Food & Drink: Pouring forth

Not sure what the sommelier's role is? Don't worry, you're in good company
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"HAS SIR already ordered the wine?"

"Mmm, yes, I'm starting with the Chambolle-Musigny, and finishing with a Muscat Beaumes de Venise."

"Good choice. May I suggest something French with the red, perhaps a roasted pigeon with pommes Maxime? I think you'll find it robust, with a clean finish. As for the Beaumes de Venise, how rich is Sir prepared to go?"

"Well, it is a celebration, so I could splash out."

"In that case, may I suggest the pear poached in passion fruit juice?"

While today's sommelier, or wine waiter, tends to advise on which wines would best suit your food, it hasn't always been so. In Louis XIV's time, the sommelier was also in charge of desserts. Go back even further, and you'll find that the original sommelier was a monk, responsible not only for the monastery's wine, but also for the crockery, linen and bread. He was the fat one with all the keys.

The term sommelier dates back to the ancien regime when the King's sommeliers were responsible for the wine brought by the sommiers - an abbreviation of betes de somme, or beasts of burden.

These days the sommelier shoulders a fair burden himself, charged with the responsibility of providing wines that will complement our meal naturally and gracefully, at a price that will not cause undue indigestion.

In many cases, the sommelier is a highly-qualified practitioner, with many courses and several vendanges in premier cru vineyards behind him. He is, after all, a specialist, and so it is hardly surprising we feel the same terror, awe and sense of unworthiness with a sommelier as in the company of a neurosurgeon or gastroenterologist. The consultations, after all, are strikingly similar.

The sommelier's tastevin is much like a stethoscope in that it lies around his neck as a badge of honour, mainly for effect. As with all specialists, the sommelier will speak in a string of strange, exotic words that cause us to nod our heads sagely as if we understand. We don't, of course, but we do know that the more foreign words, the more expensive things are going to get. We also know that by the end of the operation we won't be feeling much pain.

Many people have the wrong idea about the role of a sommelier. Unfortunately a lot of them happen to be sommeliers. These are the ones who see themselves as belonging to an elite, crack regiment of wine police. They like to say things like malolactic fermentation (nod, nod), and their major mission in life appears to be to get us to order the 1967 Chateau d'Yquem and the 1973 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Then there are those who are really only waiters who've done a weekend course in wine-pouring. Or the ones who do the buying, and get the kickback, for selling some oxidised dog of a bottle from South America.

A good sommelier will make your food taste better. Like Serge Dubs, of the three-starred Auberge de l'Ill restaurant in Alsace. Tell him what you wish to eat and he will probably talk you out of the semi-precious Burgundy you had in mind and suggest something more appropriate. He once proposed I try a very reasonably priced and very beautiful Gerwurtzraminer from the nearby village of Mittelwihr, that spoke volumes in the same dialect as my brioche and foie gras.

The role of the sommelier continues to change as our restaurants change. Today's sommeliers must be more flexible, and more adventurous. They have to know what goes with fragrant lemongrass, cumin-scented lentils, lemony-chicken tagine, and sour tamarind-noodle soups. They have to know what's happening in Spain, Australia, South Africa and Argentina, not just in France.

Just as a waiter is the link between diner and chef, the sommelier is the link between drinker and wine-maker, charged with the fine, on-going relationship between the two. His job is to communicate, entice, inform, match-make, and know when to shut up.

The really good ones make you appreciate how well they do the job. The really, really good ones make you think you did it yourself. !