Discovery Tasting: Tasca d’Almerita

A riot of lagoons, mountains, islands and volcanoes, this tasting with Tasca showed off Sicily’s incredible geography to the max

Let’s face it, most of the wine trade don’t know anywhere near enough about Sicily. There’s a temptation to assume that because it’s an island it’s not very big, and because until 30 years ago much of what it produced went into bulk wine that it’s devoid of interesting terroir.

In fact, neither of these things is remotely true. Sicily is bigger than Wales. It’s 100,000 hectares of vineyard (just less than Bordeaux) makes it one of the biggest wine regions in Italy, and its scenery is extraordinary – as we discovered in this tasting.

Collective members tried wines from tiny windswept islands, salty lagoons, rocky mountains and Europe’s largest active volcano.

‘Everyone imagines Sicily is a flat island,’ says Alberto Tasca, of our hosts for the day, Tasca d’Almerita. ‘But it isn’t at all.

5 Territories, 5 Estates, 5 stories to tell – Tasca d’Almerita

‘70% of the production comes from hills, and that makes a big difference.’

Alberto Tasca

Tasca d’Almerita have an almost 200-year history of winemaking on the island, and exploring such diverse terroirs has very much become part of their philosophy, with the family-owned company adding small estates the length and breadth of the island.

‘We use as little ego [in the winemaking] as possible,’ explained Alberto. ‘We just want the wines to talk about where they’re from; the age of the vines and what kind of grape varieties they are.’

The Wines

Tenuta Capofaro, Didyme 2021

This comes from the island of Salina, off Sicily’s north-east coast. It’s a spectacularly beautiful place, with vineyards overlooking the thundering waves of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

‘It has a little what we call ‘sapidity’ – a kind of saltiness,’ says Alberto. ‘It could be because of the strong winds blowing salty water everywhere.’

The island used to be best known for making sweet wines from Malvasia di Lipari. But in 2013 – a big year – Tasca had no space to dry all the grapes, so made some dry wine as well – a style that’s become increasingly popular and should get its own DOC soon.

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

‘I see this kind of wine working very well with sushi,’ said Raphael Thierry. ‘The oily texture is perfect with the texture of the fatty fish like tuna and the saltiness of the wine combines well with soy sauce.’

Vines with a view out over the Tyrrenhian Sea. Spray could give the wines a gentle salty finish.

Tenuta Regaleali, Buonsenso Catarratto 2021

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

Tenuta Regaleali is the homeland of Tasca d’Almerita. It’s in the high, mountainous interior of the island. With much cooler nights, grapes ripen one month later here, which was particularly important in the days before temperature control, since it meant fermenting in October rather than much warmer September.

Catarratto is Sicily’s most-planted white variety, characterised by good natural acidity and an inherent ability to age, even without oak. ‘Because of its ability to hold acidity, you can get it ripe without worrying about it losing freshness,’ says Alberto.

It’s defined by apricot flavours. ‘But there’s a little sapidity to the finish of this wine which is just what we’re looking for,’ says Alberto. ‘We don’t want it to be all about primary aromas.’

Tenuta Regaleali in the mountains of the interior. The heartland of Tasca d’Almerita’s operation

Tenuta Whitaker, Grillo di Mozia 2021

Mozia is another extraordinary place: an incredibly low island off Sicily’s west coast, Alberto claims (almost certainly accurately) that these vines are the lowest vineyards in the world, just a couple of metres above sea level.

The sea around the island is so shallow that the grapes need to be transported to the mainland in small numbers of boxes at a time (see main picture), otherwise the boat runs aground.

Grillo is a cross between Moscato and Catarrato, and the vines are trained in the ‘Marsala bow’ – which involves intertwined bush vine branches trained on a wire, to protect them from the strong sea breezes. It’s a naturally rich wine, particularly from 2021 which Alberto says was ‘the warmest, driest vintage of my whole life.’

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars
Mozia: vineyards barely above the water, surrounded by a 50cm-deep sea

Tenuta Sallier de la Tour Madamarose 2021

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

This large estate inland from Palermo is at 450m of altitude and a mixture of sand and clay. ‘It’s the perfect place for Syrah,’ says Alberto. Tasca d’Almerita tried planting the grape at Regaleali, but it was too cool, and the soils too poor. It performed far better on this estate.

‘We think this is the best place for Syrah in Sicily,’ he continues, pointing out that the grape has a long tradition in Sicily, though it’s a different biotype to the examples grown in France and Australia.

This deep-coloured example from the hot 2021 vintage is ‘a step up in richness’ compared to a normal year, but Alberto says that it ‘pairs very well with food. That’s very much part of our culture in Sicily now. It’s great with barbecued meat.’

