‘I Don’t Want To Employ People Who Move Every Year…’

The Social Company’s Executive Head Sommelier Laure Patry is one of the hardest working somms in the UK, with a full-time job on the floor and responsibility for myriad lists and openings all over the world. We caught up with her in late lockdown to find out how she got there, what she values in others and which wine regions she’s currently most excited about.

Did you always want to be a sommelier, or did you fall into it by accident?

I always wanted to work in a restaurant, but my parents tried to push me away from that, so I went to study literature, studying Russian, Spanish and English. But really I just wanted to work in restaurants so after two years I ended up going to catering school instead. I did that for two years in Le Mans. And then after I did one year of sommelier school in Angers.

But when you graduated you didn’t work in France…

My sommelier school offered me the chance for a year’s work placement in the UK, so I said yeah, why not? I never went back. In France you have to work a long time for the restaurant before you get promoted.  But, by the time I was 25 I was a head sommelier. That would never happen in France.

So how did your career start out?

I was at the Angel Inn in Hetton, near Skipton in the middle of nowhere in North Yorkshire. It’s got a Michelin star now, but it didn’t have one when I was there.

Starting in the UK gave Laure a much faster career progression

What was that like?

I was 20 years old so for me it was fairly difficult because I was young and I was used to living more in the city. Plus I’d lived in my own flat since I was 16, so to come back to a very small room living in a house with other people was hard at the beginning. But I made lots of friends and it was really nice. So I actually stayed two years.

Where did you go after that?

I went to Bath – a beautiful hotel, but the restaurant and the chef were not very good. So my ex-boss put me in touch with Ronan Sayburn. At the time he had a job in Claridges so I went for a trial and started there. This was 2003. It was very busy – we were doing like 150 covers. But I felt very comfortable with that, and after six months, they promoted me to assistant head sommelier.

Is that where you first met Jason Atherton?

He came to do a little bit of work in the kitchen, and he quite liked me and wanted to help me progress, so he asked if I could go and work with him at his and Gordon Ramsay’s new restaurant, Maze. We worked [there] together for six years.

Winning Riedel Sommelier of the Month in 2015

You’ve worked for some amazing venues. What advice do you have for young sommeliers on how to get ahead?

Finding a head sommelier that can teach you and having a good team around you is very important. But I stayed in the same place a very long time so I kind of grew up within the company. A lot of people move within a year or six months, and they lose the opportunity to get promotion within the restaurant where they’re working. When I look at CVs, if people move every year I don’t know if I want to employ them – it makes me feel that they are only going to be there for a year.

Provided you like where you work, Laure thinks a bit of patience can be good for your career.
Pic: Sarajulhaq786, Pixabay

Was there someone who inspired you?

It was my teacher, Patrick Rigourd at sommelier school. Before going to his school I liked wine, but when I did the course I really loved it. It was the passion that he transmitted. When someone has so much love for something it helps you fall in love with it as well.

What’s your current role within Jason Atherton’s organisation?

I’m Executive Head Sommelier. Basically I open all the restaurants around the world with Jason. One year after opening Pollen Street, he decided to open in Singapore, so I went in for a couple of weeks to help him set it up. I try to do the wine list from London. And then I go, do the orders, take the deliveries, so I can see everything is OK, then I do the first few services, and then I come back.

Sounds exciting – but a lot of work

It’s not easy when you have to work in the restaurant and then you have to do the wine list for four different countries as well! I was doing wine lists in the morning, and in the evening after service. It was quite tough. Now I’m working at City Social, but preparing for our opening in Mykonos at the end of May.

With the team in Shanghai

What do you think makes a good wine list?

Balance is all important in a wine list, says Laure

I think you just need to have balance. The content needs to be balanced; the price needs to be balanced. And having diverse styles is quite important – a mix of classic and upcoming producers to keep the guests and the sommelier excited. Obviously if you are a three Michelin star venue you’re going to have a big selection of Bordeaux and Burgundy, but I think you should also include some smaller regions or local producers. It’s always exciting to see that.

Are there any wine styles that you’re particularly excited by at the moment?

I love wine from the Loire because that’s where I’m from and I’m still discovering people that I don’t know. And I just think the value for money is amazing. And I would say the same for Alsace. I’ve just bought a lot of those because the value for money is amazing; lots of small producers, and everyone is working biodynamically or minimum intervention or organic.

Laure sees a brave new dawn for Alsace, with lots of organic and low-intervention producers. Pic: CIVA

Do you wish you’d done the MS?

I’ve never done it because I’ve always been working on the floor and especially with all the restaurant openings it would be too much for me. Of course it is good to have an extra qualification – it would be amazing to have the MS. But I’m not sure, I would do it now – I just don’t have the time. And I’m not so I want to learn every single appellation. If people know you and they know the way you work, I don’t think [having an MS] makes such a big difference.

Obviously the hours are tough in hospitality. Why should young somms stay in the profession?

Being able to travel to beautiful parts of the world is a major advantage of being a sommelier, says Laure. Pic: Chris Losh

First you need to love it. But you get to try wines that maybe you would never normally have a chance to try. That’s a big plus. But you can travel too. Every country has a restaurant so you can work anywhere in the world. But also you can visit producers and vineyards.  That’s a massive advantage for sommeliers as we are the link between the producer and the consumer. And of course, when you are a head sommelier the opportunity to do your own wine list – to make it your own, to be buying wine and also making your guest happy is very rewarding.

