Nicholas Belvrage, who died at the age of 82 from complications from Parkinson’s disease, was a reference in Italian wine, and his knowledge of Italy and its long history of wine production and export was unparalleled. He was one of the first to realize the country’s vast potential for quality, versus the tired tidiness of cheap tanker wine, which he confronted vigorously as early as 1985 in his first book, Life Beyond Lambrusco – Understanding Italian Fine Wine. The book’s editor, Jancis Robinson, originally wanted it to be called The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, but Nicholas objected, stressing the existence of good Italian wine, even if few people were familiar with it at the time.
Nicholas was born in Los Angeles, the son of British journalist Cedric Henning Belfrage and his wife, writer Molly Castle. After briefly joining the Communist Party in 1937, Cedric was called in 1954 before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and after a match at Sing Sing Prison, he was deported. Nicola and his mother had already returned to Britain the previous year.
He attended St. Paul’s School for Boys in London and then University College London, where he graduated in French and Italian in 1964. At the age of twenty-five, Nicola went to study Italian in Siena. His early ambition was to become a writer and he produced three unpublished novels as well as a work on Dante Alighieri. His later work had a literary quality rarely seen in wine writing.
As an emerging wine journalist, I asked Nicholas in 2011 during an interview: “Why Italian wine?”
“Why wine at all?” to reply.
By chance, in 1970 he began working in a late-night grocery store on Gloucester Street, west London, set up by his friend Albert Vince. A second store in Paddington, this time with an outside licence, opened the way for him to get wine.
After his first marriage to Baiba Krumens, which ended in 1974, Nicola continued to visit her in her new home in Bergamo, discovering there the presence of fine Italian wine. In 1986, he founded Wine Cellars in Wandsworth, the first non-Italian owned store to ship and distribute high quality Italian wine. After passing the famous Master of Wine exams in the 1980s, Nicolas now has the authority, as well as the buying acumen and critical voice needed to conquer the skeptical market. In 1996 he founded Vinexus, an agency specializing in the best Italian wines.
His remarkable works are contained in two volumes, Barolo to Valpolicella: The Wines of Northern Italy (1999), and Brunello to Zibibbo: The Wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy (2001), in which he described in detail the diversity of the Italian wine world and its original varieties while setting everything Crucially in a historical context.
Nicola is survived by daughters Ecsta and Beatriz, both from his second marriage, in 1988, to Candida de Mello, which ended in 2009.