I imagine buying wine for large hotel groups can sometimes be rather tedious for a creative sommelier. Tied in to nominated suppliers, and tied down by central accounts, the wine buyer must toe the company line. Not at the Conrad London hotel: its wine-savvy restaurant manager claims he has carte blanche on his wine list.
Jean-Yong Pittion has been the hotel's assistant food and beverage manager for the past two years. Before that he opened Tom Aikens's highly acclaimed restaurant nearby as assistant manager. But it was while looking after the food and beverage operation at Millennium & Copthorne's Abu Dhabi hotel that he really got hooked on wine service.
"I grew up only 3km from Juliénas," points out Pittion. For those who are not too familiar with this part of the world, Juliénas is one of the 10 Beaujolais crus in the far north of the region - still one of his favourite wine-producing areas. "Wine is in my blood. When I was 13 years old I remember tasting a Château-Chalon for the first time - I fell in love with wine after that," he recalls.
The intriguing wine from the Jura region of eastern France is a vin jaune and must be made exclusively from Savagnin grapes, then kept for at least six years in untouched casks under a layer of yeast, resulting in an exceptionally nutty, deep golden-brown wine. Does he have any on his list? "Sadly, no - a bit too obscure for my customers, I think," he replies.
The 100-bin list at Aquasia, the Conrad London's fine-dining restaurant presided over by executive chef Michael Gresslin, is made up mostly of French wine (70%), with the rest drawn from hot spots in the Old World and selected areas of the New World. "As a Frenchman, French wine is still number one for me, but since coming to the UK four years ago I'm finally getting to grips with New World wines," he admits.
His desert-island wine is Guigal's 1992 La Turque, with 1990 Meo-Camuzet in Vosne-Romanée a close second (the 2002 is on the list at £62.50). He also likes to drink Henri Nouillet's Chardonnay (not on his list - too tiny) from the Mâconnais village of Chardonnay, which, some claim, gave the big white grape its name.
His list is split into flavour categories. Outside France, he loves Italy, and one of his best-sellers is a classy Pinot Grigio, from Alvaro Pecorari in Isonzo Del Friuli (£42.50 for the 2003). He likes Australia, too, and always makes sure cult Barossa Valley wine Hill of Grace from Henshke is included on his lists (the 1994 is £250). And the list continues to make the odd lurch out of France, from California's De Loach Pinot Noir (2003, £32) to Marlborough, New Zealand's Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc (£34 for the 2004). One of the best-selling white wines by the bottle is - wait for it - a Puligny-Montrachet from Domaine Louis Carillon (£60, 2002); while a best-selling red is that 1990 Meo-Camuzet. Well, this is Chelsea.
And have you clocked who his key suppliers are yet? Bibendum, Berry Bros & Rudd, and Fields, Morris & Verdin, whom he's very happy with, thank you - especially as they provide lots of training sessions for his team.
The list kicks off with 12 wines by the glass, which change quarterly - this is where a staggering 50% of sales take place. The price per glass ranges from £5 to £10, with Chablis still the biggest seller (Michel Laroche, £8.75), followed closely by Sauvignon Blanc (Spy Valley, £7.75). "I always go for big fruit when I'm choosing wines by the glass," explains Pittion.
But Aquasia diners are no wine anoraks. "Only 10% ask for my advice. The descriptions on the wine list tell them enough," he says.
2001 Condrieu Les Ravines Domaine Niero Pinchon, France, £57
2002 Delicato Family Vineyards Chardonnay, Central Coast, California, £30
1999 Alteserre Monferrato Bianco, Cantine Bava, Piedmont, Italy, £38
2004 Sancerre Les Renardières, Loire, France, £35
2004 Rocky Gully Riesling, Frankland Estate, Western Australia, £28
2004 Stump Jump, Sauvignon Blanc, McLaren Vale, Australia, £28
2004 The Paddock Shiraz, Riverland, south-eastern Australia, £24
2001 Crozes-Hermitage La Matinière Domaine Ferraton, Northern Rhône, France, £35
1997 Quintessa, Rutherford, Napa Valley, California, £95
1998 Nuits St Georges, 1er Cru Les Boudots, Domaine Grivot, Burgundy, France, £99
1982 Château Palmer, Margaux, France, £250
2003 Coteaux du Layon St Aubin, Domaine des Forges, Loire, France, £29
1997 Banyuls Cuvée Josephe Geraud, Domaine Pietri-Geraud, Collioure, France, £36
Aquasia, Conrad London hotel, Chelsea Harbour, London SW10 0XG. Tel: 020 7823 3000