Nicholas Berggren of Chicago’s The Purple Pig on Discovering Wines from Out of the Way Places - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Nicholas Berggren of Chicago’s The Purple Pig on Discovering Wines from
Out of the Way Places

Nicholas Berggren grew up in a restaurant family in Columbus, Ohio. His dad was employed by Darden Restaurant Group for his entire career. (Darden was once the largest full service restaurant group in the world and owned Red Lobster and Olive Garden, along with Ruth’s Chris, Cheddar’s, and Longhorn Steakhouse.) “He became incredibly successful,” says Nicholas, “and he was always happy—I wanted to follow in his footsteps.” Nicholas has been in restaurants since he was a boy, and at The Purple Pig for the last decade, a restaurant on Michigan Avenue in the shadow of the Wrigley Building that’s wildly popular with tourists and Chicagoans alike. The menu is hearty and pork-centric. The wine list, however, is vast, more than 20 pages long, eclectic, and exceedingly well-priced, deep into Champagne and Burgundy, but also featuring regions that relate to the city’s ethnic fabric, like Greece, Slovenia, Croatia and Italy. “I’m lucky to be able to work at a very low margin,” he says, “and make sure everybody has the opportunity to taste most high-end wine to very inexpensive wines, and just have a great time.” —Patrick J. Comiskey

Nicholas Berggen

So how many how many bottles on the list now? And how many wines were on the list when you took it over?

The current bottle list is right about 800, fluctuating to about 850 plus from time to time. Just before COVID, we tried to liquidate a lot of stuff, and ended up very depleted; I brought the program probably down to 100 bottles, and then built it back up it up, so that it’s super tight and it’s more my thing.

It’s very much a rebuild. I got an opportunity to get back to buying a lot of wines with more of a cult following. I’m not ashamed to say there’s more Burgundy on our list than there’s ever been. But that’s kind of my thing. I do think we’re going to start seeing more of that, at least in Chicago, a kind of reverse manifest destiny, where Chicago isn’t picking up on trends coming from New York or from California, but we’re a part of the trend. We’ve never been a huge Burgundy town. But that could change.

Are there other categories that that are coming into their own in Chicago?

I think we’ll always have a thing for obscure wine regions. I’ve got a wine that we’ve had by the glass for 13 years on our list from Croatia called Babic, (the 2016 Piližota Reserve). It’s very small, but we’ve been on the forefront with them. Also, an amazing carignan gris from Roussillon, Domaine Le Roc Des Anges, Imalaya. And we’re one of the pioneers in pushing Greek wine in a non-Greek restaurant, taking Greek wines to the next level. And Slovenia; I think we’re gonna start seeing a lot more people realize that.

What sorts of wine give you the most satisfaction to sell?

I’d say the almighty Lambrusco. I love using Lambrusco and we have the perfect menu for them. Its reputation is incredibly bastardized; it has such a bad rap from over-commercialization, Riunite and all that. But what could be better than a perfectly chilled red wine that has great bubbles?

We’ve got two really stunning yet polarizing lambruscos. Lambrusco Sorbara, from Medici Ermete, is a beautiful, lighter colored grape in the lambrusco family. It’s done in the classic method. For Lambrusco Maestri, Carra Casatico’s La Luna is our current by the glass and has been for many years. It has a deep garnet color and this harmonious balance of tart acid and fresh tannins. It pairs with anything from sushi to steak.

What was the most exciting bottle of wine you sold this year?

One of my biggest loves is for Portuguese whites. You’re talking about value, and you’re talking about the transparency of low intervention, regenerative winemaking, things that these people have always done. The one that comes to mind is arinto, mostly, Entre Pedras, “Efusivo” from Pico in the Azores.  Small production wine, no one’s ever heard of the grape, especially someone accustomed to drinking white wines from France, Burgundy…but when they taste it, they know it overdelivers.

Is there a new category that’s growing in importance?

Spiritless or lower ABV cocktails. They are a huge part of the community’s interest, and you’ve got to deliver on that. But there’s a range in quality. We’re going through this process right now, weeding out a lot of very mediocre stuff that’s been coming out.

One of the biggest successes is the Leitz Eins Zwei Zero, the sparkling riesling. It’s bone dry and zero alcohol. I’m probably going through about a case a week by the glass. Pretty impressive. It took a lot of time to find. There are a lot of products out there. It has to be good.

Patrick J. Comiskey covers US wines for Wine & Spirits magazine, focusing on the Pacific Northwest, California’s Central Coast and New York’s Finger Lakes.

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