High, but warmer than the Regaleali estate, Sallier de la Tour is perfect for Syrah

Tenuta Tascante Ghiaia Nera 2019, Etna Rosso

Nerello Mascalese has found its spiritual home on Etna, which is just as well because it’s not an easy grape to grow. Tasca d’Almerita tried to grow it in Regaleali but ended up just using it for rosé. ‘It’s like trying to grow Pinot Noir in a place that isn’t suited to it,’ says Alberto. ‘But in Etna the volcanic soil brings a crazy tension to the wine.’

Pale in colour, John Prime commented that it ‘seemed to tread a fine line between Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo’ and Alberto backed this up.

‘It makes crisp, gastronomic wines,’ he explained. ‘They don’t work without food. There’s something nervous about it. You need an educated palate.’

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

This was (just) the most popular wine in the tasting, with our members suggesting it with lamb sweetbreads in miso caramel (Patrick Bostock), ‘red pepper cannelloni and lemon ricotta in our vegetarian tasting menu’ (James Payne) and ‘roast chicken or turkey’ (Jordan Sutton).

Etna’s grey volcanic rocks make for distinctive terracing

Tenuta Regaleali Rosso del Conte 2016, Contea di Sclafani DOC

available from Berkmann Wine Cellars

The ‘Conte’ was created by Alberto’s grandfather back in the 1960s. At that time, Chateauneuf du Pape was the most sought-after wine style, and after visiting the region for a month, he decided on blending two varieties together. It’s a mix of Nero d’Avola and Pericone.

‘Typically these two varieties were planted together because they ripen at the same time,’ said Alberto. ‘But they are totally different. Nero d’Avola is rich purple with a high acidity, Pericone is redder, with a rounder body.’

It’s easy to see how they might work well together, and they combine brilliantly here. From the excellent 2016 vintage, this wine was also popular with the Collective members.

Alberto refused to be drawn on whether he prefers the Etna wine or the Conte, but does say that in 2016 the ‘Rosso del Conte was amazing – better than the best wine we produced on Etna.’

Terraces tumble down the hillside on Mount Etna

Watch the video

Time for something completely different

It is ten years since Ronan Sayburn, head of wine at 67 Pall Mall visited Grace Wine in Japan to learn about Koshu. And in that time he says they’ve gone from obscurity to award-winning status.

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Koshu has been cultivated in Japan for over 1,300 years and is a distinctive grape with pinkish-grey skin. It is a white vitis vinifera, now indigenous to Japan and produces quality, still, white wines.

Ronan Sayburn MS, head of wine, 67 Pall Mall

Grace Wine has been at the forefront of Koshu from Japan earning international acclaim and becoming an award-winning wine. They are very proud to have won Japan’s first ever gold medal in an international wine competition and have gone on to win gold medals for five consecutive years at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Family owned since 1923 it is located 100km east of Tokyo in the prestigious Yamanashi prefecture in the Katsunuma village – an important village in the GI, renowned for its abundance of fruit trees.

Map locating Grace Wine in Japan.

Ayana Misawa is chief winemaker and fifth generation family member at Grace Wine, but being the owner’s daughter doesn’t come with any favours. Ayana took ten years to hone her skills and learn her craft working in the northern and southern hemisphere with an impressive selection of work placements and study periods including House of Arras in Tasmania (which shows in the Blanc de Blanc, see below).

The winery owns most of its own vineyard area, buying just a small amount of grapes from growers they have long established relationships with – essential, Ayana says, for their commitment to quality wine production.

Pergola system: Each bunch is protected by a small paper hat covered wax that allows water to run off and protects the grapes from heavy rainfall and subsequent damage in the typhoon season. Applied one by one, this meticulous work requires dedication and time to hand staple every single hat.

Japan has a difficulty in that vintage variation is huge with 160cm of snow falling in 2014 followed by typhoons in 2016, which was the most difficult year Ayana can remember. This makes winemaking more challenging than usual and another reason Ayana wanted to gain so much international experience before returning to the family estate.

Whilst Ayana describes the climate as continental, Sayburn was more confident in pointing out its sub-tropical micro-climate, with the whole region situated in a hot and humid geographical basin with clay soils where that the rain just runs off. Indeed, Ayana pointed to the similarity of heat during the growing season to the Hunter Valley in Australia – another region she spent time working harvest and learning her craft.

To find out more about Koshu and discover for ourselves the extraordinary range from one of Japan’s leading wineries we sat down with Ronan, and Ayana on Zoom, along with a group of fellow sommeliers to put his knowledge to the test. First we tasted the wines.

