Meet the Charismatic Ringmaster of Italian Wine in Ireland – Enrico Fantasia from Piglet Wine Bar
There is a pattern that repeats itself at every wine tasting in which Enrico Fantasia is present: a crowd surrounds the stand of his independent importer Grape Circus and instead of tasting his wines and moving on, they linger, listening. They arrive to try the bottles he has sourced from Italy and other European countries, and stay mesmerised for his superb storytelling.
Enrico has a way of making wine come to life through tales of travels, unusual winemakers and other amusing anecdotes and, as he shared with us his own story, we couldn’t help but wish he one day writes a memoir.
Coming from a “boringly typical Italian family”, Enrico Fantasia grew in a home where food was cooked by his grandmother and mom and where “wine was always on the table.” On those “good old days” wine was present both at lunch and dinner time and the family would often discuss different bottles as they enjoyed them. Tedious, we know, a youth filled with walks that often ended up in osterias under the monotony of the benign Venetian weather, where local wines and friends were always a predictable presence.
The flavours and the aromas that you experience in an early age stay with you forever, and they are the strongest memory triggers ever.”
From Sound to Taste
“Even before it became fashionable”, Enrico had an interest in food and wine, however, the sense of hearing had more to do with his first career than the senses of taste or smell; as a professional musician, he “worked for many years in various orchestras in Italy”, where he played the French horn. One of his best friends ran a wine bar and during his days off from the Opera House in Venice, Enrico would join him to visit producers. “Meeting this people was always a fascinating experience, so I started to do it on my own”, he recalls the experience allowed him to see wine differently, “for what it will be, rather than what it is.”
I’m not a sommelier, I have no diploma, I just spent days and days tasting, reading, asking questions and travelling to visit producers.
Eventually he got tired of his job and what started off as a weekend gig at a neighbourhood wine bar quickly became “a bit more, then a bit more and 2 months later I was managing the place. That was the turning point, and I knew I wasn’t going back to the orchestra.” For a while, he ran his own restaurant in Venice where his focus swapped for cooking, a trade that he practised across different positions in Europe once the place closed.
“Then I landed in Ireland thanks to Seamus Sheridans from Sheridans Cheesemongers, whom I met years earlier and who became a friend.” Together they opened Sheridans Wine Bar in Galway, and Enrico’s path turned again towards wine. Nowadays Sheridans and Grape Circus have a solid and successful partnership.
Is there any similarity between the world of professional music and the wine industry?
Besides a shared presence of a few “useless people with a huge ego”, there are not many similarities, Enrico points out. “What a musical education gave me”, he acknowledges, “is the capacity to think vertically and horizontally at the same time. Music is not only made by a melody or a tune, but also from the different parts that support the principal melody. That is very useful when you taste wines: don’t stop at the first impression, listen to what is going on behind that in the glass.”
No Interior Designers Were Harmed
Last Autumn, Enrico ventured again into the role of restaurateur, this time in a small venue in Cow’s Lane, one of the rare bits of Temple Bar where it’s quiet. The premise was simple: a “continental” wine bar, “a place where wine is the centre, and where food is just a support. Not your usual ‘starter-main-dessert’ kind of place.”
He had contemplated the idea for a while and when a location became available, he and his business partner and friend, Thibaud Harang, “decided to go for it but we didn’t know at all if that was going to work in Dublin or not.”
The concept, which combined lots of good wines served in proper glassware (luxurious Riedel glasses to be precise) with simple, tasty dishes, and a modest decor shows that Enrico’s priority was wine: “that’s were we invested the money. No interior designer has been harmed in the opening of Piglet Wine Bar…. and you can see it when you walk in!”
Regarding the name, Enrico explains that he needed a change from the venue’s former name La Dolce Vita and he wanted something “short, strong, fun and easy to remember.” He found was he was looking for in an unexpected place: “there is a chopping half moon knife hanging on top of the main door, something that Thibaud found in a flee market in France, that has the handle shaped like a little pig, hence the name.”
Less than a year later, Piglet has been reviewed numerous times and when asked if he was expecting his wine bar to attract that much attention, Enrico admits he wasn’t.
The first few months weren’t easy I have to say, but it seems we are in the right direction. That is thanks to Thibaud that is an amazing front of the house, and to the hard working staff we were lucky to find.”
Enrico hasn’t made any major changes or adjustments to the concept since its opening, and while he acknowledges that bureaucracy was one of the biggest challenges, he points out that “here is definitely much, much, much better than in Italy or France.”
Choosing Wines with Meaning
For Enrico to incorporate a wine into his portfolio, whether for Grape Circus or at Piglet, the most important thing is that it has to be a wine he’d like to drink, “a wine that if I get offered a glass of it, I would finish it with pleasure and not as a chore.”
But it’s not just about what’s inside the bottle: “I have to like the person behind it, who makes the wine. Then I want wines that are, beyond any certification, made in a clean and environmentally friendly way.”
Among the selected bottles that make the cut, Enrico points out that his most popular are “possibly the wines from Fattoria San Lorenzo, a fantastic biodynamically run farm in the Marche, in central Italy. Great Verdicchios and yummy Sangiovese-Montepulciano reds.”
And while all the wines are meaningful additions to his repertoire, there is one that he hails as very special: “Sacrisassi Rosso Le Due Terre, a wine that I discovered by chance as there were a few cases in the storage room in the wine bar where I got my first job, but no one knew what it was and how it got there. It was in the early 90’s and that was basically unknown back then. I fell in love with it, and I fell in love with the family that makes it when I finally met them. So it was an achievement to be able to add it to my list.”
With a predilection for classic regions such as Piemonte and a soft spot for less famous Italian terroirs, Enrico is always happy to drive Irish wine lovers beyond “Barolo, Brunello, Chianti, Gavi and Pinot Grigio.”
My selection is often described as ‘full of obscure, fancy Italian stuff’!
Regarding upcoming projects, he just shares two words: “top secret.” We can only infer at this point that great wines will be a big part of his undisclosed plan and, being the fine storyteller that he is, he chose to leave us on a cliffhanger, wondering what his next step will be.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.