Food & Drink: Angels at my table

Why did two of the Continent's best female sommeliers end up in London? Well, it wasn't just for the wine ... Photograph by Luca Zampedri
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Joelle Marti comes from the Catalan region of south-west France. Luciana Girotto is from Udine in Italy's north-eastern corner, near Venice. Both are young women sommeliers, and both have left home to work in London. Despite growing up steeped in food and wine cultures, they felt stifled by parochial attitudes at home. London, they say, has allowed them to broaden their experience by giving them the scope to taste and buy an unequalled range of wines.

"Five years ago, wines from overseas started to appear on restaurant lists in Italy, but they are still, by and large, made up of home-grown wines," says Luciana Girotto.

Joelle Marti agrees: "In France things are beginning to change, but most customers are still resistant to New World wines. Here, you can find wines from all over the world."

It's not just the wines but attitudes, too, that attracted them to London. "As a woman sommelier in Italy, you're taken less seriously than a man," says Girotto. "Here, I'm better treated by customers and staff."

Girotto is currently working at the Stefano Cavallini restaurant at London's Halkin hotel, where her brief is to open customers' eyes to the excellence of Italian wines. "Most people are unaware of how good Italian wines can be. The perception is often: `There's Gaja or there's nothing,'" she says.

With her colleague, Bruno Besa, Girotto has enlivened the list with tantalising new-wave Italian wines from small estates: the emphasis for reds is on Barolo and Barbaresco, and for whites on Trentino Alto Adige and her native Friuli.

Joelle Marti originally came to England as much to learn English - the international language of top restaurants - as to gain new experience. But at Gravetye Manor she was so captivated by the taste of top Australian wines like Henschke and Leeuwin that she soon left for Sydney on a voyage of discovery. Sure enough, she found a new dimension to New World wines while working at Cicada, the well-known Sydney restaurant. "The Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz from Australia were more concentrated than anything I'd ever tasted before," says Marti. She still loves making new discoveries, such as the Spanish red, Rufete.

After returning to England, Marti opted for Le Pont de la Tour, the jewel in the Conran crown. Working in tandem with the larger-than-life West Country wine merchant, Bill Baker, she brought her own stamp to the wine list, blending New World wines with small Italian estates, and obscure but interesting bottles from Bergerac and Irouleguy. Then a fresh challenge beckoned at top London casino club, Les Ambassadeurs.

Here, Marti aims to introduce new wines to an admittedly traditional list. "They have to be good wines, but with something special about them, too. Wines like Torre Muga, Phigaia [a Tuscan Cabernet Sauvignon] and Joseph Phelps's California Vin de Mistral Viognier."

Along with red and white Burgundy, Luciana Girotto adores the classic wines of Italy. Her favourites are the Barbarescos of Polissero, Produttori del Barbaresco, and Gaja. But she, too, has started to enjoy New World wines: "New World wine has a future because it's good value for money. And younger people are more open to trying it."

Girotto and Marti believe strongly in the importance of communicating with customers and creating a relaxed ambience. "Even now, sommeliers think that if you don't smile, you must be more serious," says Girotto. "I think the opposite. Wine and food is very personal. Here, we need to spend time talking to customers, who often want to re-create the magic of the experiences they had in Italy."

Joelle Marti sees herself as the intermediary between the winemaker and the customer. "Pleasure is not scientific," she says. "The place, the time, the mood, changes. You can follow guidelines, but you also have to respect individual tastes. By talking about the wine and the winemaker, where it's made, the conditions and so on, I introduce the whole picture rather than just a product.

"I would like customers not to be so scared of the sommelier. Yes, you have to be a bit tactful when the customer says he doesn't want a Chardonnay, he wants a Chablis [Chablis is made from the Chardonnay grape], but we're here to help create trust between the customer and the restaurant"

White of the week

1998 Wirra Wirra Hand-Picked Riesling, pounds 7.99, Oddbins. Aussie Rieslings may sometimes lack the delicacy of their best German counterparts, but with the bonus of endless warmth and sunshine, their body and flavour makes up for any missing subtlety. Made by Ben Riggs from McLaren Vale and Clare Valley grapes, this is a delicately spicy, rich, dry aromatic white with a palate-tingling, lime-citrus peel tang.

Red of the week

Sainsbury's 1996 Reserve Selection South African Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 5.99. I could drink a lot of this modern, claret-style new arrival from the Cape which has all the hallmarks of classic, youthful Cabernet Sauvignon. Made by Martin Meinert at Vergelegen and tinged with herbaceous borders and coffee-bean-like oak aromas, the juicy, savoury palate is full of attractively balanced blackcurrant fruit which is somehow distinctively South African in tone, substance and flavour.