Tasting notes

2014 Grace Blanc de Blanc

A blanc de blanc grown on volcanic soil it displays minerality on the nose – a very saline wine. Whole bunch picked, as you’d expect, this wine was disgorged by hand in 2020. It had 60 months lees ageing and was described by Ayana as refreshing, bright and vibrant with brioche and nutty characteristics.

2020 Hishiyama Koshu

Koshu grapes – picked between the Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon harvest – have thick skins, that protect from disease and botrytis, are a pinkish/grey colour. Notably for Koshu the grapes in this vineyard are grown on pergolas, with low yields and slow maturation. This wine has a flint noise, light aromas of yuzu, slightly lemon. Reminiscent of Albarino in flavour – without the high acidity. A fresh, delicate palate with phenolic character, despite no lees ageing. Will pair well with fish, sushi, rice.

2020 Misawa Vineyard Koshu

A single vineyard wine, not typical for Koshu, the Misawa vineyard, named after the family, is also VSP. Malolactic fermentation, 60% old/neutral oak, gives this wine a little more richness with delicate flavours of pear skin or agave on the palate and under ripe banana or mango. There is slightly more colour in this wine – which is understandable when you note the bunch size difference between pergola vs VSP. Battonage is kept to a minimum as it’s a delicate style of wine.

2016 Cuvée Misawa Koshu

The 2016 has an almost menthol aroma and juicer, bright tropical fruit characters of mango and papaya, with a clean palate. The development shown from age is positive – indeed, the 2017 won 98 points at Decanter World Wine Awards which gives further interest to the ageing potential of these wines.

2015 Cuvée Misawa Koshu

2015 has a smokier, almost spicey, nose with beeswax, toasty and richer flavours. It keeps the salinity of Koshu and has good acidity and good length. Sayburn said this older Koshu wine reminds him of an aged Swiss Chasselas.

2009 Cuvée Misawa Cabernet Franc

With just 500 bottles produced this wine was universally enjoyed by the guests, with Sayburn calling it “a really classic cabernet franc” and others comparing it to cool climate wines from British Colombia. It had a herbaceous, earthy nose with soft and complex tannins. More savoury on the palate than fruity on the nose with lots of tertiary and gamey flavours. Whist koshu is the most important grape for Grace Wine it is Cabernet Franc that is Ayana’s favourite, and it shows with this wine.

Food pairing

To illustrate how versatile these wines are when pairing with food, and in particular not just Japanese cuisine, we were presented with a four course tasting menu, curated by Sayburn and the head chef Marcus Verberne at 67 Pall Mall.

To start, the Blanc de blancs 2014 was paired with Citrus cured salmon, clementine gel, tobiko. The citrus flavours and celery notes from the tobiko linked the wine beautifully with the salmon. It is these delicate touches that harmonised the dish and the wine.

Next, the Koshu Hishiyama Vineyard, 2020 & the Koshu Misawa Vineyard, 2020 wines were tried alongside a Crab and avocado tarte. The sweet richness of the dish was well balanced and finely sliced grape gave freshness, alongside micro herbs for a touch of bitterness that elevated the pairings.

Moving on to more complex dishes Sayburn presented Glazed veal sweet breads, peas and confit lemon puree, potato shard, chicken jus. The ageing on both Akeno Koshu 2016 & Akeno Koshu 2015 allowed these wines to stand up to these bolder flavours – in particular the lemon puree, fresh peas and chicken jus gave the food pairing the acidity, sweetness and umami needed.

To finish, Roast rump of lamb, sauteed courgette, slow cooked cherry tomato, black olive jus had all the right elements to work beautifully with the Cuvee Misawa Ridge System, Cabernet Franc, 2009. The provencal-style vegetables ensured the flavours come together.

And no dashi, sushi, sashimi or wasbi in sight!

Working at The Ritz – London I already had the opportunity to taste Grace Koshu wine – a very versatile style, but very interesting given the origin of the indigenous grape. A clear and brilliant lemon style, with aromas of white peach, pears and minerality, on the palate and vibrant acidity, perfect to combine with seafood. 

Giovanni Andriulo, sommelier, The Ritz
Giovanni Andriulo, sommelier, The Ritz

Tasting highlight

Whilst Koshu is the most important grape grown at Grace, Cabernet Franc is Ayana’s favourite red grape variety. And it shows in the small 500 bottle production of 2009 Cuvée Misawa Cabernet Franc that we tasted.

