Nico Boise, head sommelier extraordinaire of Elkano (1*), has worked in the wine cellars of some of the world’s best restaurants, including The Fat Duck and Mugaritz. A keen photographer, he has also been kind enough to provide us with some of his shots in this article. Join us as we discuss Basqueness, Elkano, Language, and much more!
With almost twelve years in the Basque Country, we think that you are qualified to answer this question… What is Basqueness for you?
For me, Basqueness is an attitude. A will. Many characters. It has a lot to do with the root; a lot to do with the origin. I think that the term Basque has almost become a brand because it transmits values, origin, strength, character …
In your passage through Mugaritz and now in Elkano, you have known from within the two sides of a coin; on the one hand, the most rabid avant-garde and on the other the strongest tradition. What reflection have these two very opposite styles had in your proposals?
They are two different worlds but the interesting thing between these two houses is that there is incredible respect between them and there always has been. There is a lot of connection even if they seem very far away. As for the drink proposal, I have always adapted to each place and each style. You adapt the menu because you have more demand for one style of drink or another, but at the same time, the menu makes it one.
With the kitchen it is the same, the type of cuisine that a person does is his kitchen, his way of seeing things and each one carries a little bit of his experience and what moves him. It’s the same with wine, you learn over time, you get closer to people and some people stay with you along the way. He is a bit like a musician, who is very influenced by what he has heard until he gets his style.
A sommelier first takes everything, everything he has learned, where he has been. It shows a lot if he has been to one country or another … I am lucky to have worked in England where I saw absolutely everything. Then the sommelier takes all the information and little by little he does his thing.
And to answer your question, for me Elkano’s wine list is now a reflection of the experience of a sommelier who has been in this business for fifteen years and the style he has, what he likes, where he feels comfortable is very noticeable. … you know that they are people you can trust, they are wines that have accompanied you almost your entire life … because in the end, the time has come when they are part of your life and that is already very difficult to undo.
Tell us about your current wine list, how would you define it?
There is a part that is stable and another that is in constant rotation, because I think it is super important. Before I had a team, I had more people working with me and the big difference is that at Elkano I work alone, so it is super important to keep moving. I don’t want to be one of those sommeliers who over the years have a super stuck menu where things don’t change and who at the end find it difficult to catch up. You have to be aware of what is new, try it and the lists have to be kept alive … because we always want novelty and we are lucky that under each stone there is an incredible winegrower that nobody knows. So the lists get bigger and bigger, that’s the problem [laughs]…
When I entered Elkano, Aitor (Arregi) told me… “Look, in the wine cellar before there were four pallets and there were four winemakers featured.” Now we have very extensive wine lists and also I always try to have a dynamic list. You have to bring “new blood” and that illusion of presenting a new wine is like a new toy, like a new guitar …
Sommeliers are the link between the winegrower and the diner. By being able to recommend one thing or another, you make it known, but I always say “I don’t make the wine!” Many people congratulate you and say “hey, this wine is great” and I say “okay, but I have nothing to do with this”. In the end, I present at the right moment something that may be liked and I put it in front of a person who has done the work; I have not done any of this. The great merit goes to the winegrower, I have no merit in this.
Elkano is one of those restaurants that is much loved by the locals, which also welcomes many customers from the area. How do they welcome the new offerings that you present to them?
Local clients are getting to know me and little by little they trust me. Sometimes what I see is indeed a lack of curiosity and this is the frustrating thing … but we see more and more people who come and ask you “what do you have?” Or they go to Aitor and ask him “what came in today?” “What is the coolest?” I like to see when people want something new and to be surprised and this is something that happens more and more. They say “surprise us!” This is curious, because before a sommelier was not that. Before, you had a posture of service. There has always been that piece of advice but it is true that when I started in this you had to fight and show that you knew, that you were good for this and it was a challenge. Now we are in a moment in which all this is much easier, people before did not trust anything and now people are much more relaxed; they trust and know that there are many options.
What percentage of your work would you say is sales? When was the last time they said no to you?
With wine you can go wrong because many times the language that people use is very different from the one we use; So much of a sommelier’s job is to understand what people want; because they tell you in their own words. Many times I have to rethink and interpret it. What I perceive in a word as being “fruity” has nothing to do with your perception of the word. Many times the guest lets go of everything he can to get out of the way. Sometimes mistakes are caused by this, the diner has not been able to express himself or the sommelier has not perceived what he wanted to say.
It happened to me recently that a person wanted a style of wine and in the end, we didn’t get it right, we removed the bottle, put another one and that’s it. But what I don’t do is sell, I did it before. I did it before because I had to sell to try [wines]. When you start in this world, you have to show and you have to fight. There was a battle, there was an argument, it was a fight. You see little by little how you progress and people tell you “I want this type of wine” then you think “maybe this fits” and then you put it in. You approach it, you explain it and as people talk to you, you realize that you can still fit it. It’s not I want a pinot noir and I’m selling you a malbec, it’s not this, but within the spectrum, you can try it, then you fight it. Now we do not sell the same, because you no longer have anything to prove.
