Nellcôte (Chicago): Rising star wine director Jason Wagner takes guests on a cruise around the Mediterranean coast

Jason Wagner is getting noticed for Nellcôte's wine program, which showcases varietals from such Mediterranean locales as the Canary Islands, Sicily, Corsica and Crete. Photo by Alex Janowski

Black-and-white stills prove that the Rolling Stones enjoyed their wine (among other pleasures) when they and their free-spirited entourage invaded a Côte d’Azur mansion in the summer of 1971.  At Villa Nellcôte, they partied and worked on their revered record “Exile on Main Street,” including the song, “Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren).”

Jason Wagner can’t tell you precisely which wines the Stones quaffed during their stay.  “That would have been cool,” he agrees.  But the wine director at Nellcôte — the new posh, Stones-inspired West Loop restaurant — knows that Keith, Mick and the gang had access to some excellent stuff.

The Rolling Stones and friends lived a decadent existence filled with wine, women and song during their days at Villa Nellcôte. Photo by Dominque Tarlé

In terms of wine, “that area of coastal France is really exciting as to what’s going on there,” says Wagner, formerly of NYC’s L’Atelier.  But once Wagner “went down the rabbit hole” and started looking at French wines from Provence, Hermitage and Châteauneuf du Pape (among others), he decided to cross over into other Mediterranean coastal countries as well.  And his list expanded to include varietals from Italy and the Iberian Peninsula.

Still, Wagner didn’t stop there — he added a selection of “island wines” — from the Canary Islands, Corsica, Sicily and the Greek islands.  “That’s as coastal as it gets,” he says, smiling.

So compelling are Wagner’s island selections, Eater National recently named Nellcôte’s programs one of the “Hottest New Wine Lists Across America.”  Of his island wines, Eater singled out the 2008 Maestracci “E Prove” ($45), a Corsican red.

Wagner has some of his own favorites, including Sicily’s 2008 Occhipinti “Siccagno” Nero d’Avola ($69).  He greatly admires its producer, Arianna Occhipiniti, a “leader of the natural wine movement.”

“She makes wines that are elegant and definitely are an expression of where they come from,” Wagner says.

Wagner has some favorites among his selections, including reds from the Canary Islands and Sicily. Photo by Jamco Creative

He also highly recommends the “very peppery” 2009 Tajinaste Listán Negro ($54) from Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands.  “It’s a hot, hot place.  And [this wine is] big and bold.  If somebody likes Zin, I can take them there with this.”  Wagner suggests pairing this island varietal with chef Jared Van Camp’s grilled lamb loin, calling the match “a home run.”

The wine director is dedicated to making his selections work with Van Camp’s nimble Mediterranean cuisine, from the chef’s simple and honest pizzas to his fancier French fare.

“You don’t want to have a fancy Bordeaux with pizza, as yummy as that is,” Wagner says, for example.  Therefore, there are no Bordeaux wines on the list.

Still, Wagner respects his guests’ preferences, although he challenges them to try new wines.  So white wine drinkers can find Pinot Grigio, but shouldn’t look for Santa Margherita or Bella Sera. “They can satisfy those desires without having the stuff you get at Dominick’s [supermarket],” Wagner says.  “It’s going to be something they have no idea about, they’ve never seen before, and they can’t get anywhere else.

Nellcôte's wine list favors biodynamic, family-grown wines and indigenous varietals. Photo by Alex Janowski

“They can drink Pinot Grigio that’s going to be biodynamic and delicious.”

Wagner singles out the 2009 Sant’ Elena “Klodic” Pinot Grigio ($45) from Italy’s Friuli region.  ”Aromatic” and “refreshing,” the wine is uniquely colored; rather than being “soft pressed,” its grapes are macerated for 36 hours.

“So it’s not white; it’s orange,” Wagner says.

A proponent of biodynamic wines, Wagner supports small family growers, who meticulously care for their vineyards.  “They need [their vineyards] to last from generation to generation, and they’re not going to spray them with pesticides or fungicides,” he says.

Wagner is also a stickler when it comes to serving indigenous varietals.  “There are people making Cabernet Sauvignon in Greece, but I don’t carry them,” he says.

Currently, Wagner is offering more than 150 “dynamic” wines, and he plans to expand the list a bit more.  (He’s also gearing up to open RM, Nellcôte’s “coming soon” adjacent champagne salon.) “But we won’t go over 200 labels,” he says.  “At that point, it’s intimidating.

“If it’s a small, concentrated list, you can make people explore.”

833 West Randolph Street
Chicago, Illinois  60607

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