Andriulo told us he: “was very impressed by the cuvée Misawa the Cabernet Franc 2009, intense, complex with herbaceous notes (mint, lavander, fennel) and with tertiary aromas due to a good bootle aging (wet leaves, vegetal, forest floor). A Cabernet Franc that may recall some styles in the right bank of bordeaux. Excellent combinations can be with grilled foods, grilling adds a bitter component to the food and creates a great stage for cabernet’s tannins and of course with red meats such as lamb.”

Whilst Koshu, or wine for that matter, is not a part of Japanese drinking culture it has gained a reputation for premium quality wine, much to do with the winemaking philosophy that mirrors Japanese life including respect, precision, and artisan craftmanship.

Attention to detail is part of the Japanese way of life and it shows in these precise wines. Nothing is left to chance and everything is considered. Even down to the labels – which happen to be designed exclusively for Grace Wine by Mr. Kenya Hara, celebrated Japanese graphic designer and art director at the famous Japanese chain store MUJI.

#KoshuFoodMatch competition

If you have not yet tried these wines now is your opportunity. The Sommelier Collective has teamed up with Grace Wine to run a food pairing competition. For more details visit #KoshuFoodMatch.

Entries close 25 February, 2020.

Grace Wine is imported in the UK by Hallgarten & Novum Wines

Rheingau

Meeting Weil’s new ultra-premium from the slopes of the Gräfenberg

The Rheingau is close to my heart. Frankfurt is where I was allowed to manage my very first wine list as a sommelier, and from there I was able to visit the prestige vineyards and producers based around the famous villages along the Rhine River.

Once you cross the Schiersteiner Brücke from the south and turn left, a route packed with history and tradition opens up in front of you.

From Eltville in the east to Rüdesheim in the west, this is one of the most famous 20km stretches in the German wine world: the home to such A-list vineyards as Schlossberg, Nussbrunnen, Gräfenberg, Berg Schlossberg and Höllenberg.

The ‘elbow bend’ in the Rhine – site of some of Germany’s most prestigious vineyards

The reason for this is simple. Most of the time, the Rhein flows from south to north. But here it briefly turns through 90 degrees to run east to west.  This means that the Rheingau’s vineyards have a full southern exposure and are protected by the hills of the Taunus mountain range to the north.

The Rhine River has a warming effect during the night but also maintains a constant temperature during the ripening phase.

Don’t forget, we are at 50 degrees north here. This is still a cool wine region and grapes sometimes struggle to ripen fully.

All About Riesling

The Rheingau is Riesling. Fact. There is some Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, and good Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) on the west-facing, slate soils of Assmanshausen when the river makes a turn back to the north.

But 80% of the Rheingau is planted to the White Queen.

Though some of the country’s best Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenausles come from here, the wines generally tend towards the dry style.  

Soils change constantly, from slate in Assmannshausen, to quartzite in Rüdesheim, and löss/clay soil in the centre of the region and on the top of the hills. The slopes are steep and can quickly climb to almost 350m above the river.

The Gräfenberg

Located above the village of Kiedrich the Gräfenberg is owned almost exclusively by Weingut Robert Weil, which has 9.7ha of its 10.5ha. Only two other producers take grapes from here.

The hallowed slopes of the Grafenberg – owned almost exclusively by Robert Weil

It is famous for wine of higher, sweeter qualities such as Beerenauslese, Trockenberenauslese and Eiswein. But what people don’t know is that it also produces some of the best dry Rieslings, from fresh crisp Gutswein, through the delicious Kiedricher up to Grand Cru (Großes Gewächs – usually known as GG) quality.

For GG, low yield, 40hl/ha is a standard, the use of large Stück (1200l) or Doppelstück (2400l), mostly old casks, is a given.

As the vines became older, the Riesling in some smaller parcels of the Grafenberg vineyard stood out, for giving wines with more complexity, flavour intensity and the character.

Home of Monte Vacano

One such ‘special’ parcel was the Gräfenberg-Lay in the north-west, very close to the Turmberg. The soil here is predominantly slate, called Phylliteschiefer, which is spread throughout the Gräfenberg but has a higher content in this parcel. The vines on this 0.5ha parcel are now 40-60 years old.

And this is the home of a special new launch from the Robert Weil winery: Monte Vacano.

Named after the founder’s wife (she was a descendant of the Vacano family in Lombardy) 100 years ago, it used to be made just for the family. After the 1922 vintage it was incorporated into the regular GG Gräfenberg.

But Wilhelm Weil decided to revisit his family’s traditions and bottle the 2018.

Wild-fermented, and matured for 24 months on its lees in large traditional Stück, the Monte Vacano comes 100% from the Lay parcel of the Gräfenberg. Production is tiny – there are only 1200 bottles (plus a few magnums and one double-magnum) – and prices are around the €130 mark.

