Here's what it takes to be a master sommelier

Sommeliers, says Leslie Williams, have become the catering world’s equivalent of rock stars. He meets Ireland’s top wine experts and asks them for their best budget buys – plus, he checks out the most expensive bottles stored in their wine cellars. 

Up until recently, many people would have described a typical sommelier as a French man dressed in black who looks down his nose as he advises you that you simply must order the 1961 Bordeaux to match your lamb dish.

These days however sommeliers are everywhere in the US media and it is hard to escape them if you have Netflix or watch TV. There are documentaries and films and gushing interviews in lifestyle magazines – they have become the catering world’s equivalent of rockstars.

Part of blame lies with the 2012 movie Somm which followed a number of (male) sommeliers as they attempted to pass their Master Sommelier exam (pass rate approx.: 10%). The movie (apparently without irony) depicts some of the most arrogant people I have ever come across s in the wine industry and I have to confess that I actually wanted them to fail. To read more about this world you could read the recently published Corkdork by Bianca Bosker who tries to turn herself from a novice into one of these guys, no I don’t know why either, other than to perhaps write a book.

As someone that tastes (and drinks) wines every day (in my capacity as wine correspondent of this newspaper I should add), I find the current US obsession with details, scores and wine minutia to be far removed from the pleasures of enjoying a glass of wine with dinner and am pleased to report that you will struggle to find such sommeliers here in Ireland.

A sommelier’s job in simple terms is to manage the wine list of a restaurant and to assist diners in choosing wines that will match their meal. The job is “actually about good communication skills rather than the ability to pass exams and ream off obscure facts,” says Ed Jolliffe of Chapter One.

“Thankfully wine is no longer considered as a simple profit generator but as part of the service a good restaurant should offer,” says Mary O’Callaghan, President of The Irish Guild of Sommeliers who provide education courses aimed at restaurants. O’Callaghan feels that the profession here is quite grounded, especially as more women have entered the profession. “it was a long hard road for women to get respected in this business but now this is a job open to anyone with talent and enthusiasm – your gender and background are irrelevant.” One example of this is Lorraine Harmon formerly head Sommelier of the Greenhouse who discovered wine in her Hotel and Catering course in Tallaght IT – “I had barely ever drank wine until my course and I was immediately fascinated – and pursuing it allowed me to travel the world,” she says. Lorraine worked in top restaurants in Sydney, London and lectures in wine in DIT Cathal Brugha Street. “The creativity and excitement in the job is wonderful and I am happy to encourage my students to think about it as a career,” she says.

“The right wine with a meal can have a transformative effect so never be afraid to ask for help choosing your wine,” she concludes.

Shiva Gautam, Owner and Sommelier, Montys of Kathmandu, Temple Bar, Dublin 1

Shiva and Lina Gautam opened Montys 20 years ago this September and Shiva’s passion for wine seems to grow by the year. In recent months he opened a new ‘Wine Room’ – where you can enjoy your meal surrounded by Monty’s best bottles. Shiva was born in Nepal but educated in the UK. “I actually came late to alcohol, I only really discovered alcohol after my degree and then I took to it with perhaps too much enthusiasm!” he says.

“I worked for a time in a restaurant in Kingston in London and a customer gave me a glass of his Chablis to try – this was my first taste of fine wine and there was just no going back. People sometimes ask for beer in Montys and we do have some craft beers on our list but I honestly believe that our food is best matched to wine and I love helping people find the perfect match,” he says.

If you had to guess the best wine lists in the country you might not think of a small ethnic restaurant in Temple Bar. Montys lists 450 different wines of remarkable diversity. Mixed in with Grand Cru Burgundies (eg Drouhin Echezeaux) and vintage Bordeaux such as Chateau Margaux, Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild are also several New World classics with five vintages of Penfolds Grange and several top wines from California including Rubicon (Francis Ford Coppola’s top wine) and Chateau Montelena.

Any wine on the list under €500 (and bottled with a cork) can be ordered by the glass using the Coravin extraction system so you could have a glass of Lynch-Bages 1995 or Grange 1997 with your momos (delicious Nepalese dumplings).

Most Expensive Bottle: Krug Clos d’Ambonnay Champagne - €5,000

Recommended ‘Value’ Bottle: Rutherford Rhiannon Zinfandel - €35

Favourite Food and Wine Match: Red Burgundy with Lamb Masu Ra Sag (with spinach and fenugreek)

Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, Merrion Street, Dublin 2

“In Guilbauds we are here only to make our clients meal as memorable as possible, we have no interest in imposing our views but are of course happy to give our opinion,” says Head Sommelier James Brook.

“This is an exciting job and I feel privileged – recently I opened a bottle of 1945 Chateau Latour, an exhilarating experience. The wine was extraordinary and full of life, and thankfully the customer was happy with his choice,” Brook continues.

Brook was born in Waterford but grew up in the UK and was Guilbaud’s first Irish Head Sommelier. Brook has three assistant sommeliers (all Irish as it happens) and also works closely with restaurant Manager Stéphane Robin who has been perfecting the list for three decades. Robin refused to pick a favourite bottle – “the bottle I most desire is the one I have not yet had – perhaps I remember best the 1961 Chateau Montrose that slipped from my hand and smashed on the cellar floor – I can remember the intoxicating aroma that filled the room and the deep and lingering regret that I would never get to taste it.” Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud first opened in 1981 and curently the list has 1,300 different wines available and a total bottle count of around 16,000. Older vintages on the list often offer excellent value compared to current market prices: “We want to sell our wines, this is not a museum.” For a review in May I drank a beautiful bottle of Baurmard 2008 Clos du Papillon Savennières from the Loire for €60 – most shops would charge more.

