Once upon a time sommeliers all came with an over-40 tag, but these days they seem to be getting younger. Fiona Sims meets five rising stars
Where: Milestone hotel, London
Best bit? "Finding a great pairing. When people trust you, its brilliant"
After two years at university studying history, Nicolas Clerc decided to do something a bit more vocational. "I was looking for something that combined my three favourite things: travelling, partying and poetry; and being a sommelier answered all three." So he switched to sommelier school, landing a plum day-release position at the Hôtel de la Cité in Carcassonne, France, where he worked under head sommelier Georges Gracia. "He opened my mind," credits Clerc. But partying? "Think of all those tastings," he grins. And poetry? "Wine is a kind of poetry, don't you think?" he replies.
He's obviously good at it. Last year he got into the semifinals of the UK Ruinart Sommelier of the Year competition. This year he came third. "And next year I'll win it," declares Clerc, who says he loves entering sommelier competitions. "It's a kind of theatre - a one-man wine show. I get a real thrill from it," he says.
He's had a good teacher in Eric Zwiebel, last year's Ruinart Sommelier of the Year. The two worked together for a couple of years, first at Cliveden in Berkshire, then, until earlier this year, at the Summer Lodge hotel in Evershot, Dorset. Clerc recently moved to take up a new job at Red Carnation's Milestone hotel in London.
The boy from Ain (of Bresse chicken fame) has a particular affection for wines from the Languedoc because of his days spent in Carcassonne; he also adores wines from the Loire, and Jura. "These regions are full of talent, and they make lovely wines," he declares. He enjoys wines from Alsace, too. "That's down to Eric - he's from Alsace," he tells me. The future? "I want to travel more - to the USA, Australia and South Africa. And I want to let my hair down - get dirty in a winery."
Where: Tom Aikens restaurant, Chelsea, London
Best-selling wine: a German Riesling from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer - 1993 Sptlese from Karthuserhof
Gearoid Devaney is a quiet one. He's got a top job as sommelier at Tom Aikens's Michelin-starred restaurant in Chelsea; and before that I bumped into him selling wine at Pierre Gagnaire's three-Michelin-starred flagship in Paris. Yet no one knows too much about him yet.
He comes highly recommended - not least by his former colleague and mentor, head sommelier Matt Wilkin at London's Capital hotel - and all agree that he's destined for much bigger things, such is his infectious enthusiasm for the subject. "I'm certainly going to be studying for my Master Sommelier exams - it might take me five years to get it, but it really stretches you," confides Devaney, who also spent time working in a top Bordeaux vineyard, Château Rahoul in the Graves.
"I felt something was missing. I wanted to know how it all worked, and there is nothing like being hands-on," he says of his time spent in the winery. The 2001 vintage has his DNA in it, from when he was picking the grapes and cleaning the spent skins out of the fermentation tanks.
So which wine region is he most excited about right now? Predictably, Austria comes up trumps on all fronts - it's the current nirvana for many sommeliers - with Grner Veltliner and Riesling topping the bill, closely followed by Austrian reds made with grapes such as St Laurent and Blaufrnkisch.
In the New World, wines from the Margaret River in Western Australia excite him a lot. "And I love the overall quality of Coonawarra Cabernets," adds Devaney, who first got into wine after trying a bottle of Chteauneuf-du-Pape at 18 years old.
Where: Hotel du Vin, Winchester
On winning sommelier competitions: "I've had a slice of the cake; now I want to finish it."
One of Gerard Basset's girls, Claire Thevenet was lured from her job working as a sommelier at a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in the Valais in Switzerland to work for Basset at the newly opened Hotel du Vin in Brighton. Then, last year, she moved to Hotel du Vin in Winchester to run the show there.
This was Basset's stamping ground before he and co-partner Robin Hutson sold the ground-breaking hotel company last year. This is also where he limbered up for the World Sommelier Championship, tasting dozens of different wines every day to prepare his palate for what is the toughest of wine competitions - and Thevenet was by his side. "I tasted so many different wines," she says, wide-eyed.
