The wine world can seem as dark and opaque as a heavily-oaked Australian shiraz, or as capricious and unknowable as a flighty Sancerre.
Thank Bacchus, then, that there are some brave wardens out there ready to take our hand and guide us through the maze. Sommeliers are the classical conductors of the wine world. They take the raw product of the wine list and transform it into a virtuoso song in perfect harmony with a menu, a mood, or a moment.
And perhaps the greatest maestro of all is Arnaud Goubet, the Director of Wine at the Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire. We spoke to the man behind the famous wine list at the two Michelin-starred institution, and asked him the questions that matter.
What are the biggest faux pas that customers tend to make when ordering and drinking wine?
New customers quite often ask us what wine we recommend, which doesn’t really help as we don’t know what they’re after. Though I am always happy to recommend my preference or favourite wine of the moment, it might not be to the guest’s liking. I happened in the past to recommend a good bottle of red when the guest only wished for a glass of white with their beef, for example. Many of our guests are not familiar with many of the wines we serve.
How should we taste wine when the sommelier pours a bit in our glass for sampling?
Smell quickly and taste. Appreciate if you like it or not, if it is at the right temperature, and if you wish the sommelier to decant it or not.
What should a customer do if they don’t like the wine after they’ve tasted it — even if there’s nothing technically wrong with it?
Just let us know, and we’ll always change it. We should only drink what we enjoy.
"For me one of the biggest faux pas is ordering a wine just because you recognise it."
Is the myth about the ‘second cheapest wine on the menu’ true?
This is not the way I write my wine list and I’ve never really identified this on any list. So yes, this is just a myth. But there are many myths about wine.
What should you do if you spill a glass of wine over your date?
Not a good thing at first — a bit of humour is certainly needed. “Ça s’arrose” [let’s drink to it], as we say in France!
If you could only drink one wine for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Let’s say my life was about to end, I would enjoy a great glass of Gevrey-Chambertin, preferably young.
Which country or nationality has the best understanding of wine?
Which wines are the most frequently requested/ ordered wines at Le Manoir?
Sancerre, Chablis, Bordeaux — and “your cheapest house wine”!
"Overrated wines? Dom Pérignon, Château Margaux, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Clos St Hune are some of them..."
Which cliches would you like to banish from the wine world forever?
Riesling isn’t sweet or German! It also isn’t Riseling, but reez-ling.
French wine is too varied to say you simply “do not like French wine”. If you like wine, France is always a part of the world to explore.Wine is like a painting — you like it or you don’t. But it doesn’t have to be understood to be appreciated. Understanding can come afterwards.
What is the most overrated wine on the market right now?
Hard to say. Many wines are over-priced, and over-rating comes from the fame which is used and abused through marketing. Many appellations in France are over-rated — Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux all have theirs. Dom Pérignon, Château Margaux, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Clos St Hune are some of them.
And the most underrated?
This is the other way around. The less regarded appellations have their gems: Languedoc, Portugal, Umbria, Sicily. Forget Rioja and discover Bierzo, Castilla Y Leon.
Which glass should you drink champagne from?
A tulip shaped glass. Champagne glasses are nowadays looking like white wine glasses.
Which unusual grape varietals do you recommend we try?
Mencia, Chenin, Dry Muscat with Zibbibo, because they are just surprisingly good and still unknown. And Riesling is still not well recognised.
"Oysters and Chablis is the most exquisite food pairing in the world"
Have you ever dropped or ruined an incredibly expensive bottle of wine?
Yes. A bottle of Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame dropped and exploded in the Harvey’s Cellar. I am glad I didn’t try to catch it on the point of impact!
What’s the most exquisite pairing of food and wine in the world?
Oysters and Chablis.
What is an unusual pairing that really works?
A rich, full-bodied red with smoked salmon
Do you remember the first time a wine really blew you away?
In 2001, a Cheval Blanc ‘59 lasted six hours in a small glass, keeping perfectly well during an evening service. In 2003, a Batard Montrachet JN Gagnard, which I had forgotten on the shelf, was still delicious the day after at breakfast time.
What mistakes do restaurants most often make when serving or selling their wine?
Serving temperature can be too warm or too cold, and it often differs with the guest perception. But selling wine too young is probably every restaurant’s main issue.
What would you have as your last meal?
Blanquette de Veau with a petit Montrachet.
Are there any off-the-beaten track restaurants with exceptional wine?
Wine bars like Brawn on Columbia Road in East London, Noble Rot in Bloomsbury, and Le Verre Volé in Paris
What wines should we buy as investments in 2019?
Burgundy, the ones which will keep. And always the top Bordeaux: the first growths.
Want to know what the secret ingredient of all great wines is? Read our insider’s guide to find out.