Master Sommelier Eric Zwiebel arrived in the UK from Alsace in 1999. Since 2004 he has looked after the wine list at Summer Lodge in the Dorset village of Evershot. Fiona Sims reports
I saw Eric Zwiebel compete once. He'd just missed winning the UK Sommelier of the Year title, coming second for the third time in a row, and I couldn't even bear to congratulate him - his crumpled face said it all.
So I was pleased to hear he finally did it, coming first in 2004, followed by third place in the Best Sommelier in Europe competition, and this year coming fourth in the Best Sommelier in the World. And how did I find this out? It's all there on the wine list at Summer Lodge, in Evershot, Dorset.
It's not often you see a biography of the sommelier on the front page of a wine list. But then I guess Zwiebel has more to shout about than most. It's nice, actually - you know you're in for a treat. Then there's the fact that the list has more than 1,400 different wines to choose from.
Now, a big list isn't necessarily a good thing. Some read like a compendium of the biggest names in the business, stuffed with pricey, top-drawer Bordeaux and Burgundy, completely lacking in depth, and chosen without a single thought for the food. Not Zwiebel's.
Yes, he has some big names, but Summer Lodge is part of Relais & Châteaux and he has some big spenders: the typical amount shelled out for a bottle here is between £45 and £65. Needless to say, my car was the oldest, and cheapest, in the car park.
OK, so you need a wrist support just to lift the wine list off the table, and a dedication to manage the thing - he juggles more than 60 suppliers - but there's a good range of prices and styles. There's plenty to inspire customers to be adventurous - Croatian Malvasia, anyone? - alongside some reassuring key growers and producers, with some good years. There's also a busy wine dinner programme, which gets the regulars going.
Zwiebel was born and bred in Ribeauville, Alsace, where his parents ran a restaurant and he used to help them out. He came to the UK in 1999, becoming a Master Sommelier in 2001, and joined Summer Lodge in 2004, where he has looked after the list ever since, aided by his assistant Benjamin Wolf.
And yes, he's a Riesling man. "But I get equally excited about other white grapes that have an identity and freshness, such as Grüner Veltliner and Albariño," he says. To illustrate, he chooses me a quirky white from Roussillon - Le Soula, a Vin de Pays des Côteaux des Fenouillèdes, made by Gérard Gauby. It's delicious, with a lemony richness and an elegant minerality, and it partners my fish dishes well.
The chef is Steven Titman. His signature dish is roast loin of Dorset lamb and braised shoulder "shepherd's pie" with Savoy cabbage and rosemary jus. So does Zwiebel work closely with him?
"You know, it's very complicated for sommeliers to work with chefs," explains Zwiebel, "especially when the flavours are so extreme. Not Steve's dishes, though. His food is very wine-friendly, very classic, which means I don't really consider complicated wines for my list - that is, wines with too much sweetness and too high in alcohol. But anyway I prefer more minerality in my wines, with an expression of terroir - and these wines suit Steve's food very well."
Zwiebel has paired up each dish on the tasting menu with different wines, which 85% of customers order. And when they aren't opting for the tasting menu then more than half of Summer Lodge's diners ask Zwiebel and his team to choose the wines for them. "We just want to show our passion," he says.
And here's another thing: Zwiebel reckons seasonality is an important consideration when putting a wine list together. "I love it when the shooting season starts. It means I can start selling lots of my rich, full-bodied wines with gamey flavours, such as those from the Rhône," he enthuses.
While France does dominate the list, there's plenty from pretty much every quality wine-growing region in the world, including Greece, Slovenia, and even Georgia.
Having never been out of Europe, Zwiebel is keen to travel more and explore new areas. "It's so helpful when you can do that and see the wine and food in the area in which it was created," he adds.
What's on the list
- Guy Cadel "Summer Lodge" Champagne NV, £43
- 2004 Rully Domaine Vincent Dureuil-Janthiel, Burgundy, France, £34
- 2001 Domaine Ostertag "Zellberg", Alsace, France, £72
- 2000 Ribolla, Gravner, Collio, Italy, £96
- 2002 Pazo de Senorans, Seleccion de Ananda, Galicia, Spain, £61
- 2002 Saumur-Champigny Thierry Germain "La Marginale", Loire, France, £46
- 2003 Vin de Savoie, Domaine Gilles Berlioz, Mondeuse, France, £39
- 2005 Luis Pato Baga, Beiras, Portugal, £28
- 2004 Blaufränkisch, Schiefer Eisenberg, Sudburgenland, Austria, £34
- 2004 Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, Martinborough, New Zealand, £69
- 2003 Meinert Synchronicity, Devon Valley, South Africa, £42
Summer Lodge Country House Hotel, Restaurant & Spa, Evershot, Dorset DT20 0JR. Tel: 01935 482000
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