of Italian wine and beer.
Refectory-style tables are teamed with hard-seated chairs and benches; the only comfortable seat, a sofa by the door. “There’s a reason for this,” says Andrea. “Our furniture is all bespoke. Wine and tables go together. It’s all about people talking and sitting together and enjoying wine”.
Andrea was awarded a business degree in his native Italy and came to the UK via France and Ireland to study for an MBA.
He worked for a number of years for a Blue Chip company and then, in 2004, when he was in his late 20s he set up the website italyabroad.com, with the aim of providing quality information, services and authentic products to people like himself who were passionate about Italy.
But his dream was always to open his own bar and wine shop and pass on his love of wine to an even wider audience.
As in many Italian families, an appreciation for good wine was instilled in the young Andrea from a very early age.
His grandfather had a small vineyard and at family gatherings grandparents, parents and children would come together, sit around the table to eat, talk and drink wine. “It’s all about enjoying the wine, rather than drinking for the sake of it”, says Andrea. “I learned to appreciate the process behind wine as I saw people making it and I can honestly say I never got drunk in my life.”
Although Andrea, now aged 40, maintains the best wine experts don’t actually need any qualifications he nevertheless studied wine tasting in Italy and in the UK and has developed a sophisticated palate.
He has personally sampled each and every one of the 300 or so wines on the shelves and if it doesn’t pass his test of quality and taste then it doesn’t get through the door.
“It’s not about the price,” he says. “There are some very good wines available but because I wouldn’t personally drink them, then you will not find them here.”
Andrea goes on regular buying trips to Italy and has recently returned from an international wine fair where he discovered a number of new wines.
“I still get excited about wine, each label has its own history and there are hundreds of producers in Italy, many of them unknown in the UK.
“I think of Ipsum (which is Latin for ‘Itself’) as my baby. I tried for many years to open it and I looked at many premises before I came upon this one. “I thought it was going to be too big at first as I initially wanted to just open a bar but then I decided to incorporate a restaurant.”
The 20-seater restaurant is tucked away at the back of the bar area and the menu changes daily – a concept that Andrea claims is not replicated anywhere else in the country.
“Each morning the chef goes to the market and buys whatever is available fresh that day - it is important to us that we try to use as much local produce as possible. He then comes back and puts together that day’s menu.
“We only have five tables. We keep the menu simple and only have three or four starters and main courses. Everything is made to order, if we run out of a particular dish then we simply apologise – nothing comes out of the freezer.”
You’ll not find pizza on the menu at Ipsum and only on rare occasions will pasta make an appearance, and then only as a vegetarian option.
“We want the people of Leeds to realise there’s more to Italian food that pizza and pasta, says Andrea.” A typical day’s menu could include venison sausages; Scottish salmon or ricotta and spinach pocket for starters with guinea fowl, 28-day aged beef filet; fish platter or wild mushroom risotto as a main course. All desserts, like everything else on the menu, are freshly made by the chef.
“Items on the menu also comes with a suggestion as to which wine would be the perfect accompaniment. We find that most of the time customers take our advice and go for the matching wine or, if they prefer beer, we have a large range of Italian craft beers on sale.”
The rise in the popularity of craft beer has been just as meteroric in Italy as in the rest of Europe with hundreds of small breweries springing up in recent years.
“The craft beer revolution has made a massive difference”, says Andrea. “ Before, I couldn’t drink beer as I don’t like Peroni, but I can now enjoy a nice glass of craft beer.”
Ipsum is attracting a broad spectrum of customers from those new to Italian wine and curious to find out more, to others who claim some familiarity.
“If someone comes in and asks for a particular wine we always ask them, ‘why do you ask for this one? Have you tried it before and are you happy to try something different? We try to understand what it is they like and always insist they taste it before we pour out a glass. We want them to be happy with their choice.
“We also ask customers to score each wine they taste out of ten and, up to now we have had no score lower than an eight.”
Prices range from as low as £6 a bottle with the most expensive around £50-60. “We don’t have big names, I don’t believe in big names I believe in big wines,” he says.
Andrea has another dream but one which may not be quite as easy to fulfil. He would love to see his grandfather’s overgrown vineyard, produce wine again.
“It would be expensive and I would need a skilled wine maker, but it would nice if it could be achieved,” he says with a wistful smile.