On the 6th of March at the VDP Rheingau Reserve Auction, one 12l bottle 2018 was under the hammer for an incredible €18,000. The Magnum got auctioned off at 520€.

Wine Available in the UK from Bibendum. Price on request, tiny quantities available.

This new arrival is not cheap. But it is a genuinely exciting arrival on Germany’s fine wine scene – innovative and experimental. And I really hope that this will inspire other Rheingau producers to follow Wilhelm Weil and his team – to respect the region’s traditions while still trying to do something different.

My Top five wine books

Looking for some great wine reads? James Payne of Douneside House takes us through the tomes that he’s found most useful and inspiring down the years.

1001 Wines you must try before you die (revised edition) edited by Neil Beckett, Octopus

So, how many have you tried/served?

What I most enjoy about this collection of Icon wines of the 20th century is the introduction to each wine by a specific journalist, likely to be a specialist of the given region or country of production. The selection is truly a wish list, right down to the best vintage. Having served over 500 of the entries during my career, I would attest to their greatness and rightful place in this book.

The New Spain by John Radford, Mitchell Beazley

Radford, undisputed king of Spain

A brilliant presentation of the watershed era when modern Spanish wines were gaining global recognition as new classics. The acknowledgment of traditional wine styles is also wonderfully and authoritatively described. John was our inspirational lecturer for Spain at WSET diploma level in the mid 1990s.

Vintage Wine (second edition) by Michael Broadbent, Pavilion Books

From one of the world’s great palates

As a young sommelier it was such an education to read and learn from the detailed tasting notes with such succinct descriptive vocabulary on specific vintages of the greatest wines of the World. Very useful to assist in buying these wines because of the unique assessment of their potential quality and current state of evolution. It was a privilege to have witnessed Mr Broadbent with a gavel in his hand presiding over wine auctions at Christie’s South Kensington.

Port and The Douro by Richard Mayson (revised edition), Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library

Great place, great book

A specialist book tracing a path through the timeline of development of this UNESCO heritage region of outstanding geographic beauty and importance to the modern Portuguese wine industry. Authoritative and accessible prose from an author who spends a great deal of time on the ground in the vineyards and cellars with some of the most highly regarded producers to gain the deepest insights into what drives quality. Richard was our WSET diploma tutor for Portugal.

Wine Folly, A Visual Guide to the World of Wine by Madeline Puckette & John Hammack, Penguin

Brilliant intro to the world of wine

What a revelation this uniquely well designed introduction to wine represents! I have given it to colleagues to help them ‘get into’ wine. 

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A somm’s guide to bordeaux’s ‘place’

If you’ve ever wanted to know how Bordeaux’s wine trading marketplace – La Place – works, then the best way is obviously to have it explained to you by a top German-born sommelier. Jan Konetzki shuffles us onto the history bus for a tour of a wine world institution.

Explain La Place to me in two sentences

La Place de Bordeaux is a Medieval distribution network used to distribute the wines of Bordeaux globally. Wines are sold from the châteaux to Bordeaux negociants (via a courtier) before being sold on to individual wine merchants around the world and then on to the consumer.

Chateaux I understand – but tell me more about negociants and courtiers

The negociant system has been around in Bordeaux since the early 1600’s and is one of the major reasons Bordeaux became the world’s most important and collectible wine region. And mostly we’ve got the Dutch to thank for it.

As well as draining the swamps (Haut-Medoc, was a swamp in case you did not know), they were some of the first negociants – merchants who may have grown some wine of their own, but mostly bought it, labelled it, shipped it and promoted it inside France and abroad. They were also responsible for producing custom blends ordered by clients.

The modern-day negociant system can be compared to a pre-arranged group of wholesalers who get rewarded by being able to buy (and sell on) a percentage of a château’s harvest every year. Interestingly, the negociants all pay the same price on the same day at close to the same time. They are supposed to sell the wines for the same price, with the same mark-up, though in practice the laws of the market exert a strong influence and this doesn’t always happen.

So if château owners grow the grapes and make the wine, and negotiants sell it, what do courtiers do?

This is a historic trading system that originated in the Middle Ages, and it was set up to prevent France’s elite from having to do anything so uncouth as having to work for a living. These aristocratic owners of wine châteaux did not want to deal directly with the merchant classes. They thought it was common to engage in such commercial activity themselves.

And that’s where the courtiers came in.  They acted as go-betweens for the châteaux and the negotiants. Think of them as Personal Assistants or Messengers – though a very well paid one.

