Interview with Fabrice Sommier
"I can’t remember if I chose wine, or if wine chose me." We won't make an exhaustive list of the many awards he has received, but one thing is certain: Fabrice Sommier and wine are a given! Named Best Sommelier Worker in France in 2007, he tells us about his passion, with humor and humility. Meet him.
"I was 23 months old when I took part in my first "tasting". I always say there's something a bit Obelix about that story."
At what point did you decide to become a sommelier?
Honestly, I’m not sure that I did “decide” to become a sommelier. I can’t remember if I chose wine, or if wine chose me (laughs). I can think of two people who really helped set me on this path:
- My grandfather, who had me tasting wine when I was young. Very young, in fact... I was 23 months old when I took part in my first “tasting” (laughs), on 14 July 1972. My parents had gone out somewhere and my grandfather, who had a few barrels, got me to taste the wines with a pipette. I always say there's something a bit Obelix about that story.
- My favourite teacher: I was pretty good at school, and alongside the French, maths and history homework my teacher would sometimes lend me a book or two... One of them was about wine. And I thought it was great! There is a human dimension to wine which is fabulous, and that’s what appealed to me.
In any case, I think of wine as a sort of extension of myself. It's my passion.
How would you define wine in three words?
Happiness / pleasure / sharing
What makes a great wine list?
To begin with, to put together a great wine list you have to let go of your ego... You have to tailor the wine list to the clientèle, and to the place. It also needs to be compatible with the style of the chef. If you have a chef who cooks nothing but fish, it's going to be tough to have a wine list full of reds. And of course, you can’t put together a great wine list without love and passion. Talking about wines is one thing, talking about wines that you have actually tasted is another thing entirely! Customers appreciate that, especially when it's done with humility.
"Bordeaux is all about wines with rich colours and a real human touch, wines made by passionate winegrowers who are proud of their terroir."
What is your relationship with Bordeaux and its wines?
I’ve always had a very good relationship with the Bordeaux region; I always receive a warm welcome here. I started out in the restaurant industry in 1984; that's when I was selling my first bottles of Bordeaux... I remember the first order I ever placed as a sommelier: Château Beychevelle 1970. Hailing from the Val de Loire, I was kind of raised on Cabernet Franc (laughs), and when customers would get a bit tired of Chinon or Bourgueil, we used to steer them towards wines with an aromatic profile which is somewhat similar, sometimes a little more complex and developed... The Bordeaux estates.
I have a special affection and fondness for Bordeaux… For me, Bordeaux is all about wines with rich colours and a real human touch, wines made by passionate winegrowers who are proud of their terroir. And that commands respect.
You’ve taken part in your fair share of competitions; can you share an experience or an anecdote which has stayed with you?
I’ll start with an experience which helped me to understand that in order to taste victory, you first need to understand and learn from defeat. In 2004 I missed out on winning the title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France and I know why... I didn’t listen to the questions closely enough, one question in particular, and I got a very bad score, which was justified. So it was a painful experience at the time, but in the long run I think it was beneficial. I worked hard to get better, especially at public speaking. And that made me much more confident when I tried again in 2007. I was better prepared, and it was the start of a long run which began with Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 2007, then winning Master of Porto in 2010, and then my two trophies in Cuba in 2013 and 2014. I’m still the only Frenchman and the only European to win that one, and I love Cuba, so I’m very proud!
People sometimes forget about Sauternes but the wines are fabulous, and they can give you some superb food and wine pairings. And talk about diversity!
While we’re on the subject of Cuba, can you give us a great wine and cigar pairing?
Forget about red wines, regardless of what some people might say. For me, the tannins in cigars and the tannins in red wine are just not compatible. It leaves you with too much bitterness.
But you have an extraordinary appellation in Bordeaux by the name of Sauternes. In fact, all of the sweet white wine-producing appellations. People sometimes forget about Sauternes but the wines are fabulous, and they can give you some superb food and wine pairings. And talk about diversity! Rich, opulent wines. And then wines with citrus flavours and a bit more tension. There are wines where you really feel the barrel ageing, and others which give you more fruit, more straight-up indulgence. So I would say a good cigar deserves a good glass of Sauternes (laughs). The first time I won was with a Cohiba Behike 56 and a Château d’Yquem; the world's finest cigar and the world's finest sweet wine.
Any thoughts on the Best Sommelier of the World contest, which will be held in France next February?
It makes me feel proud! But it's about the fraternal spirit first and foremost. Hosting the world's best in France is great news for the whole profession and for all wine lovers! We don’t realise how lucky we are to live in a country abundant in vineyards, where people love wine, where wine is part of our identity and our cultural heritage. Obviously we all want Pascaline* to win, that goes without saying! (*Pascaline Lepeltier will represent France at the contest, ed.) But for me the most important thing is this great coming-together, with sommeliers from 60 countries all over the world. It should be an opportunity to celebrate French know-how, but also the French art of living. So I’m just proud, proud and happy (smiles).