Top Five from my Cellar: Stuart Skea

Welcome to the second in our new series of articles where we invite our members to pick five of their favourite wines from their cellar and tell us why they love ’em – for whatever reason.

This week, Stuart Skea trawls through his bottles at Fhior in Edinburgh.

Le Soula Rouge 2008, Cotes Catalanes, Roussillon

£25.95 ex VAT Raeburn Fine Wines, Berry Bros & Rudd  (current vintage 2009)

1An ever present on the Fhior list since opening – both BTG and Bottle, this is a great seller that delivers serious complexity and maturity at an accessible price. Located in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the Fenouillèdes, on decomposed schists and granite between 440-600m above sea level this is wonderfully earthy and savoury with dense black fruit but a remarkable freshness and minerality.

Mountain wine. Proper wine…

Rafael Palacios, Louro do Bolo, Valdeorras 2017

£13.88 ex VAT, WoodWinters

2A wine that really overdelivers, with weight, texture, richness and complexity yet with an unmistakeable Galician signature. Rafael Palacios farms a variety of small plots -“sortes” in the Bibei valley in Valdeorras, Galicia. Working with native grapes, chiefly Godello, these are high altitude, terraced vineyards on decomposed granite.

This is a wine that is remarkably versatile and food friendly and satisfies those looking for a glass of white Burgundy or something a little different equally well.

JP Brun Domaine des Terres Dorées Le Ronsay, Beaujolais, France 2018

£6.79 ex VAT, Justerini & Brooks

3Vinified like Pinot Noir rather than using the sadly ubiquitous carbonic maceration, this is outrageous value, delivering a lot of wine for the money. It is all you want from Beaujolais, and more – juicy and quaffable with lovely raspberry fruit.

It’s a perfect lunchtime quaffer but also seriously complex and elegant. It’s properly farmed and made.

The Eyrie Vineyards, Dundee Hills Pinot Noir, Oregon, USA 2015

£18 ex VAT, Justerini & Brooks

4Softly-spoken and gentle, this graceful, ethereal Pinot harkens back to a lost world of Burgundy rather than brash new world fruit. David Lett pioneered vineyard plantings in the Willamette valley in the 1960’s with marijuana barons as his neighbours for many years before today’s explosion of vineyards. Son Jason continues the exemplary,  sensitive approach in the winery and vineyards.

I have to admit that we don’t sell a huge amount of this haunting wine, but goddamn it, I love it – and those guests that try it enjoy a transcendental, spiritual experience. Sublime…

Bodegas Fulcro, Finca a Pedreira, Rias Baixas, Spain 2019 

£15.75 ex VAT, Element Wines

5A hot seller for us BTG and bottle this is an exemplary Albarino. From a 1ha plot of old vines in the Salnes valley on poor granite soils this is direct and pithy with a lovely saline character and beautiful texture on the palate from just a touch of barrel-fermented fruit and extended lees ageing.

I will retire before I sell Kiwi SB and this is a more than satisfying alternative. Tension, tension, tension…

‘Dividing The Wine List Into Categories Really Helps…’

Fresh starts are very much part of the sommelier experience – and particularly so for Sommelier Collective member Oliver Pugh, who’s just left a Michelin-starred venue in Cornwall for new challenges in Norfolk.

It’s another bold restart from someone whose career has seen him up sticks a few times. And even includes a stint as a journalist! He talks to the Sommelier Collective about Austria, making wine lists accessible and the importance of ‘Trinkfluss‘. (We didn’t know what it meant either, but it’s a GREAT word).

So come on. How long were you in the gutter press?

Seven or eight years. But my partner and I felt like we were stuck in a rut: going to the office every day, sitting in front of a computer. We were lucky enough to be in a position of having little responsibility so we sold our house in London, quit our jobs, and went to live in Austria.

To do what?

The idea was to start a B&B or a little hotel. We bought this house in the Tirol with the aim of renovating it. But basically the costs exponentially increased, to the point where they were no longer affordable.

We had to sell the house and decide what we wanted to do next. But in the meantime, we’d been working in hospitality to get experience before we opened, which is when I really found out I love being involved with wine.

So tell us again, Oliver. Why exactly did you leave England to go and live in the Sud Tirol?

So your restaurant hospitality experience started in Austria?

Yes. I saw that the sommeliers had a lot of responsibility, and they could make a huge difference to what a hotel or restaurant could earn. I thought that could be really valuable lesson for [our hotel] when we opened so I started going to school in Austria, and I qualified as a sommelier whilst I was there.

How long did that take?

