Which wines are most popular these days? How do you choose a great wine from a restaurant wine list? Who has all the answers? Sommeliers. They’re the ones on the front lines and they see how our wine community is changing before we do.
For my column in this month’s Ottawa Magazine, the sister publication of Toronto Life, I asked five of Ottawa’s best sommeliers their opinions on various vinous issues, as well as for some insider tips on pairing wine with food and selecting great wines from their lists. Here’s what they said …
Play Food & Wine
1 York Street
What made you decide to become a sommelier?
I was working as a server and bartender and wanted to be able to talk to my guests about wine in a more informed way. I knew I loved drinking wine but I didn’t know how to talk about it so I enrolled in a course. After my first day in my first course I knew I wanted to work with wine for a living.
Did you get special training or education to do so?
I studied through the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET), which is based out of London, England. It’s the most globally recognized wine education program. I attended classes in at a satellite campus in Calgary. (The Vendage Institute in Ottawa runs the same courses.) I took all three levels and passed with distinction.
How long have you worked as a sommelier?
I’ve worked as a sommelier at various restaurants for about two and half years now.
What do you enjoy most about being a sommelier?
My favourite part about working as a sommelier for a living is all the interactions I have with our guests. I’m very lucky that we get so many guests who want to talk about wine with this great genuine interest. Once they realize how non-snobby wine can be they relax and we always have a great time talking and tasting. I also enjoy tasting hundreds of wines a week some weeks. Not a bad way to earn a living.
The snobbery that can be inherent with dining. Food and wine are fun and we should act like it!
What difference does it make to a restaurant to have a sommelier?
It doesn’t make sense to have a sommelier at every restaurant. Not every restaurant is geared towards wine and some cuisines just don’t typically use wine as part of the meal and that’s ok. That being said, the restaurants that do have a sommelier on staff show their guests that they care about wine and food. What I find great is how so many more restaurants that aren’t in the fine dining category are starting to invest in a sommelier, so you can get that experience without having to spend a lot. It’s like having a trained chef versus a kitchen manager.
Tell me about the most memorable customer you’ve served?
A young couple who love wine came in and told me they were headed to Niagara for their honeymoon. So I arranged some private tastings with some of my friends at the wineries in the region. The couple came back with a bottle of wine to share with me and a card, and told me I helped make their honeymoon great. All I did was send a couple emails, but I got to help create these awesome memories that they will have forever.
What are the best food and wine pairings you’ve ever had?
My first wine epiphany was L’Ecole 41 Merlot with a piece of dark chocolate in one of my wine classes. It showed me how pairing can make each component better. The best wine pairing I’ve had this year was Southbrook’s 2008 Cabernet Rosé with turkey dinner. It was so versatile with the myriad of flavours my Mom’s Christmas dinner. Late harvest Riesling with bruleéd apple and seared foie gras would round out the trio. It’s a very simple dish but so well balanced. Sweetness from the brulée, crisp acidity from the apple and velvety texture from the foie all worked really well with a semi-sweet dessert wine that manages to keep its acidity on the finish so it doesn’t taste overly-sweet and syrupy.
What’s the worst food and wine pairing you’ve had?
I did the tasting menu at a restaurant once that used the same wine for three of five of the pairings which I found lazy. It was obvious that they were just using up what they had open from a staff tasting because they didn’t really make sense with the food. The pinnacle was a very dry sparkling wine with a rich chocolate dessert which was just awful.
How is Ottawa’s wine scene changing?
With the popularity of the Algonquin College sommelier program and the WSET courses at the Vendage Institute, the scene just keeps growing. I’m also finding people in Ottawa are really starting to take notice of Niagara as a serious wine region and excited to try the wines on our wine list.
What do you notice about Ottawa diners in particular when it comes to wine?
Well, I get a lot of requests to speak to guests about wine at Play and it was the same when I was at Perspectives at the Brookstreet Hotel. The choice is often left with me to select which wine so I think that shows a city with an open mind and a willingness to try new wines.
Which wines are most popular these days?
I’m really lucky that the most popular wines at Play can be the unusual ones. We love getting people to try a delicious wine that they may not have had or even have thought to order. If I had to narrow that down a bit I would say Chenin Blanc in its many styles is something that I love to turn people onto. Whether it’s a dry version from the Okanangan, an off-dry Vouvray from France or a beautifully sweet Coteaux-du-Layon Chenin is tons of fun. In the red camp, we sell a lot of really great Spanish wines that always seem to over-deliver for the price. I’ve always got lots of Grenache going on in various blends because Grenache is my happy place.
What tips would you give to diners on choosing wine from a restaurant list?
My first suggestion would be to dine at a place that cares about its wine program. The city is full of restaurants at different price points that have great wine lists, so there isn’t a need to settle anymore in Ottawa. It’s always exciting to check out which wines are off the beaten track on a wine list. Ask to talk to someone who knows about the list in the restaurant. Not everyone has the time to study wine so take advantage of those of us who get to it for a living. If you’re ever a Play please don’t hesitate to ask for me!
To find out who the other four sommeliers are and their insider tips, pick up a copy of this month’s Ottawa Magazine.