Courtiers typically charge 2% on any deal that they broker and it is one of the most difficult jobs to get into in Bordeaux. You need to pass a series of exams and blind tasting tests, coupled with a minimum of five years of training before you can become a licensed courtier. Kind of like learning to train to be a black cab driver. 

Fun fact: courtiers are by law allowed to own châteaux and vineyards, but are forbidden by law to own, or act as a negociant.

I get that it made sense hundreds of years ago. But why is it still the established route to market today?

This is a good question.  After all, the world of communications and selling has changed out of sight, while the aristocratic owners are now often replaced by banks, insurance companies or wealthy individuals. Yet the system is still going strong. 

Most questionable, for Place-sceptics, is the continued existence of the courtier, since business and communication are now immediate and there is no more royal-class.

Yet fans of the system say they still have a role. The courtier, after all, is a useful buffer between buyer and seller (a bit like an estate agent) and can keep the sometimes heated conversation cool. It’s a big advantage if you are trying to make a deal.

Negociants, meanwhile, have literally created the demand for Bordeaux, its châteaux and appellations since as early as the 1620’s, and they still have great connections and power in the world of wine.

It’s the reason why even wineries from outside Bordeaux (like Super-Tuscans, and estates from Napa Valley and Argentina) are now signing up to the system, in order to find distribution.

The Place might be an old system, but there still seems to be plenty of life left in it.

Jan Konetzki is Director of wine at Ten Trinity Square – Four Seasons and Private Club; Ambassador (UK and Germany) for Château Latour and Artemis Domaines Ambassador UK/Germany; Social Media manager and UK strategic advisor, Niepoort.

Why First Impressions Are Key to great Service

The first five minutes with any new guest are crucial. Get them right and the chances are that the rest of their meal will go perfectly too; get them wrong and it could be a struggle.

Of course, every guest is different, but there are certain key principles that we can all follow to ensure that those early encounters set up a positive environment.

First, get the non-verbals right

At the very beginning look carefully at their manners and their movements; try to understand who you are going to be dealing with. Then make eye contact and give a smile to establish a connection before stage two: show time.

It’s Show Time!

Let’s start with a positive, personalised introduction: Customers like to interact with humans, not robots. Introduce yourself clearly and make sure they understand your name and your role in the restaurant. Reassure them that you’ll take care of their table. 

Let’s continue “small”

Questions like: “how was your day so far”, “have you been here before”, “how was your weekend/vacation/summer etc” are always an effective way to open a conversation, or, if it’s honest and you feel comfortable enough, you could compliment them. Maybe about a necklace, a dress, a pair of glasses they are wearing. By praising them, you’re making them feel good about themselves, proving that you’re paying attention, and moving the focus away from you. They are at the centre of your attention, remember, so show interest.

Now for the tough part: listening and caring

Listening is the easiest way to make people appreciate you. So genuinely listen to what they are telling you about and resist the temptation to break in with personal opinions. That way you will likely win them over. Care about their needs and desires and do your best to satisfy them. 

Recommendations: your time to shine

Now that you have absorbed their insights and have a clear idea about their taste and preferences, I’d suggest targeting three different products at different price points and make sure you are able to clearly explain the differences between them. Don’t be too cocky suggesting only the product you think they will like. There is a very fine line between aggressive selling and smart selling.  

 And finally, here’s a general list of rules that I like to keep in mind for each table:

  1. Project confidence
  2. Be a chameleon, and adapt. We need to shape ourselves based on someone else’s needs and behaviours to make them feel comfortable, as if they were at home.  
  3. Do not forget to SMILE.
  4. Mind your manners. “Thank you”, “you’re welcome”, “goodbye” and “hello” never grow old. 

Be Daring With Your Pairing

We all know about the classic, easy ‘safe’ wine-matches. Well, this article is meant to share and suggest my approach to daring pairings, based on my personal experience.

Although daring is often associated with rebels and anti-conformist behaviour, in this case I didn’t go down the ‘daring’ route because I was trying to shake things up. I had to take risks and think outside the box because the classic and safe options weren’t working.

Earlier this year, I was working at a restaurant, Cornerstone, that served umami-driven dishes that had high counterbalancing acids, sweetness and spices that defeated traditional matches. 

I went on the look out for residual sugar to tackle different types of salinity; lower alcohol and acids to offset spice; savoury and nutty flavours to sweeten umami. Then I cherry-picked those beverages that would fit within my allocated budget. It was important to me not to go crazy on the prices, but otherwise I kept an open mind.

And ask yourself this: have you ever thought of serving an old oloroso with mackerel?

