Sommelier of the Month - Stephen Nisbet
- Name: Stephen Nisbet
- Place of birth: Edinburgh
"I have been working 15 years as full time sommelier during which time I have gained qualifications in wine, spirits & sake. My career so far brought me to London first of all during the opening of the 5 star Great Eastern Hotel and its Conran restaurants. I then went to Bath to work with Martin Blunos at his 2 Michelin Star restaurant, Lettonie. Coming back to Berkshire I joined the team of The Riverside Brasserie in Bray and was then taken on by its sister establishment, The Fat Duck where I completed a year’s work. I wanted to come back to London and found a place at Green’s Restaurant in St. James’s which was great experience not least for the whisky selection but also looking after the industry captains and British aristocracy that were honoured regulars. I then worked under Alan Murchison at L’Ortolan, another great place in the UK restaurant scene. The opportunity came up to get some management experience abroad for which I went to Mongolia, where the capital has a thriving and rapidly expanding hospitality industry. I returned at the end of a contract and found my current post at The Square shortly after, in February 2015."
The Square has operated among the highest levels of UK gastronomy continuously for over 20 years, I had certainly heard of it long before I ever dreamed of working there. We can seat over 80 including a private room of up to 20, so the sommelier and bar team of six can be very busy.
Stephen's wine and food pairings
Youthful spatlese (medium) German Riesling
I love this combination as it works so well with the natural sweetness level and acidity of the strawberry. Sweeter wines and even light reds were tried that worked on some levels but not as well as this one.
Viognier from the northern Rhône, France
Although the grape produces quite mellow wines there is plenty of acidity here to refresh the palate during eating. I find bass does not deal so well with very crisp wines as they can interfere with the subtle texture. The wine’s flavour profile complements the character of the dish garnish beautifully.
Fine pinot noir from Burgundy, Oregon, New Zealand
The meat packs a huge amount of flavour and texture due to its aging and while the loin is comparatively gentle in taste there are richer cuts on the plate to consider. I find good pinot has the weight and drive to handle the dishes’ complexity without being overbearing, and the sweet earthy bright tones in the garnish pick out nuances in the wine with ease.
Semi-sweet oxidative style wine such as Malaysia Madeira, or rich oloroso sherry
The dish is quite rich and also served very hot so I prefer to offer drinks that can handle the flavours at cellar / room temperature. The chocolate used is very fruity in character so a raisin richness works very well, with the oxidative characters are working well with the challenging spicy ice cream. I have also found a mellow, sherry barrel aged whisky superb with this dish too, and does better at freshening the palate during eating than the wines.
How did you first become interested in wine, and how did that interest evolve into a career?
My earliest introduction into wine as a job was interesting. I remember the wine waitress at the hotel where I had my first summer job was brilliant but fearsome, but I soon got to know her and of course she was a great laugh and she took me to my first wine tastings. I was offered the chance to do WSET level 1 when I started there full-time, and that was it, I was hooked. I sat my WSET advanced certificate the following year. I didn’t do any sommelierie until I took my second job. The new hotel somm was looking for a wine waiter / assistant and found me through HR that I’d already done some courses. I did an intense year of tasting and cellar work with him alongside my chef de rang duties and that got me fixed on working in wine as a career.
What do you think makes a good sommelier?
You have to be a good listener, be entirely focused on the guest you are speaking to. You must be aware of and be able to interpret the needs of the individual who may or may not be the host, and the needs & wants of the party in general which might not be in line. Guests are very often looking for quite explicit guidance almost to the point of being told what to drink even if they don’t say so, so one can be quite bold about expressing opinion provided it’s appropriate and in the customer interest. I always have a ‘clock’ in my head to help measure how long I’ve spent talking, how long the guest spent looking, and to judge the point at which to ask ‘do you need more time’ so that other guests don’t feel like they are being ignored.
Describe your typical day at work.
On arrival I will always check work emails for new and ongoing matters that need attention, double-check on deliveries due, go over the previous day sales and ascertain if any changes need to be made to the wine list. There may be a quick meeting with a supplier or wine maker before grabbing some brunch served at 11am prior to service briefing before we open when we will taste & discuss some dishes /drinks and go through the menu or other necessary training. Lunch can last most of the afternoon so the team’s hours are structured so that everyone gets a break and I have time to go to a tasting or do some office work once service dies down a bit. We eat a meal together at 5 before briefing again, with service getting going again from early evening. Before it gets busy there is usually time for observation, on job training for the team, re-tasting a sauce or garnish and to decide on wine pairings. After dinner the necessary office duties including orders and reports will be completed before locking up for the night.
When pairing 'Chef's' dishes with wines, what defines the process for you?
I will always involve the Chef when I can, they know the ingredients inside out and the reasons for combining them plus what flavours and textures should stand out. I will try to think of ‘perfect’ pairings and note them down, then from there go on to source drinks that will fit in terms of availability, price, balance with the rest of the menu and how I imagine the guest will perceive the selection; I like to ensure that there is interesting and even challenge in the selection, but it should overall be an enjoyable experience.
Please describe your process for sourcing new wines.
I will regularly ask suppliers for their recommendations and ask to taste them. They know the portfolio and are usually only too glad to be asked. Going to tastings and actively trying new things is a must. I will always try to find out about availability as early as possible as there’s little use in imagining an ideal pairing on the tasting menu if there’s only a few cases going. Then it could just go on the list by bottle.
What trends have you noticed in the wine market recently?
I’ve noticed much more awareness among consumers of wine from regions less commonly seen on shelves and lists. There is clearly more willingness among perhaps a younger, new generation of wine drinkers who really want to drink more Greek, Georgian, eastern European.
Do you have a favourite food and wine pairing?
Fine Vin Jaune & aged Comte cheese together is incredible, there is enormous complexity from both sides yet still they work together.
What is the most unusual food and wine you know?
I could only consider the most unusual that I still enjoyed, which would be roasted Marmot that I had in Mongolia and some mature, 16% natural Priorato from an estate called Masia Barril. I didn’t have at the same time but I think they would have worked well together!
How can customers get the best out of you? What should they be prepared to tell you and what questions should they ask?
I believe it’s for us to ask the right questions, but if you’re going to tell me anything it’s helpful to get an idea of budget even if that’s just pointing to some examples. I have more often recommended more sensible options when the guest actually wanted something more serious, than the other way round.
How can budding wine enthusiasts practice their tasting skills at home? Any games, tricks, or tips?
There must be a great many tips and tricks as the approach to tasting is so individual, but the first step must be to seek out variety when you purchase, habitually not buying the same wines.
Where do you see your future career path?
To continue working at the top level of the wine & spirit / restaurant industry.
You are on that deserted island. Which two varietals do you plant?
Ignoring all concerns such as climate and soil I would plant Riesling and Nerello Mascalese.
Who is the one person you'd most like to share a bottle of wine with?
My wife is not in the industry but has a great palate and is very honest about my wine selections.