The lists we have are much more controlled. From a list that I have now of 650 wines, I have tasted almost all of them.
You have talked about language; for us, it is one of Ama’s great challenges. It is a new drink, we even think that it is a new category and we know that Ama is a difficult drink to explain. How do you build a language and how do you see this of building a language for a product that does not have it?
You always have to start from a base. For you, the language of wine is the closest. For example, Aitor uses the word terroir … in the language of wine there is a familiarity with other worlds and it can be relocated there. Even when I talk about music I use words like “round”. It is indeed a language that sometimes sounds very elitist. This is something that I don’t like because, in the end, it has to be close; but it is indeed a language that many people also speak, so it is difficult not to use it. When I talk to people I reinterpret everything. Every word that comes out of their mouth, I do not take it as such or as if it were mine, I approach theirs, because otherwise, I know that we are not talking about the same thing. I have to make the effort to understand what they are saying, otherwise, we are going in the opposite direction. Sometimes you have a client who wants something specific, so I know we talk about the same thing because there is a way of expressing themselves, a security that makes them know that this person and I are talking about the same thing.
For the construction of a language for Ama… does it present a problem using the language of wine or do you see that it does not fit?
It does not present any a priori problem but for example with the “mousy”… I have been thinking about it a lot and when using the same language there is a transfer of attributes from one thing to another when it is not the same. The “mousy” is a defect when the bacteria that cause the mousy are not part of the colony that you have used. In the case of HIRU, the bacteria that cause the “mousy” are within the colony.
You can tell me a thousand times about what is happening to you with HIRU, but we are talking about the same thing. You don’t want to call it “mousy,” but it is what it is. The word is that and if we have a language it is just so that we can understand each other immediately. It is a technical language that helps us move forward much faster.
I believe that everything has to do with tolerance. Right now we are drinking wines that in other times would be intolerable; reduction, Bret, mousy … some people find it fantastic; some people hate it. Before the Bret was the worst, now it seems that it is a virtue. It has a lot to do with the time and the way we drink; because now we understand that we work with much more natural products and we know that there is a part of the risk. Now we accept the risk and before we did not accept it. We were in a time when oenology was sovereign. Oenology was so powerful that the wines had to be perfect. But now there is an audience that understands that if a person wants to reach more expression, they have to take risks. If I want adrenaline, I have to jump out of a plane with a parachute. The parachute is this, the non-sulfur, the non-filtering, the non-pasteurizing. Now we are aware that things can happen and there is a public that is willing to accept it. What we see now in relation to natural wines is a direct response to what has been established.
This started as a reaction after the ’70s when everyone used chemistry excessively; some began to say “hey, my grandfather didn’t work like that.”
I believe everything will come to balance because all excesses are bad. Now we are already touching a little the critical point where we can go. You have to establish a criterion from the consumer, as always. There will always be people who want wines where there is zero margin and others who are as geeky as possible, but that is determined by the consumer. For me, it is ultimately the client who has the answer to everything.
Returning to language … how do you describe your Amas in Elkano?
Ama in Elkano is part of a judgement; Part of realizing that the customer is wanting a type of drink. As I said before, I don’t sell what I want. Someone who asks me for a powerful red wine- I’m not going to offer them Ama; But if a person wants to drink something that feels good, that has a low alcohol content, something happy, a hot day on the terrace to finish the meal … You pick up those signals and then you steer them towards that. I think there is a concern of people to drink something different, the “surprise me!” the one I was talking about before. Ama has everything to surprise. There has been no one who has not been left with his mouth open with Ama. Then they ask you to explain what it is. First, you give them Ama to try, you leave them in shock and then you explain what it is, for me, it has much more strength.
It seems that non-alcoholic or low alcohol NoLo drinks, and even lower alcohol wines, are trending. Is this something the customer demands at Elkano?
There is not much demand, I think it is something individual. I think we have to think about pregnant women who see us drink wine with that frustration of not being able to drink a sophisticated, well-made drink … It is very frustrating for many people to see that everyone has moved on and people who simply do not want to drink or can’t, they feel that frustration of having to drink a non-alcoholic beer. I think it’s horrible for them, I think it’s leaving them out of gastronomy. We have made many attempts to make drinks that were more or less convincing, many things have been done trying, without reaching the level of Ama. Now what Ama proposes are origin, variety and serious elaboration. People feel much more valued with your product than if I tell them “I’m going to make you a non-alcoholic cocktail.” Now we put them at the level of what we can propose in the wine list; we offer them something that puts them on the same level.
And when they try it, how do they react?
Surprise, they are surprised and they like it. Many times the doubt that is created is “what is this? How is it made? And who has done it? ” They are surprised that something so good has almost no alcohol in it. Propose a complex, elaborate, fine product and finally something that is not sweet. Finally a dry and complex drink.
