In the first in a new series on the art of wine service, The Caterer speaks to Rupert Crick, junior assistant head sommelier at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, to find out what has inspired him and which wines he can't leave off his list
What makes a good sommelier?
Communication. Listening, first of all, to pinpoint exactly what your guests are looking to enjoy from a bottle of wine. Helping them to find the right region, grape variety, flavour profile, price point and a great story to pair with their meal from your list.
After that, knowledge and passion are extremely important, and the ability to communicate what you've spent hours studying without being overbearing.
Finally, taste everything! This applies to wine and food: taste them together so that you're sure of the pairing. Sometimes one small element of a dish can throw off an otherwise perfect match.
What are you favourite food and wine pairings?
Cheese and white wine. A great washed rind cheese like Rollright or Époisses is fantastic with a rich white wine such as a Savennières. It's a Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, sometimes harvested a little late, dry on the palate and textural, with rich baked apple and honey flavours. Domaine du Closel is a firm favourite producer. I always find white wines to be a more balanced pairing with cheese than red wine.
What was your wine find of 2019?
A real oddity. A French winemaker called Jérôme Charles Binda of Domaine Kalathas makes a wine called Sainte Obéissance on the island of Tinos in Greece. He uses indigenous grapes called Aspro Potamisi and Rozaki, farmed organically and biodynamically. The wine is made without sulphur and is deep orange in colour and intensely fruity – a real one of a kind.
Which wine can't you do without on your list?
Any Riesling from Schloss Reinhartshausen. As a team we're in love with the wine!
What's your guiltiest wine pleasure?
A huge, oaky Californian Chardonnay, specifically Ritchie Vineyard, 2007, from Ramey Wine Cellars. It just ticks all the boxes.
How do you develop your knowledge and skills?
Keep asking questions. When studying the details of a region (subregions, producers, climate, etc) you need to find a way to link it all together in your mind. Find out about everything, and then start asking everybody else; being part of a large team helps. The best way to improve your service skills in every aspect is repetition and prioritisation, both necessary in a busy restaurant. Learn good service habits and soon they will become automatic.
Who is your biggest inspiration and what did you learn from them?
Arnaud Goubet and Lukas Hyner who head up our team at Le Manoir. Lukas is very pragmatic, calm under pressure and has an incredible amount of knowledge, both in wine theory and day-to-day business approach. Arnaud is the most passionate sommelier I've met. He cares about the guests just as much as the welfare of the team.
Which sommeliers do you admire?
I never had the chance to meet Gerard Basset, but I admire him because of the profound effect he had on most sommeliers in the UK today.
Who would be on your ideal sommelier team?
I have to say it would be my current team.
How has the role of the sommelier changed in the past five years?
I've only been working as a sommelier for two and a half years but I've seen many changes in that time. The increase in organic, biodynamic and natural wines and the difficulties and rewards that can come with that category.
Also there is a vast increase of information available online, especially with winemaking improving around the world and a huge amount of young emerging regions. Lastly, the Coravin has surely made a huge impact. The ability to serve a glass of Cheval Blanc without fear of rather costly wastage is tremendous.
What advice would you give a front of house team member considering training to be a sommelier?
Take level one and two qualifications with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. It is a great introduction to wine study and will give you a good idea if it's something for you to pursue. Start to taste wines rather than just drink them and see where that leads.
What new skills have you developed this year?
I'm taking part in the Gold Service Scholarship, which is a hospitality and service competition. This has been important for me to hone my service skills outside of wine service, and given me more confidence along the way.
What's your goal for 2020?
I'm sitting my Advanced Exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers in February. It's a huge step up in terms of the knowledge required, so I'm studying hard and crossing my fingers!
I'll take part in the Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year competition again this year. Even if you don't make it to the final, it's a great way to push yourself and to meet a great group of your peers.
Entries for the 2020 Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year will open this month. The competition, organised by The Caterer in partnership with the Academy of Food & Wine Service, recognises the very finest talent in wine service.
The Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year is widely regarded as the premier accolade in UK wine service and past winners include some of the industry's leading lights, including the late Gerard Basset, Nicolas Clerc, Ronan Sayburn and Xavier Rousset (pictured below).
Candidates are judged on their wine and drink expertise as well as their ability to deal efficiently and knowledgeably with customers by demonstrating exemplary front of house skills.
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