The competition bug got her, so she entered this year's UK Ruinart Sommelier of the Year competition (staged in association with the Academy of Food & Wine Service) and reached the finals. "But I want to win next year - so watch this space," she challenges.
Favourite wine? "I really like Riesling - it's one of the greatest grapes in the world," she declares. That's Riesling from everywhere, by the way, from Germany and Austria to Australia and New Zealand. She also loves reds from the Rhne - it's where she went to sommelier school - and is also excited about reds from Italy, particularly from Tuscany and the Piedmont.
Will she ever return to her home in the Franche-Comté, France, where her parents have a B&B business? "Who knows? The wine trade is changing all the time. For now, I'm going to concentrate on passing my Master Sommelier exams - though I'll never stop studying wine," she declares.
Where: Angela Hartnett at the Connaught
Desert island wine: 1976 Egon Muller Trockenbeerenauslese
Another of Basset's babes, Corinne Michot came to England from her home in the Loire to work at the first Hotel du Vin in Winchester in 1999. "I was so hugely impressed with the wines I tasted here. I thought only the French could make amazing wines," she remembers, with a giggle.
The hotel's pioneering wine guru, co-owner Gerard Basset, mentored the young Michot, moving her to the new Birmingham branch to front the list there before giving her the Hotel du Vin in Brighton to set up.
She spent five years with Basset before moving on to the Connaught under group wine buyer and sommelier Ronan Sayburn, via a few months with another wine heavyweight, Jolle Marti, at London's Great Eastern hotel.
The Connaught, with its Italian-heavy wine list and Italian kitchen under Angela Hartnett - "She's great. I love her character," says Michot - means that Michot has become rather partial to wines from the Piedmont. "Angelo Gaja is just one of the best winemakers in the world," she affirms. "And not just his big reds; he does some great inexpensive whites, too."
Her latest love, though, is wines from Chile. "Their progress is just crazy and these aren't expensive wines for the quality," she enthuses. "Though last year it was New Zealand for me - the Pinots, and the Rieslings particularly. God, they're good," she adds.
Why does she love the job so much? "My best moments are when you get these rather stiff male customers who look at me strangely, wondering why the sommelier is a girl, and then testing me out by asking me to suggest something for them, watching their face light up when I get it right. Then they come back and ask for me, and ask me to recommend something else for them again. I love that response - it feels so good. I think I'll always be a sommelier," she says.
Where: The Vineyard, Stockcross, Berkshire
Little tip? "You cannot match red wine with fish if the wine is at room temperature, so chill it to 15°C."
OK, so Pires is a little longer in the tooth than the others here; and he's been doing the job for much longer. He has already hit head sommelier at a number of establishments around the world (mostly five-star hotels - he's a Four Seasons boy). He was born in Mozambique to Portuguese parents, but this is Pires's first time in the UK and he's about to make a noise.
For starters, he has some rather novel ideas about matching wine and food: principally that you should take the colour of the wine into consideration alongside aroma and flavour (which works, oddly). And he has shaken up the list at the Vineyard, merging the Californian list with the rest of the wines, which are then ordered by grape variety, dramatically increasing the offering of wines by the glass and injecting wines from some new, exciting areas on to the list.
And yes, there are Portuguese wines on there now. Not that he would push them. "That would be far too arrogant," he says. "But people know that I'm Portuguese, so they ask me about these wines anyway." In short, there's been a lot more interest in wine at the Vineyard - which is about time, considering the hotel's raison d'être.
So why come to the UK? "Because it's the best place to learn about all the different wines in the world - and to study for my Master Sommelier exams," he replies. He may even go on to do his Master of Wine here, he adds.
He came to the job a little later than most, leaving the army after six years to manage a small bar just outside Lisbon. "This is where I really fell in love with wine," he says, though he credits his grandfather's vineyard in the Douro with kick-starting his interest in the subject.
After that there was no stopping him, and he followed the wine route via various sommelier courses and sommelier positions in Portuguese hotels, moving on to Canada, to the Chiado restaurant in Toronto, returning to Lisbon as head sommelier at the Ritz Four Seasons, eventually landing up at the Vineyard. "We think he'll bring something extra-special to the restaurant," says general manager Nicolas Peth.
We think so, too.