BEST CHAMPAGNE had the pleasure of interviewing Marco Bottega, an Italian Michelin star Chef in love with champagne, and owner of Aminta, a gastronomic restaurant and resort in the charming countryside of Rome with an impressive champagne cellar.
For this young and ambitious Chef and sommelier, champagne is not simply his favorite wine, it’s a way of living. Depending on the moment and the company, it can be an excellent tool for enhanced conviviality, or for introspection and reflection.
Naturally, champagne is the best wine to accompany the dishes of Aminta, in which regional traditions and terroir are sublimated with gastronomic excellences from around the world that Bottega discovers in its frequent traveling.
Read on and enjoy an interesting perspective on champagne from an eclectic Chef with a thorough understanding of wine. You will understand why champagne is the ultimate wine food, pairing with and sublimating almost any dish you can think of. Salute!
BEST CHAMPAGNE: What’s your story with champagne? How did you fall in love with this wine?
MARCO BOTTEGA: Before becoming a Chef I was a sommelier, having studied at the Italian Sommelier Association (AIS). At that time I approached the world of wine as a whole, drinking white, red, dessert, and sparkling wines from all around the world.
In my opinion, one needs to know a wine from its origins to develop a clear idea and make a real choice, but at the time I did not yet have a real preference for a particular wine.
When I was still a sommelier, I was lucky enough to work at Salvatore Tassa’s Colline Ciociare (1 Michelin star) in Acuto since 2000, where I was able to taste many great wines and many great champagnes.
But my passion for champagne began when I met Mario and Alessandro Federzoni (distributors of great champagnes in Italy and Officers of the Coteaux de Champagne order). It struck me the way they talked of champagne as if it were the most exciting thing in the world. We became good friends, and from 2001 onwards, I started traveling with them to Champagne and got more and more interested in this wine.
I had, as often happens, a priori on champagne that it seemed to be a wine of appearance and show-off, and I had some doubts about its superiority over other sparkling wines. This opinion has changed a lot over time, knowing this world better from inside, visiting the vineyards, the cellars, talking with the producers, drinking and comparing.
I then continued my journey and became a champagne taster at AIS, and my understanding and vision of this wine have evolved with my experience.
BC: What is champagne for you?
MB: Champagne is the art of living well, and of conviviality. Bubbles create joy, euphoria, a state of happiness and a magical atmosphere. In winter, once a month we organize champagne tastings here at Aminta and the conviviality of these evenings is incredible.
BC: What’s the story of Aminta?
MB: After the experience at Colline Ciociare, I worked at the Taverna del Capitano in Nerano (2 Michelin stars), then at the Arpège of Alain Passard in Paris (3 Michelin stars), and finally at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in Modena (3 Michelin stars and the world’s best restaurant in 2018 according to The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy.)
Then in 2009, I came back home, where my family has been in the restaurant business for three generations. My grandfather started with an inn in 1945 in Palestrina; later my father built and opened another restaurant in Palestrina in the late 60s that greatly expanded with the economic boom of the 70s. At the time the clientele was entirely local.
Then in 1984, he bought this land in Genazzano where Aminta is now. At the time there was nothing, just a farmhouse, which my father developed with the proceeds of the other restaurant.
In 1998 the demand of the public was changing, and therefore my father opened Aminta as a space for banquets, weddings, and various events. So when I returned in 2009, Aminta was an extremely traditional restaurant.
BC: What were your ambitions at the time?
MB: I wanted to make Aminta my way. At the time, to aspire to a Michelin star, you had to create exclusivity. For this, I started to change a few things in the menu but did not want to make a cuisine too technical not to scare our customers, who left anyway because they were looking for traditional dishes.
During the first five months, we had very few customers, and it was a tough moment for me, a moment of great doubts. I was ready to go back to Modena when the Gambero Rosso (the most prominent restaurant guide in Italy) invited me to the presentation of the guide of that year. I had no idea why they invited me.
At the presentation, there were the great Chefs of the time, who are still the great of today. After the presentation, they assigned the special prizes, and for the prize to the best Chef of the year, they called Marco Bottega of Aminta! I was shocked, I didn’t expect it at all, and these great Chefs had no clue who I was. Aminta also won the prize for the best value for money restaurant.
I received the prize for a rather unusual cuisine, with dishes such as veal head with oysters and lemon, or the mozzarella ravioli with Tahiti vanilla. Nevertheless, I have always worked with local products, although today this aspect is much more pronounced in my kitchen.
From that moment on everything changed: the restaurant was immediately full, and I found myself projected into the world of fine dining overnight.
I had a small wine list of only 12 wines, hand-written on a piece of paper, which already included some champagnes but that was insufficient for our new clientele.
