My Franciacorta – with Melania Bellesini

Melania Bellesini

Head Sommelier
The Fat Duck
Bray, Berkshire

Tell us a little bit about who you are, what you do and how you got here.
I am originally from Italy and have been at The Fat Duck for 12 and a half years. I became Head Sommelier in 2018, having started in 2011 as a commis chef due to the language barrier. Back then, there weren’t any sommelier positions available but I really wanted to work with the renowned team, so I just said, ‘give me anything, and I will do it’. I progressed slowly and after two years of working front of house I became chef de rang. However, I still wanted to go back to my true passion: wine.

A sommelier position eventually became available in 2015 and they offered it to me. After a year in Australia – which was a beautiful experience – the Head Sommelier offered me the Assistant Head Sommelier role upon my return. A year later, in 2018, the Head Sommelier left to start other projects, and thought I was ready to take over. I took a leap of faith and embraced the challenge. It was quite scary at first, as it was my first experience as a head sommelier, in a three Michelin-star restaurant in a foreign country! It has been a fantastic journey that has allowed me to learn and grow so much.

What was your first experience with the wines of Franciacorta?
Well, being Italian, Franciacorta has always been part of my life. I studied hospitality and I think I had my first Franciacorta at school. I also have a clear memory of Franciacorta being part of an IS Association (Italian Sommelier Association) competition, which I won at just 16 years of age. After I won we opened a bottle of Franciacorta – it was really remarkable. It is such a good memory and one that has made the wines quite relevant to me from an emotional point of view.

You have been familiar with the wines of Franciacorta for a long time. How have you seen the evolution of the region and the wines? 
When I started here, 12 years ago, Franciacorta was well known in Italy, especially in the north, but it wasn’t recognised across the world. Italians have marked their celebrations, like weddings or birthdays, with a bottle of Franciacorta for years, as it is seen as the national sparkling wine of consistently good quality. Today, people know Franciacorta; guests recognise and are open to the name. It’s a beautiful wine and I really like to have it on my wine list.

Do you think people associate quality with Franciacorta wines or do you still need to explain it’s a high-quality traditional method sparkling?
In the past, they might have confused it with other, lesser-quality, sparkling wines from Italy. Today, they are able to really distinguish the nature and quality of wines. They can differentiate between a mass-production wine and a high-quality product, such as Franciacorta. So they perceive and experience it differently.

One might need to give a bit of an explanation – namely about the production method – and then people take it seriously and try it in a different state of mind. I can see that the Franciacortas I have on the wine list are really well perceived. Sometimes, however, even when people are aware that it’s a high-quality wine, they don’t always expect how good it actually is!

How is Franciacorta showcased at The Fat Duck? As a Head Sommelier, how do you position it? 
At the moment, we have a couple of Franciacortas on the list but I would like to develop the range. It’s such a nice option to offer by the glass. I change our by-the-glass offering constantly – at the moment I have sparkling sake; before I had Franciacorta. People are very happy to try something other than Champagne. They are curious and when you explain what’s on offer, they are very happy to try a new alternative. I enjoy seeing their surprise and satisfaction.

What are people’s reactions when they see it being poured for them?
Yes, well, sometimes they say things like ‘I can recognise the name but I have never tried it…

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My Franciacorta – with Melania Bellesini My Franciacorta – with Melania Bellesini *My Franciacorta – with Melania Bellesini