Many – most? – of us tend to repeat certain meals at home and we know what we like to drink with them – and now and again we try something a bit different. But home is about comfort and coziness, while dining out is about splashing out socially and emotionally, whether or not you do the same with your pocketbook. So your behaviour is different, and if you’re in splash-out mode and in a restaurant with a good sommelier, he or she is going to look for that and try to help you have fun.
Geoffrey Bentrari is a sommelier I met when he was very young but already rich in experience, at Didier de Courten’s restaurant in Sierre. We were both judges at the Mondial des Pinots wine competition and he argued with such force and enthusiasm in favour of one wine, against the other older judges at our small table who pooh-poohed it, that he won me over completely. He’s still young and very fun and lively and he’s a great sommelier, now working at the President Wilson Hotel in Geneva.
In 2010 Gault&Millau named him Switzerland’s best sommelier.
Tuesday he and Emeline Zufferey, oenologist for Vinea, led a curious tasting session of a dozen Swiss wines where each was quite different from the others. His introduction reminded me that although the only wines I need to have at my fingertips are ones I like, sommeliers needs a much bigger selection.
They have to know about so much more than what is in the bottle, Geoffrey insisted – there’s the culture, the history, the human beings, and more, plus at the centre, the winemaker. “That’s why we’re at the table, to push the vigneron forward.”
Beyond the stars, there’s you, me and maybe the boss
Most professional wine tastings focus on the quality of the wine, often comparing similar wines. In this case Geoffrey was talking to a group of mainly food and wine restaurant people and making the point that he, and they, need diversity – not only do they need to pair foods with wines, but they have to work out the psychological aspects of what’s going on at a table, what the guest might or might not like, how flexible people are in their tastes, whether they are trying to impress the client/lover/boss in town. Some people will be happy only if they order a celebrated wine brand name, but happily, sommeliers are there to convince us the other options are worth trying. One wine definitely won’t fit all!
I looked at my two glasses in a new light as they were refilled. I remembered how twice I had meals with Geoffrey as sommelier and I had asked him to just bring whatever wine he thought would work. This was perhaps after a certain amount of wine had already been consumed. His eyes got a wicked little glint and he dashed off to the cellar to find a wine I didn’t know, probably wouldn’t have ordered – and one of those times I didn’t even mention my price range, ouch. Both were great wines, discoveries for me, and whew, within my budget. Seeing his pleasure at getting it right doubled the fun.
We began our tasting Tuesday with a very classy Chasselas and towards the end we had two quite different Merlots. If I were the kind of guest who promptly says, “No, I really don’t like Merlot”, how or why would Geoffrey try to present one of these two Merlots to me, and which one? Would it make sense to try to serve me this perfect starter Chasselas if my guest has no experience of Swiss white wines?
So many Swiss grape varieties
But I’m getting ahead of our tasting session.
Enter a multitude of Swiss grapes, from Pinot Noir, the most widely grown grape in Switzerland, to Chasselas, number two and the main wine in Vaud, to Gamay, which is Geneva’s most popular grape, and then a rash of others, each with its own story and favourite terroirs.
The occasion for the tasting was the presentation of the fifth in a series of annual brochures published by Vinea, an organization that is best known for its international wine competitions, the big wine fair it holds every September and its popular free Swiss wines app. Each brochure features about 50 wineries from the app and each year the theme changes; this year’s theme is Switzerland’s different grape varieties. The brochure was introduced as part of Vinea’s first “Vinea on Tour Geneva”; the organization, based in Sierre, previously took two small wines fairs on tour to Zurich and now it’s added Geneva. The idea is to make it easier for the public to sample wineries from around the country.
We started, as one does in Switzerland, with a Chasselas, and I loved it. The Maison Carré in Auvernier, Neuchatel, with wines by Jean-Daniel Perrochet, has a filtered and unfiltered Chasselas; we had the unfiltered Blanc sur lie, all delicacy, purity. A very clean and fresh wine, with notes of white fruit and flowers, mineral in mouth and yet delicate. At 11% alcohol, it is light and easy but a wine you notice: a classic Swiss aperitif wine.
Later, we had another Chasselas, from Louis Bovard, a 2003 which defies any pre-conceived notions that these wines must be drunk young. Gentle notes of vanilla rather than the honey and hazelnut often found with aged Chasselas were followed by a well-balanced mouth and elegant, slightly bitter finish. No unwelcome buttery elements here, and I would hate to waste this on an aperitif. My table neighbour, from Gault&Millau, and I both murmured sudden little “mmm’s” at the same time and grinned at our shared pleasure. Maybe this is the wine to impress the boss?
We had other whites, for other moments, other guests we might invite. The Vully Savagnin rose aromatique Traminer by Javet & Javet is romantic – everyone fell in love with it, and love is contagious when it’s at your table, right? I discovered the charm and humour of the winery’s design work, from logo to labels to web site, only after tasting this wine, so that came as a bonus. The Gérard Besse winery’s Petite Arvine 2016 is energetic and clean as a whistle, sharpened by the Mont Blanc granite that gives rise to it (that’s my mental picture). I would like to toast a glass with my son the mountaineer. From Lake Zurich we had a Räuschling, Meilener, whose remarkable yet happy acidity in mouth follows the cheerful nose of pineapple, gentle citrus (Geoffrey mentions a bit of menthol, but my nose doesn’t find that). Personally, I’d opt to start with this if I were closing a deal involving millions, get everyone on top of their game, and leave the ancient Bordeaux for later.
The reds were more complicated, and I missed Geoffrey’s answer about what he would do if someone said they didn’t like the Gamay we were tasting because an argument was afoot near me about whether the wine was closed. I moved on rapidly to the next, a wine I loved, Pinot Noir Les Cailloutis 2015 from Domaine des Landions in Neuchatel. I don’t really know the winery and am excited to learn more, as the wine had a gorgeous nose and equally pleasing mouth. They use indigenous yeasts, intervene as little as possible (someone snorted that it doesn’t mean they do nothing), said Geoffrey, which brought to mind curling matches I’ve been watching during the Olympics. There is a lot of action, but designed to subtly just keep that 42 kg stone moving in the right direction. It was this wine that sparked a conversation about what makes a “modern” wine: the notion of terroir, you can drink it young, you can use wood but not just to age the wine, and you don’t intervene a lot, was what I think Geoffrey said. It’s a deep, almost brown shade of red and very dense, something I could fancy with a peppery fish. So, modern in winespeak doesn’t mean light and wimpy, thank goodness.
From there we had other reds, not all of which pleased me, while others were happy with them, and the Merlots made me hungry for an excellent polenta, before we moved on to a final wine that our sommelier said he sells easily and often – and yet there was little agreement about it in the room. Geoffrey suggested this Gamaret Cuvé des 3 Ours 2015 from Domaine des Curiades, Lully is good with a chocolate moelleux, which I would have tried had the combo been set before me. But if it isn’t a dessert wine, maybe meat? Spicy meat? Little enthusiasm around me for my suggestion. Think of Amarone, since that’s the style – rich dried grapes, 18 months in oak. One neighbour suggested it might work with Stilton but as someone married to an Englishman who loves Stilton and Port I immediately cried out “No!”, as it felt like a cultural sin (and didn’t sound good, either).
With a certain amount of muttering and undercurrents of small debates we retired to the public tasting, Vinea on Tour Geneva, where we each found the wines that suited us. Something for everyone.
I think it must be exhausting to be a sommelier.
Vinea Swiss wines app can be downloaded for free on Google Play and the App Store
The Face of Swiss wines 2018 brochure (in 3 languages: German, French, English) is available free by ordering it from Vinea; previous editions can be downloaded