There are many highlights but next time you dine with an Oligarch suggest a magnum of 1989 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Richebourg or you could dither between 1945 Chateau Latour or Chateau Lafite or perhaps 1928 Chateau Montrose.

Most Expensive Bottle: Chateau Pétrus 2008 - €8,500

Recommended ‘Value’ Bottle: Camile Gurioud Bourgogne AOC - €60

Favourite Food and Wine Match: Époises Cheese with suitably aged Meursault

Sandra Biret-Crowley, Hayfield Manor, College Road, Cork

“I grew up surrounded by vineyards in the Loire Valley so it is probably not surprising that I found myself in this job,” says Hayfield Manor’s Head Sommelier Sandra Biret-Crowley.

As you can guess from Sandra’s surname she married a Corkman and has been doing sterling work at the the venerable Cork institution, particularly with Hayfield’s Wine Society which hosts regular evenings with visiting winemakers, usually in the Vine Wine Cellar dining room For each event Sandra works with Exec Chef Mark Staples to create dishes to match that month’s wines – not always an easy task – “perhaps my favourite so far was a duck breast with sweet potato to match an old vine Carignan from Southern France; the texture and the fat on the duck and the

flavours of the potato were in such lovely harmony with that wine.” Sandra first discovered wine and food matching when working as a young waitress in Chalons-sur-Loire and made it her mission to “learn everything” – she even spent three years working in a winery – “I wanted to know everything from the grape to the final bottle,” she says.

Sandra is currently on maternity leave with her third daughter and says she would have no hesitation recommending the wine world to her three girls – “you get to learn about everything from agriculture to food and other cultures and of course you can travel the world.”

Most Expensive Bottle: Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé Champagne €2,000

Recommended ‘Value’ Bottle: Baron de Lay Rioja Reserva - €45

Favourite Food and Wine Match: Old vine Carignan with Duck

Ed Jolliffe, Chapter One, Parnell Square, Dublin 1

“We will always try to over-deliver in Chapter One – there is absolutely no way we are going to let you leave here with a bad taste in your mouth,” says Head Sommelier Ed Jolliffe. Chapter One needs little introduction as one of Ireland’s most award winning restaurants and current Restaurants Association of Ireland Restaurant of the Year. Cork born chef proprietor Ross Lewis has held a Michelin star since 2007. “It is imperative that our customers enjoy their visit - if someone is not enjoying their wine I will insist on replacing it – I can always sell it by the glass. We work at 100 miles an hour here, there is never a quiet night and I love the discussion, the adrenaline rush of service and making people happy,” says Jolliffe.

Jolliffe describes himself as “a failed rockstar” and came to wine by a circuitous route. Once the music business failed to make him his fortune he found himself working in the late lamented Le Coquille in Schull in West Cork and later in Ely Wine Bar - “listening to Eric (Robson – owner of Ely) and discussing wine with him and my colleagues constantly, opened my eyes and my palate. ‘But why do you like that Pinot Noir, what makes it better?’ he would say – he made me evaluate everything.” The list in Chapter One has around 500 wines but not everything is on the list with Jolliffe often choosing to list only the vintage of say Lynch-Bages or Léoville-Barton that is drinking best. There are multiple vintages of Guigal’s top Rhone wines La Turque, La Landonne and La Mouline and everything from Romanée-Conti Bâtard Montrachet to Madeira and Albariño.

Most Expensive Bottle: Comtes Lafon Le Montrachet Grand Cru 2004 - €1,000

Recommended ‘Value’ Bottle: Botijo Rojo Garnacha Valdejalón, Spain - €40 Favourite

Food and Wine Match: Suertes del Marques Trenzado, Tererife with Smoked haddock and fermented horseradish

Julie Dupouy, Greenhouse, Dawson Street, Dublin 2

“The first special wine that I remember was Chateau Marquis-de-Terme Margaux that my grandfather opened for my 16th birthday. I was hooked, but I don’t drink much Bordeaux now – it costs too much.” says Julie Dupouy, Head Sommelier at Mickael Viljanen’s Greenhouse on Dawson Street in Dublin.

Dupouy is originally from Agen in France and her grandparents were farmers and winemakers so she comes to wine from a more practical angle with little time for the pretensions in her business (she is not a fan of the Somm movie either) – “there is a rare quality to wine but at the end of the day it is fermented grape juice – a simple rural thing, it should not be about how much money you have!”

Dupouy finished third at the World Sommelier competition in Argentina last year - a phenomenal achievement. Dupouy was the highest placed female in the competition and still finds wine a rather ‘male world’. “I sometimes have difficult older male customers that treat me with less courtesy than the assistant sommeliers that work for me, and at wine fairs such as Vinitaly I find that I am suddenly ignored once the man in a suit arrives behind me,” she says. “I love that every day I am learning, there is a constant evolution, you can never stand still and I am always open to new flavours,” she says. Greenhouse is limited by the restaurant’s small size but still manages 250 bottles with highlights like Krug Champagne by the glass (€40), Chave Hermitage 1996, First Growth Bordeaux and Vega Sicilia Unico (’94, ’96 and 2000).

Most Expensive Bottle: Chateau Lafite 2010 - €2655

Recommended ‘Value’ Bottle: Vina Ilusion Rioja - €50

Favourite Food and Wine Match: John Dory with Lemongrass and Chervil Velouté with Von Winning Pfalz Riesling


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