You have to do it over three years because of the way the course is structured. There are three stages, and each stage is like a month or so, nine to five with study and trips and stuff. But there was also a lot of learning from the sommeliers I was working with.

The hotels I was working in were the bigger ones and the better ones and the wine collections they had were amazing. We also did lots of trips to all the vineyards in Wachau and Burgenland and around Vienna. I got to taste a lot of wine and meet a lot of producers, which I think gives me a bit of a niche at the moment.

Oliver drank an awful lot of Gruner during his six years in the Tirol. Pic: Open Food Facts

As the Austrian-specialist sommelier?

Right. I’m not an expert or anything but I’ve got that definite depth of knowledge in that one country, which I think lends me a bit of an advantage, especially because people are more and more interested in Austrian wine.

Where did you go after Austria?

Paul Ainsworth’s in Cornwall – one Michelin star. They  started me off as a somm waiter because they didn’t know me. I was working with [Collective Member] Ellie Owen. Then a few months in they said we’ll just have you on the floor, which was amazing; really good experience.

Did you have any responsibility for the wine list at Paul Ainsworth?

Elly was really cool. When I got there she said if you have any wines that you want to be on it, we can talk about it. Just before the end of the first lockdown we rewrote the list and reordered everything and I was heavily involved in that, which was great.

Was it a large list?

Well, it was a book, but we had an obviously challenge. It was a very old building with no space whatsoever. So keeping a fully stocked cellar was a real challenge… finding the holes to put the wine in all over the building.

Did you have two or three styles that that kept ticking over?

I would say things definitely changed after the first lockdown. Before then it was kind of light spritzy whites. Lots of Burgundy and Pinot. But after the first lockdown people really started to indulge a bit more: more willing to push the boat out and go for bigger reds and higher end Burgundy, Bordeaux and Rioja.

Most definitely NOT the cellar at Paul Ainsworth’s Georgian townhouse restaurant. Pic: Danielle Scott

Could you sell people into a Smaragd from Wachau, say?

For people who are open minded, definitely. I don’t think most people are ready, or experienced or know enough to spend big money on Austrian whites on a large scale.

The Wachau. Easy on the eye. Harder to sell Pic: Flickr

Is Austria always going to be a hand sell do you think?

There’s a long way to go. Apart from your basic Gruner it is definitely a hand sell. Certainly the reds – trying to convince somebody to have a Blaufrankisch off the list, without me [pushing it] would be a big challenge. It’s a shame because they’re fantastic: great value, really food friendly. I think Austrian reds are really underrated.

Besides Austria, are there any other countries or styles you find yourself reaching for on a regular basis?

I’m hopefully just about to start the second part of the WSET diploma, so I’m reaching for everything I can get my hands on at the moment!

I don’t tend to gravitate towards high alcohol full bodied wines a lot.

The Germans have a great word for it: Trinkfluss.

It means ‘drinkflow’ – something that has you going back for a second glass. The fact that when you have it with food it isn’t going to sit in your mouth for 10 minutes is really important.

Is there anything you learned from reworking the Paul Ainsworth list that you might want to reapply next time?

I think people tend to appreciate a bit of a steer on what a wine might be like. I don’t necessarily think you need to have a tasting note under each wine, but if you can divide the wines into some sort of categories so that people know what to expect, I think that really helps.

That way, when they come to you you’re sort of pushing on a door which is already open. Otherwise people can be really intimidated, just seeing a long list of wines from France and not having have any idea what any of them might be.

Making lists easier to navigate for the customer doesn’t mean less interaction for the somm, says Oliver

You think it helps the customer?

Yeah. People love talking to you about wine if they have an interest in it. So I don’t think putting stylistic categories on your list means that people will talk to you less. I think there are some people who don’t want to talk to you, whatever is on the menu. But [otherwise] I think a little bit of information helps get things started

What’s the best wine trip you’ve ever been on?

Just before I did my exams my partner and I went on a bit of a road trip. We did Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rioja – all by car from Austria. It was a lot of miles, but I just thought, I’ve got to get this in before my exams. But also the Sudtirol. We visited a few different producers there. It was only an hour away and that was stunning. The landscape is so beautiful, when you drop down that side of the border.

Oregon. Not a bad place for a visit right enough. Pic: Bill Reynolds

Is there anywhere else you’d like to go?

I’d really like to go to Oregon. It seems to be a place where there are lots of great producers who live quite deliberately in lots of different valleys. It seems a bit like burgundy in that sense. It’s not so kind of corporate. It’s also producing the kind of wine styles that I love to drink.