Justin Leone, the sommelier of Tantris Restaurant in Munich talks about the insider secret that is Alentejo, about the uniqueness of the region’s wines, about ravioli of pork from black pigs, powerful white wines, and about his new word that ttingly describes the wines of Alentejo.
Justin Leone, we are in Munich in the historic Tantris Restaurant that is only just over 40 years old, but has already written culinary history. How did that come about?
When Tantris opened its doors in 1972 it was a completely new type of restaurant. It was in a new building, a kind of concrete bungalow that embodied the then ascendant ideals of new Nouvelle Cuisine. Today the architecture and the interior don’t seem a minute out of date, much less old-fashioned. The same is true of Hans Haas’ cuisine, and although he’s been here many years he is only the third chef in the restaurant’s history. He followed August Winkler and Eckart Witzigmann, who also both wrote culinary history in and with Tantris.
So Tantris is a kind of gourmet temple?
No, I don’t think that you can say that. In temples you pray to the Gods, but that’s not what people want to do here. Although Tantris is one of the best restaurants in Germany and the world, it is simul- taneously a venerable legend and a modern house where everything is calm and relaxed. If it wasn’t for that someone like me would have had no chance to t in here!
You are the head sommelier, what does that really mean?
It means that I am responsible for the wine buying and for recom- mending wines to our guests. And that also means that in Tantris there are other sommeliers, people apart from me working with wine. That’s really necessary in restaurants of this class, but sadly it’s not always the case.
Do some other restaurants underrate the impor- tance of wine as part of the culinary experience?
I wouldn’t really say that, also because while I know many Michelin starred restaurants I certainly don’t know them all. What has struck me though, is how some establishments seem satis ed with listing wines from just a couple of regions and from the same famous wine producers. They shy away from experiments, from showing guests so- mething new that they aren’t familiar with, something they probably couldn’t get to know without the help of an interested sommelier. This happens although their guests are interested in new wines and the diversity of wine altogether.
The wines of the Alentejo are part of that diversity, but they weren’t on the wine list of Tantris until recently, or?
That’s true. I had to learn about this region rst.
What should I say? Of course, the Alentejo is a discovery. And stran- gely we didn’t have it on our radar screen even though it is such a big region. When it comes to Portuguese wines you always think of two DOs rst: Douro and Dão. And during recent years the Alentejo didn’t push its wines very hard.
Is that a good thing or a bad one?
That’s actually very good, because in this way the Alentejo retained its integrity. It was a secret known only to insiders, and somehow it has remained that to this day.
How do you see the wines of the Alentejo?
That’s another question I can’t answer with a single sentence, becau- se there’s such a diversity of wines in the Alentejo and this doesn’t allow a simple judgement. What one can say though, is that the iden- tity of Alentejo wines has not been corrupted.
Yes. What I mean by corrupted is when wines are produced for export according to what is the supposed taste of international consumers. That has happened in many other wine regions, although there are al- ways exceptional winemakers who don’t follow this path. In contrast, in the Alentejo the majority of the wines are honest, rustic and have some rough edges that add to the diversity of the wine world, instead of being nice, polished and well behaved like so many other wines pre- sented to you day to day. For me, that is enriching.
Who drinks these wines? Who do you recommend Alentejo wines to?
First and foremost to young, new and open-minded wine drinkers. That means those who aren’t interested in how many points a wine scored, but who have to be careful how much they spend. They are well served with the wines from Alentejo, because for relatively modest prices they o er power, personality and nesse. And then I gladly re- commend them to the hard-core wine lovers who know everything and want to drink something really interesting.
With what other type of wine would you compare the wines of Alentejo if a guest asked to explain how they taste?
With other wines from the south of Europe. The wines of the Alentejo often remind me of the ve dollar and ninety nine cent a bottle wines from Languedoc I drank many years ago in the States...
...where you were born and grew up...
...and where I was infected by the wine virus. All at once I could taste olives, blood, sweat and sunshine. It’s rather similar with the Alen- tejo wines. They are like the girl next door. You aren’t immediately turned-on by her, then, suddenly you’re in love with her. They don’t give you a headache and are fun for every day.
With what dishes would you recommend Alentejo wines?
I think of earthy, spicy dishes. Something like pasties made with pork from black pigs served with pointed cabbage in a strong sauce. Also, dishes to which the wine must bring clarity, intensity, tannin and some elegance.
In which direction is the wine region Alentejo going to develop?
Further in the direction of the complete culinary experience. This has a lot to do with olive oil from Alentejo and with the cork oaks there. And although you might think that the guest is already long-since sa- tiated, there is a continued demand for new wine styles, regions and wines. This will help the Alentejo further.
And your secret tip?
Certainly, the wonderful salty white wines of Alentejo, particularly those from the regions on the coast where the nights are cold. They have less acidity and more power, but also a lot of delicacy. This is a completely distinctive wine style that you can hardly compare with anything else. It has nothing to do with Spanish wines, but also no- thing to do with Vinho Verde from the north of Portugal. That is very special, yet still undervalued by the market.
One last question: which three words best describe the wines from the Alentejo?
That’s like a question on a TV quiz show! OK, but only for you. First: secret. Second: rustic. Third: farmer-elegant.
Yes, farmer-elegant. It just occurred to me. That’s good, or?