Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Interview: 28°-50°'s Xavier Rousset: a new generation of sommelier

Xavier Rousset can open a bottle of wine 30 different ways. At least, that is what it said on his website. “Ah – that’s bullshit,” he says cheekily, when I mention this at his restaurant 28°-50°, “but you do have to know your wine inside and out, including how to open it”. This is not language, nor an admission I would expect from a refined Master Sommelier. However, he can uncork a bottle armed with a fork and a shoelace; an impressive feat even if it is not one of 30.

On paper, Rousset, 31, is a classic sommelier success story. He quickly rose to head sommelier at Hotel du Vin before moving to Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, which has two Michelin stars, and gained the top industry accolade, the Master Sommelier diploma. He counts Gerard Basset (who recently won the title ‘Best Sommelier in the World’) and top chef Raymond Blanc as mentors. His restaurant, Texture, has just been awarded a Michelin star, and his more low-key version, 28°-50°, opened in the City of London to great acclaim in June this year.

However, Rousset is anything but a classic case. He was only 23 when he became a Master Sommelier (MS), achieved by most in their thirties. The wine lists he puts together for his restaurants are, by self-admission, “quirky”. His democratic view that “nobody’s got a good palate to start” is a view free from the snobbery associated with wine. And though his role is to offer the best wines for your food, he is “not very convinced about food and wine matching”.

Perhaps his liberal views spring from his upbringing. Raised in Saint-Etienne, France, he was “the only one with any wine knowledge” in his family. Like any 16-year-old, alcohol peaked his curiosity and this landed him his first job; although he was “always passionate about food and wine”, it was reading about cocktails, vodka, gin and wine in economics class which so excited him that he “turned that into a profession” when he was 18.

He wrote to Gerard Basset, by then a successful sommelier in England, asking to be taken on. Successful stints at sommelier school and Hotel du Vin followed and his love for wine was cemented. He was “hooked” and “stayed in London ever since”.

Tasting between 3,000 and 4,000 wines a year, which “sounds a lot, but that’s only ten a day”, it seems being hooked is a necessary attribute. How many is he trying today? He looks sheepish as he turns to a bottle standing tall on his workbench. “Today?” he says, “I’ll have to taste twenty-five wines”.

But then, tasting is the lynchpin of the buying and selling; the most interesting part of the job for Rousset. “To buy well, you have to research; making sure the vintage is good, the producers are good,” he says. And the selling? “It’s about seeing people enjoying themselves.”

“Sommeliers don’t create anything,” he says, “we don’t make wine, we don’t make anything, but what we try to give is pleasure.”

28°-50°, which he co-owns with fellow Le Manoir graduate Agnar Sverrisson, is a comely mixture of urbane function and rustic chic. The restaurant has no cellar and you realise on closer inspection all the worn wooden boxes that decorate the shelves also act as practical storage for his wines, including the £200 Corton Charlemagne star buy, reserved that morning by a customer to be sold tonight.

He chats to the casual lunchers with the bonhomie of a friendly barman, devoid of suit, stuffiness, airs and graces. But he does exude professionalism, a mark of his MS training when he learned everything from the climate of the Loire valley, which wine glasses to use, to the flavour of Havana cigars - a subject that was dropped following the smoking ban.

“But now you need to know about cocktails, spirits, beer, water,” he says. “We adapt to what the demand is and to the reality of the everyday.”

The reality for 28°-50° is an innovative business model which puts wine at its centre. Dependent on relationships with individuals who offer their collections at reduced margins, he explains that “restaurants solely make money on their drinks, so cutting the margin is very risky, especially in a recession.”

He proffers the restaurant’s two wine lists; one priced up to £600 per bottle that “people will travel for” from the collectors, and an accessible everyday drinking list with glasses sold for as little as £2. Mornings are spent by the computer updating what has been sold, and emailing his seven contributing collectors before attending to lunch and dinner service on the restaurant floor. Finding lunch service more functional than dinner, he enjoys the time spent talking to the customer in the evenings to see what they want as “it’s no good serving Riesling, even if it’s perfect with the fish, if the customer doesn’t like Riesling”.

“People [have to] get what we’re doing,” he explains, “With two wine lists I was worried - was I being too sommelier? Will nobody get it?

“When we opened I [made the list] half quirky, half safe. Now people want quirky all the time.”

But why does he feel strongly about quirky wines when many would be happy with a Pinot Grigio?

“I used to have a Sylvaner from Slovenia - I got through 24 bottles in two weeks.” He says proudly. “[Those who] have tried will remember a Sylvaner from Slovenia, but they won’t remember the last time they tried a Pinot Grigio.

“There are no rules. If you’ve got good food and good wine, then you’re covered.”

Rousset knows that London an exciting place for those in wine and the success of 28°-50° shows an appreciation for his exceptional skills. After all, London is a city that attracts young international talent just like him.

“The stuffy sommeliers have gone now - the snooty old classic French who are old and arrogant,” he says brightly. “We are now the new generation.”

140 Fetter Lane, London, EC4A 1BT
020 7242 8877

With thanks to Ruth Ford and Kirsten Bresciani


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