Chenin Blanc – The king of white grapes

This might be a controversial question, but is Chenin Blanc the King of white grapes? I would say yes, without any doubt.

Just look at its versatility. This is a variety that can make wines ranging from dry to sweet to sparkling even sweet sparkling. It makes wines that are excellent whether they are fermented/aged in oak, stainless steel or amphora.

With Chenin, anything is possible.

It’s because of this that I’d argue that it could even be greater than Riesling…

Those in the know – sommeliers, real wine-lovers – all round the world mostly know this. Yet it remains curiously underrated by the general public. It’s our job to open their eyes to what it can offer!

Vines and bell-tower in the Loire. Photo courtesy of Tech Image

Where do we find Chenin Blanc?

The home of Chenin Blanc is France’s Loire Valley. Though there are several other places around the world – and in France, too – where Chenin Blanc is common. It’s used as a blending component in Limoux for Crémant de Limoux, for instance.

In South Africa, where it’s called ‘Steen’ it’s grown all over the country – largely because it used to be heavily used in brandy production. Nowadays, it is mainly used as a blending component, though there are producers doing single vineyard wines too. We will come back to that later.

France and South Africa are the main producer countries, but its grown in smaller quantities in most parts of the wine world, from the US to Australia and Chile to Argentina.

How does it grow and what does it taste like?

Chenin Blanc has a high productivity in the vineyards, depending on where it is grown. It tends to bud early, which can make it vulnerable to spring frost.

It is prone to powdery mildew and botrytis although the latter is often welcomed in certain areas. Obviously, botrytis is essential for sweet wine, but even dry wine producers find that a little can add some extra texture. Bunch sizes are medium to large, yet the berries are quite small. 

Flavour profile can vary significantly depending on where it’s being grown and how it’s being made

Generally speaking it is a straw coloured wine with a high acidity, medium structure and alcohol ranging between 12-13,5%. Notes of bruised golden apples, quince, fruit blossoms, ripe peach and lemon zest are key markers for Chenin Blanc.

Older or sweeter versions, or wines that have spent some time in oak can move more into exotic notes of tangerine, dried orange peel and spices such as ginger and saffron.

Key regions and producers

The Loire

Anjou in the Loire Valley has an almost mythical reputation for Chenin Blanc with producers such as Nicolas Joly, Richard Leroy, Mark Angeli & Stéphane Bernaudeau.

As with many parts of the Loire Valley, the styles range from dry to sweet. Sweet wines are made on the south side of the Loire river, where the proximity of the Layon river, creates an ideal condition for noble rot during the autumn season.

The best AOP’s for sweet wine are Quarts de Chaume and Bonnezeaux. Though for me one rather undiscovered sweet wine area is Coteaux de l’Aubance, which gets its name from the Aubance river.

The dry wines of Savennières are made on the north side of the river on south facing slopes. Here we will find La Roche aux Moines and the famed Coulée de Serrant by Nicolas Joly.

Chenin ageing in Vouvray. Photo courtesy of Tech Image

Vouvray is the most comprehensive expression of Chenin Blanc in the Loire Valley. Styles here range from dry to sweet to sparkling. The famous Vouvray Sec is a classic, a versatile wine to pair a variety of dishes. Domaine Huet is a bucket list wine from this area.

Vineyards Le Haut Lieu, Clos du Bourg and Le Mont are the most concentrated wines of the area. Clos de la Meslerie is one to see when you are visiting the area.

Across the river on the southern part we find Montlouis-sur-Loire an area which is hard to differentiate from Vouvray. One producer to look out for here is François Chidaine, who also owns vineyards in Vouvray.

South Africa

There’s been a real growth of quality Chenin in South Africa. Driven mostly by the Swartland region, it’s focusing on single vineyards, different soils and single varietal wines or field blends. The variety is at the heart of a raft of small producers who are rebuilding the image of South African wine.

Eben Sadie tending some old-vine Chenin Blanc in the Swartland

The likes of Eben Sadie, Adi Badenhorst, Chris Alheit, Chris and Andrea Mullineux  and many others are making single vineyard wines with a main focus on Chenin Blanc. Some wine are field blends consisting over five different varieties depending on the cuvee.

Swartland tends to focus on minerality and tension where Stellenbosch often goes for a more concentrated and riper style of Chenin Blanc.

Food pairing for Chenin Blanc

Obviously, with such a wide range of wine styles, Chenin Blanc can go with a huge variety of foods. But here are my top three pairings.

Please note: for reasons of availability, some bottles shown are a different vintage from the one mentioned

Clos de la Meslerie, Vouvray, 2014

£15, Dynamic Vines

Crunchy veal sweetbreads with pigeon and foie gras on a salad

Eben Sadie, Voetpad, 2016

£28, Dreyfus Ashby

Skate wing meuniere and a classic dugléré sauce

Ferme de la Sansonnière, La Lune, 2011

£35, Yapp Brothers

Cod gently roasted, with fresh shrimp and beurre blanc sauce