Sommelier Collective member Paul Robineau has had quite a month, passing the theory paper of his Master Sommelier exam and then winning the Chaîne des Rotisseurs UK Young Sommelier competition – all in the space of two weeks. Yet originally he wanted to work in the business side of wine and fell into hospitality almost by accident.
We caught up with him during the second lockdown to talk Melbourne, the MS and his love of ‘hidden gems’ on the wine list.
The Chaine des Rotisseurs happened in March and your win was announced in November. How did you keep it secret all that time?
I didn’t know! The judges couldn’t tell us. I only knew a week ago like everyone else! I opened some Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995 with my parter, but other than that I didn’t celebrate because everything was shut. I will do once everything opens up again. Maybe I should buy a magnum.
Which was the hardest part of the competition: theory, practical or tasting?
I think the tasting. They did a very hard one this year: Gruner and Albarino, Amarone and Zinfandel. They were quite similar styles. For me, lighter whites, like Albarino, Gruner, Pinot Grigio are the hardest to taste. Sometimes they can be very similar.
Obviously, blind tasting is part of the MS too. Any good tips on how to practise?
I was speaking to (Master Sommelier) Matteo Montone last year, and he said that the best way to taste wines is to do them side by side. If you struggle to recognise, say, a Gruner and an Albarino, tasting them next to each other makes it easier to spot the differences.
For me every grape has its own identity, but they can be linked to another one too most of the time. Blind tasting can open your mind a lot. It’s important to develop yourself. Definitely.
You grew up surrounded by wine didn’t you?
My grandparents and cousins were winemakers in Saumur-Champigny [in the Loire], and I used to go to the vineyards with my grandparents a lot as a child. Then when I was 16 I went to Beaune to study viticulture and vinification. But at that time I was much more about the marketing – the export and import of wine. I wasn’t at all thinking of becoming a sommelier.
So how did you end up in hospitality?
I went to Australia to learn English and worked in bars and restaurants. I had a very good mentor at Woodland House in Melbourne, Gareth Burnett. He taught me a lot. I started to fall in love with sommelier life then. They wanted me to stay for three more years. But London and Europe is the big place to be to learn wine and to progress. I wanted to be a head sommelier, and there are a lot of Master Sommeliers in London who I could learn from.
Where did you start in the UK?
At the Fat Duck. March 2017. I went there with only six months experience and [head sommelier] Isa Bal MS said he’d take me for three months on trial. ‘If you’re good enough you stay, if you’re not good enough, you leave.’ I ended up staying 18 months. From there I went to Moor Hall in Lancashire.
That’s quite a change
Yes. The Fat Duck was a very big team with a big wine programme. Moor Hall was totally different. It was two-star Michelin, in the countryside, and the wine list was very eclectic – a lot of little producers. That opened my mind a lot. I still had it in my mind that we’d only open big bottles – Bordeaux, Burgundy, USA – very pricy wines. But I discovered a lot of little gems from Eastern Europe, Slovenia, obscure regions.
It sounds like it had a big influence on your thinking
It made me understand that wine isn’t only about big labels and expensive wines. And I’m trying to play with that now at 110 de Taillevent. Of course, the list is still 70% French, and I’ve got expensive Burgundy – we’re in Mayfair. But I’m also trying to find little gems – wines that are a bit more affordable – and interesting grape varieties from Portugal, Slovenia. I’m trying to showcase wines that people aren’t seeing that often.
How do you push them to your customers?
By the glass is a very good tool to showcase wines from all round the world. When people know that you’re a good sommelier and they trust you, they are more open to trying these styles of wine.
And your dreams for the future?
I plan to stay at Taillevent to make my mark on the wine list, and to get the MS before I’m 30. And every sommelier wants to open his own business – either in London or France, maybe. Nothing fine dining. Just simple food, local products and a great wine list, promoting wines from my experience in London, Lancashire, Australia…