At that time I was about to buy my house with my savings, but I decided to invest the money in building our cellar, from scratch, creating not only a storage place, but also a less formal tasting room, where we organize private dinners, tastings, master classes, and parties.
We currently include 1,236 references with around 300 Champagne Houses and producers. To date, I have not yet bought my house, but I still buy wine. My cellar was my dream, I built it as I wanted, it’s our flagship, and the list of champagnes is among the most important in Italy.
BC: What characterizes your cuisine? Is it always related to champagne?
MB: My cuisine is not necessarily linked to champagne but is based on nuances, just like champagne. You need a trained palate to read it, to discern the different components of the flavor and all the nuances. So I applied the technical aspect of tasting champagne, a wine that requires a highly developed palate to perceive so many subtle nuances of taste, to my kitchen. I create my own dishes, to which I then try to pair the right champagne.
My cuisine is undoubtedly of terroir since the Aminta estate includes 54 ha of which one third is dedicated to the breeding and production of poultry, fruit, and vegetables. Having a closed supply chain allows us to obtain the best food raw material, and where our own production is not enough, we use local producers.
However, my terroir cuisine does recognize the excellence of external products, and I include ingredients like chocolate, foie gras, and macadamia nuts.
My cuisine is also, and above all, a cuisine of thought: behind every dish, there is an idea, an ambition to delicately accompany the raw material to enhance it.
BC: You’ve worked with some of the most celebrated Italian Chefs. What is the current role of the Italian cuisine in the global gastronomy?
MB: The Italian cuisine has finally achieved the status of quality cuisine. Anywhere in the world, there have always been pizza and spaghetti bolognese, so we have been known by everyone for a long time, but without much respect.
Today, however, our gastronomic culture, the protection of our culinary traditions, and our products, are highly regarded around the globe.
But the Italian cuisine must be able to evolve. It is not a question of changing traditional dishes but working with great culinary products in other ways. For example, at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana, you can eat a dish of extreme tradition such as tagliatelle alla bolognese, and an innovative dessert-like “Oops! I dropped the lemon tart.” So great tradition and intelligent innovation can coexist.
I have always included products that are not part of the Italian tradition in my kitchen because I am curious, I travel a lot around the world and enrich my dishes of these experiences.
BC: Which are, in your opinion, the best champagne and food pairings?
MB: Champagne can really be drunk with everything. Being a wine “modified” with the dosage, which varies, and which gives champagne its “tone,” and a wide spectrum of styles, with fresh, fruity, or more oxidized notes, you can really combine it with everything; this is the secret of champagne.
There are champagnes for meat, red meat, delicate first courses, desserts, and there are also champagnes for the whole meal, hence the importance of a wide champagne list. Our champagne cellar allows us to travel both horizontally and vertically through this wide spectrum of styles.
Today, most of our customers come from all over Italy to drink champagne. After all, the Michelin Guide underlines our champagne offer (“Champagne lovers will be delighted by the selection on offer here.” https://www.viamichelin.com/web/Restaurant/Genazzano-00030-Aminta_Resort-t7a3dg45).
We also have a tasting menu with several champagnes to pair the whole meal.
BC: What are your favorite champagnes?
MB: In my opinion, Blanc de Blancs champagnes, when properly crafted, are the maximum expression of elegance. I also like Extra Brut champagnes a lot for their purity, and Rosé champagnes that had enough time to develop.
BC: What do you think of quality Italian sparkling wines?
MB: In our cellar, we include, besides champagne, some interesting Italian, English, and South African bubbles.
But the ultimate sparkling wine is champagne. The terroir of Champagne remains unique and inimitable, to which exceptional oenological skills developed over the centuries are applied.
BC: What do you think of growers’ champagnes, now in vogue, compared to those of the great Houses?
MB: The vast majority of our cellar is made up of wines of the great Champagne Houses, and for a very small part, of some of the best Growers’ champagnes, chosen with great care.
I believe that the diffusion of Growers’ champagne is a trend sustained by lower prices and the commercial capacity of the distributors. But most of these are low-quality and/or inconsistent champagnes, produced with rudimentary methods that have nothing to do with the champagnes of the great Houses. Unfortunately, most consumers do not know that.
I have always built my cellar looking at the future and the champagnes of the great Houses, with their experience and knowledge of the product and the raw material, bring quality assurance and a great aging potential.
This is why I believe that the Growers’ phenomenon will inevitably lose relevance, something that is already happening.
BC: Do you drink champagne every day?
MB: Almost, for sure at least 4-5 times a week!
BC: How would your life be without champagne?
MB: Sad. There is a champagne for every occasion, to toast an event, to have dinner, to think … When I ask our sommelier Alessandro to serve me a specific champagne bottle, it’s because I have to think about work, projects, or important things.