The results were surprising, but educational. I learned a lot from the process, and I’d love to share my thoughts for three of the matches with you because there are some fascinating lessons for all of us.

‘Sea-cuterie’

A very British take on fish – but not without its challenges.

TREACLE-CURED SEA TROUT WITH SALMON PASTRAMI AND SMOKED COD ROE PATÉ

This was the first dish in a Nathan Outlaw tasting menu, and I paired it with a Cerdon du Bugey. It’s the aperitif wine they drink in Lyon – a low-alcohol (8%) off-dry sparkling red. A blend of Gamay and Poulsard, it’s Méthode Ancestrale, so not too fizzy.

They eat a lot of charcuterie and salty stuff in Lyon, and the reason I chose this is because I thought the sea-cuterie is a very British take on fish. The salt and oiliness are pushed right to the max – really savoury – so I felt the food needed a touch of sweetness, and red fruits rather than something lemony.

I discarded champagne and prosecco as options right from the start. But British people can struggle with off-dry wines, so I did try a cava to see if it would work. But it just didn’t have the sugar you need to balance the salt of the fish. The way the fish dishes were prepared, they were veering towards umami, and that just clashed with the high acid in the wine.

With the Cerdon du Bugey, the bubbles, rather than acidity, acted as a palate cleanser, and the sugar went against the umami. The sweetness was camouflaged under the bubbles. When I presented it to customers, I made sure to tell them ‘Please make sure you have a mouthful of the fish first, followed by the wine’. That way you don’t notice the sugar.

Renardat-Fache Cerdon du Bugey 2018, £13.75 ex VAT, Raeburn Fine Wines

Best bit of all, this wine was only £13. If I’d wanted something from Champagne to do the same job it would have been three times the price.

Grey mullet tartare cured in honey, salt and soy, with ponzu dressing, sesame seeds and egg yolk

Savoury flavours in the wine were the key to this particular match

There was a lot to deal with here. There was citrus from the ponzu, sweetness from the honey, which is going to bring down any flavours you have unless the wine is slightly oxidised or savoury, then you had the egg yolk, which covers everything, and lots of salt.

It was a bold dish, and initially I tried sake, vermouth and fino sherry. But they didn’t work. Sherry  was too dry and the alcohol levels in the others were too high – I didn’t want to move from a light sparkling (the Cerdon) to higher fortified levels of alcohol, then back to wine. It would have been a bit clumsy.

So in the end I stayed with wine, but in contrast to the first pairing, here I went richer in body. I was looking for a wine with a bit of sunny ripeness in it, but savoury rather than fruit driven. Because there was a sharp acidity in the dish thanks to the ponzu dressing, I had to drop acidity, too.  All the dishes we had at Cornerstone were really balanced when it came to acidity, so I didn’t want to spoil the balance of the sauce.

Here I was trying to complement the food – like putting prosciutto with melon. Eventually I settled on this weird off-dry 2016 Catalan Chenin Blanc with prolonged skin contact from Raeburn wines.

I was relying on the fact that some styles of Chenin have that kind of bruised apple note – slightly oxidative. And orange wines take on a more savoury note, which was ideal. Add in a little extra sugar, and it all goes really well with umami flavours like we had here.

I picked the most dominant components in the food and tried to match them head to head with similar components in the wine so they cancelled each other out and what was left was something really nice.

This wine would go with anything that’s saline and rich: salted cod, mackerel pate, kippers – any fish that’s been cured or has heavy sauces to it. Even fried eggs with a garnish.

Bodegas Escoda-Sanahuja Els Bassots 2015, £16.00 ex VAT, Raeburn Fine Wines

Mackerel pate with cream and treacle soda bread

Be prepared to be amazed…

The dish is quite rich, and usually, I’d pair this with the Catalan Chenin Blanc, but I’d run out one day, and this guy came in who clearly knew his food and wine – I could tell he was a chef – and asked me for a wine pairing with the dish. I thought maybe a slightly higher alcohol could help with the richness of the dish, so I was looking fortified. Fino wasn’t a good match – again, it was too dry.

I was nibbling on a piece of the soda bread, and it was really nutty and caramelised. And for some reason I looked up on the shelves and there was the Matusalem – a 30 year-old sweet oloroso. I thought ‘why not? I’m going to give it a go.’ I tried a bit with the bread and the paté in secret behind the bar and I was amazed. I let everyone else try it and they were all like ‘fuck, this is great’.

I had to tell the chef not to be scared and to trust my choice, and the moment he put it in his mouth he was like ‘hell yeah – best match of the flight.’ Yet it only came about because I was in the shit and had to improvise.