As a great fan of champagne, is it unreasonable to say that Ama is a sparkling wine, but made from tea and different herbs?
Speaking of Ama, the word pét-nat is closer than sparkling wine. As a professional, I already see second fermentation in the bottle and a lot of other things. The same thing does not happen to a consumer, but for me, the carbonic sensation that you have, is not sparkling, it is a frizzante, it is pet-nat. And pét-nat also falls a bit short, because pét-nat is a bubble that is not so fancy. For me, “ancestral” is a word closer to you, because it finishes fermenting in the bottle and has a notion of more subtlety than pét-nat.
The ancestral is the origin of champagne. At the beginning with champagne, there was no second fermentation, it did not exist. Everyone finished fermentation in the bottle, but after that lack of control, the second fermentation came. The wine also finished fermenting in the bottle, not because you wanted to, but because at the end of winter it didn’t always finish fermenting, so it would finish fermenting in the bottle and burst the bottle.
How do you explain Ama?
The simile with wine helps us. Many times we use a vocabulary that is very close to that of wine so that people can understand it. I think the topic of fermentation for people is a dark topic, but we talk more and more about fermentation in everything. Those of us who are involved in the gastronomic world do have it very much in mind, both for food and for drinks. People have a hard time understanding how you ferment a tea. So I explain it to very simply and simply, not with endless speeches.
Then professionals look for markers, such as unfiltered, unpasteurized, sulfite-free. When you go to an industry fair, people ask you first how much sulfur is in it, they are not interested in where it comes from. They are markers and people go for that.
Organic production is the future. The other day I was shocked when they told me about a wine store that does not have organic wines. Today it is something that I cannot conceive. How can you get past this when the end is our future? We have to tend towards that.
They are values that people now accept; years ago you talked about ecological and it was frowned upon. We would rather eat something with chemistry than eat something organic. People were very reluctant to do this and now people are looking for it. The more people go green and take care of what they have, we will move forward. We can’t not be a participant in this. Ama fits into a forward-looking trend.
You have organized the first Bio Champagne fair, what has driven it?
It is a land that has suffered greatly. What we propose with the bio champagne fair is that if there is an area in which bio has to be known, it is there; because you go to Champagne and the vineyards are scary, it’s lunar. Some areas are so crushed that you think “nothing can grow here!” And the vine survives somehow.
For me, putting champagne and bio next to it and bringing so many people gives me hope. Champagne has suffered greatly. It has suffered during the post-war period because the vines were destroyed by bombs and then, unfortunately, everything that left Paris reached Champagne. They were forced to use the garbage from Paris as compost and to this day you still see the pieces of paper on the ground, you see the plastic!
In addition, the best champagnes are undoubtedly biodynamic and organic, they have a dimension that is another level. They have a life that non-organics don’t achieve and the level of flavours will always have that superior organoleptic quality. What gives you the flavour is incomparable.
Minimal intervention in the production process is risky, both for us and for any wine producer. But what benefits does it bring?
Minimum or low intervention is a term that is being used too much. I think that in great wines and great drinks in general, you can intervene little but you have to always be there, that’s where the big difference lies. Some people understand how not to do low intervention. Not acting is one thing, but you have to in reality. In great natural wines, you have to know when to act and when not to act, and that comes from wisdom; because many times, when you don’t know, you tend to do, out of ignorance, people who doubt, do act and often mess it up.
From the knowledge, you know what is happening and you know when to act or not to act. Low intervention for me is key in the sense of knowing what is happening and being able to do nothing. However, many times low intervention is not qualitative, for me, it is not a qualitative argument, because you can say everything and nothing. Wine is not made by itself, someone who says “I haven’t done anything, I let it do it”; Well, as long as you leave it, the natural way of wine is vinegar, so if you don’t do anything, it will result in vinegar.
Low intervention for me as a term must be used whenever it is true and with great care. I’m going to give you an example, the great guru of natural wines in France, Marcel Lapierre, a student of Jules Chauvet, was against the chemical movement, but he was a chemist by training. A man who is a chemist made natural wines because he analyzed absolutely everything. Analyzing, he didn’t act because he knew what was going on. Knowledge is everything. Someone who does not understand the complexity will do too little or too much, so for me, the term “low intervention” makes little sense.
Finally, we just released HIRU and LAU. I think that at the moment you’ve tried HIRU, could you tell us what you think?
I have seen much more complexity in HIRU than in the previous ones. I saw a product that contributes much more. For me BAT and BI are very frank, very focused on the varietal, HIRU on the other hand gives you another dimension. The acid component is something that I was looking for, with the defect of looking for something close to wine, because many times you look for that acid point as if it were a wine. That’s the highlight for me, it’s sharp, it’s cool. HIRU is even more complex, alive and confusing because it is very close to natural wine.
Photo: Pierre Overnoy, founding father of the low intervention movement
Thank you to Nico for speaking to us! You can follow him here: @vertikalbynico