Sommeliers: in praise and prayer

We can all drink well at home during lockdown, but only a good somm brings that added, intangible frisson of exoticism, says columnist Nina Caplan

Words by Nina Caplan

Assa restaurant sommeliers
Thibaut Lagarde (right) and team at the Michelin-starred ASSA. Photo: William Craig Moyes

Last September, during that halcyon Indian summer when France’s restaurants were permitted to open, we journeyed from our home in Burgundy and headed to the Loire for a few days. There, we borrowed bikes from our hotel and cycled to ASSA, in Blois. This little jaunt was supposed to take an hour, but Google Maps does not have a setting that accounts for my navigation skills. By the time we screeched to a halt next to an unprepossessing building beside the broad, flat Loire river, we looked better suited to lunch at a fast-food joint than at a Michelin-starred establishment. Despite our tardiness, I paused to exchange my trainers for heels, though there was little I could do about my rattled demeanour and shiny face.

It didn’t matter. Upstairs, we entered a serene world lined in pale wood – spare but warm, vast windows making of the river a gently kinetic mural. In the open kitchen, Anthony Maubert and his wife Fumiko were calmly creating astonishing delicacies – Japanese ideas fused with produce from this, the breadbasket of France. It was some of the best food I’ve eaten, and the most inventively presented, but the moment at which the tension left my body and I transformed – in my own head at least – into the poised and elegant diner the setting merited was when the sommelier appeared, quietly proposing an apéritif.

Dan Hunter chef at Brae restaurant
Set on a hillside in Victoria, Australia, on an organic farm, Brae is home to chef Dan Hunter, who creates "wonderfully strong and strange dishes"
Aged pekin duck wood roasted on the bone, sour squash, muntries and purslane
Photos by Kristoffer Paulsen (left) and Colin Page (right)

Thibaut Lagarde wore a wooden bowtie and a straw fedora; a witty outfit that shared a colour scheme with his surroundings. With the restrained enthusiasm of a bubble escaping a glass, he informed us that Rose à Lies was a ‘pét nat’ or sparkling natural wine, equal parts Gamay and Grolleau, from Montlouis-sur-Loire, 40km down river. It was delicious – strawberry-flavoured yet dry – as were the wines that followed. But it was the muted charm and consideration of our sommelier that really whet the appetite.

Even more than restaurants, I miss sommeliers. I can manage without exceptionally inventive food: I eat very well at home. I drink well, too, but that intangible element of excitement is missing. After all, I’ve chosen the wine.

There is a particular exoticism that a sommelier brings to the table. Often, the wine itself is exotic, even when made nearby, because you’ve never heard of it. And, while ‘not-home’ is already one definition of an exotic location, a restaurant is often farther away than that. I was once lucky enough to eat at Brae, 140km south-west of Melbourne, and I can still recall everything about the experience. Gumtrees filtered the extraordinary Australian light that flowed across my table, and somms Jared Hill and Simon Freeman had ranged the globe seeking matches for Dan Hunter’s wonderfully strong and strange dishes. L’Ouverture Champagne from Frédéric Savart worked like a citrus squeeze alongside kelp-cured bonito, while octopus with carrots and perfumed lovage was an unlikely but perfect accompaniment to Dave Arfion’s Smokestack Lightning, an orange wine of measured funkiness and a touch of rose petal, made from Pinot Gris grown on ironstone soils in the Yarra Valley and named for a Howlin’ Wolf song.

Vanya Vin mon lapin
Montreal's Vin Papillon sommelier Vanya Filipovic

A great sommelier is a graceful juggler, keeping the desires of chef, guest and wine airborne, in smooth circulation. Which requires a people person: somms thrive on interaction, and the current hiatus may be even harder on them than on chefs – socially, at least. Last December, in a Montreal front room piled with wine boxes, I chatted to Vanya Filipovic, who was for 15 years wine director of the legendary restaurant Joe Beef and its satellites. Now she and her husband have a single bar-restaurant, Vin Mon Lapin, which they are using this period of enforced closure to enlarge: she reckons that after a year flinching when anyone comes within a metre, wine-lovers won’t be seeking cosy spots for a while. She was philosophical about lockdown but brightened when I responded enthusiastically to her suggestion that she open an interesting bottle. Cybelé was a sparkling orange wine from La Garagista, a Vermont hybrid, slightly sweet perhaps but also tangy, vital and so peculiar that it begged for a sommelier’s explanation. Which it got. She couldn’t stop at one, so I tried a delicately floral Gassan Izumo sake from the Yoshida brewery as Filipovic explained why rice grains with a lower polish were going to be the next big thing. There was no food. We didn’t need any.

El Mirador at the Ritz Carleton, Tenerife
A selection of wines from El Mirador at the Ritz Carleton, Tenerife. Photo: William Craig Moyes

A terrific palate may be a requirement, but that elegant balance between chattiness and didacticism is the job’s true challenge. Information, like salt, works best in judicious quantities. There are somms who believe themselves more fascinating than your dining companion and somms convinced that wine knowledge is attached to the Y chromosome, and both kinds (they are often the same kind) will ruin your dinner. But the sommelier who finds that balance makes the meal. At the West House, a magnificent restaurant with rooms in Kent, Jake Garrett is proof that sometimes, nepotism works for everyone: he may be chef-patron Graham’s son, but he has put together a superb wine selection the size of a small book (how can you not love a list whose headings include “Wilfully Obscure”?) and spends just the right amount of time guiding you around it. In Tenerife, I was given a tour of the island’s Listan Blanco wines (the south’s are more stone fruit, the north’s resemble Albariño); in northern Spain, the somm introduced me to Marc de Cava, a digestif that I have no doubt is served in Heaven.

Romain Iltis at Villa René Lalique in Alsace
Romain Iltis from Villa René Lalique in Alsace, complete with lapel pin. Photo: William Craig Moyes

I’ve lost count of the number of discoveries I owe to sommeliers whose zeal was as intoxicating a perfume as anything that wafted from the wine. Some, like Romain Iltis at Villa René Lalique in Alsace, or the much-mourned Gerard Basset, sport glittering lapel pins attesting to their broad expertise; others, steeped in local wines, just want you to taste the magic that this particular soil can make. All are intent on improving your life. These days, every pop of a cork constitutes a prayer that they’ll soon have another opportunity to improve mine.

Nina Caplan Nina Caplan is a food, wine and travel writer who contributes a monthly column to Club Oenologique