Flavour wise, those nutty, caramelised flavours worked really well with the bread, and it’s not as dry as a straight oloroso because there’s that touch of PX, which helped the wine to stand against the richness, oiliness and smokiness of the fish – but without smothering it. You could still taste the fish.

As well as fish, Matusalem could work with a rich Moorish lamb with lots of spices. The higher the smoke, the better it would work.  Trust me, you’d drink a tonne of it.

Matusalem 30-year-old sweet oloroso, £18.03/37.5cl at Gonzalez Byass UK

And the customers?

The final question of these Daring Pairings is how you ‘sell’ these left-field matches to your customers.

First of all, you have to watch them carefully. As soon as you see a bit of frowning when the wine arrives, you have to go over and explain carefully to them what they’re about to taste and why you’ve chosen it. Maybe explain to them the order they should eat or drink things in, if that’s relevant – but without being too technical.

Bear in mind that the wine flight is designed as a complement to the food, so basically they should have the food first, then follow it with the wine, not vice versa.

And having taken people away from their comfort zone, I made sure that with the final match of the four I took them back to something more familiar – an aged St Péray. It’s really important that the last dry wine is good. That’s where you put your big budgets. That seals the end of the tasting.

Main image: David Loftus

What’s the weirdest food and wine pairing that you’ve put on your menu? Why did it work and how did you come up with it?

Let us know at by joining The Sommelier Collective discussion group on Food Pairings for the Daring or leave a comment below.

Cross-selling: Sometimes Stories Can Trump Tradition.

By Sean Arthur, Food and Beverage Manager, Holland and Holland Shooting Grounds

Throughout my own career I have approached my guests with my 72 page wine list, been guided to the host of the table for the wine selection and been asked loud and proud “We need a good red for the mains, do you have any Bordeaux?” as if that is the most logical choice for any occasion.

Of course, why not?

But I have always been an advocate of expanding the guest’s repertoire of go-to styles. There are occasionally those more worldly guests that are aware quality wines exist outside of the obvious suspects, but I always felt they were too few and far between, especially when working in a classic fine dining atmosphere.

So how do we change this habit and broaden the horizons without compromising on selling “THAT” big bottle of high-earning 1er Grand Cru in favour of a mid-range Zin?

Now, I don’t mean we should over-stock ourselves or force sales upon people. But there’s definitely a case for showing a passion for other styles and broadening the mix of sales in the room each service.
For myself and my sommelier team this brought about a lot of discussion in the room, amongst the team and even across tables between guests. And with the diversity in sales my Junior Somms became much more confident.

Each time we were presented with the request for a robust French red – for this purpose lets suppose its right bank Bordeaux – I would bring up the selection and point out favourites, but before leaving the table for them to peruse and discuss I would flick forward to the Californians and give some comparatives.

For example, if the host’s eyes widened at the sight of a vertical of Léoville Barton from 1988 forwards then I would mention the new and exciting styles I added from Orin Swift. The prices would be comparable (maybe a bit cheaper) and I’d particularly point out the “Abstract” Cabernet Sauvignon, “Mercury head” Cabernet Sauvignon or “Papillon” listed as Bordeaux Blend.

Some customers might wonder about the lack of back-vintage variety, but I’d just tell them that that’s not Orin Swift’s ethos. They are about putting out well-made and explosive wines to be enjoyed when released. You can age them if you want, but… you know, drink it.
Rather than focusing on comparing grapes and terroir, it’s the story that gets me each time and is something I love presenting in the dining room.

Yes, of course the Old World have stories, but often I found the newer wineries’ stories to be more diverse and more relatable.
Orin Swift began when David Swift Finney bunked off Uni for a year to go drinking in Italy (I’m paraphrasing slightly). He fell in love with wine, and when he came back he trained at the Robert Mondavi Winery before eventually setting up his own venture.

As a story, that’s more fun than ‘handed down from aristocrat to aristocrat through the generations’.

Your guests come for the food and ambience, but they will forever remember that something new, or that wild story that led to their occasion being truly amazing. For me, it’s the exploration and the story that creates the stand-out experience. Wines like this can help to do that.

A few facts on Orin Swift to get you started

David Swift Finny inspired in Italy, trained at Robert Mondavi Wineries and founded his winery in 1998.

His Palermo is a good place to start.
Grape: Cabernet Sauvignon
ABV: 15.5%
Aging: 12 months, 39% new oak
Notes: Deep dark crimson colour, powerful aroma of currants, vanilla and cedar wood. Explodes onto the palate with powerful blackcurrant and dark cherry fruits, luscious and smooth.
Stockist: Enotria & Coe, £28-£35