Aristide Spies (aged 39), a native of Arlon in Belgium, has been passionate about the world of wine since his childhood (attending his first wine tasting classes at the age of 13!) and is now a global star sommelier. Despite having travelled extensively to discover new wines, wine regions and winemakers, he remains rooted in the Grande Région, and is currently one of the mainstays of the Cave des Sommeliers. The man who took third place in the World’s Best Sommelier competition (Tokyo, 2013) now manages a brand-new shop named Wine Not in the heart of the Merl district of Luxembourg City.
You are a well-known sommelier who has won awards in the top international competitions. How did this passion for all wines start?
Aristide Spies: Kind of by chance … and at a very early age! When I was 13, I went on holiday with my parents to the Périgord region of France. Although we were there mainly for the old rocks rather than the vineyards, we nevertheless discovered some wine estates. This was fascinating to me! I fell in love with the vineyards, landscapes and encounters with winemakers, who were all extremely interesting characters. When we got back, I read in the newspaper that Étienne Colin was giving wine tasting classes in Arlon, so I asked my parents if I could attend. It wasn’t easy as you normally have to be 16 years old, but I still got to go. I loved it and this passion has never left me.
Why did you opt to be a sommelier rather than a winemaker?
As a teenager, I looked into the oenology course at the University of Bordeaux Institute of Vine and Wine Science (in the Talence suburb of Bordeaux), but realised it wasn’t for me. It was too technical, too scientific, and worst of all, too often limits you to a specific field or region. And having just got back from a year in Australia where I visited quite a few restaurants and met a lot of sommeliers, I decided this could be quite a good option. In 2001, I was hired by the Auberge du Pont d’Oye in Arlon, one of Belgium’s top restaurants (1 Michelin Star, 17/20 in the Gault & Millau guide). I started right at the bottom and worked my way up to become a sommelier. Pascal Carré, who I work with at the Cave des Sommeliers, was my mentor there. It was in this role that I realised I was on the right path. What a thrill to combine the winemaker’s and chef’s work to delight diners! I’ve always loved food too … so no doubt having a mum who loves cooking has also helped in some way.
Wine is such a vast area, so specialising in it to such a high level requires a colossal amount of work.
It’s a job you learn later in life. You have to be passionate and spend all your weekends and holidays on it! However, although it requires hours of work, it’s enjoyable.
2007 best Belgian sommelier, Prosper Montagné award for best Belgian sommelier, 2008 European championship semi-finalist, third place in the 2013 world’s best sommelier competition … what has spurred you on to reach such dizzy heights?
You have to be competitive, that’s for certain! However, it was more the recognition from peers than the awards that encouraged me to work hard to achieve the best results. Having said that, there are also some outstanding sommeliers who don’t take part in these competitions and it doesn’t do them any harm! Everyone has their own motivations and mine are no better than others.
However, all the stars must be aligned. Not only must the wine and dish be perfect, but the atmosphere must also be right.
How do you feel when you taste a wine that you enjoy?
It’s a great feeling when a wine and a dish are very harmonious and the two things complement one another perfectly. However, all the stars must be aligned. Not only must the wine and dish be perfect, but the atmosphere must also be right and the recipients willing. A pairing that works perfectly one day might be much less effective another if not all the same conditions are in place. However, when everything comes together, there is this wonderful feeling of perfection! Apart from that, I like a lot of wines. I would struggle to tell you my favourites… But it’s a real thrill when I taste a fine Madeira, a wine that has such complexity and real personality, with that acidity that draws it out. History is another factor, since Madeiras are often very old. It’s like time travel when I think I’m drinking a wine made when my grandparents were young!
Wine also involves travelling to different places…
Absolutely. When I taste an Australian wine from the Yarra Valley or Geelong I imagine I’m back there. And this works with all the wine regions I’ve visited. I could have been to Mendoza (Argentina) yesterday and Valpolicella (Italy) tomorrow – it’s amazing!
It’s impossible to disassociate good wines from the people who make them.
This is another aspect of the feeling of travel you get from wine. When we drink their wines, we are reminded of the winemakers who have inspired and enthralled us with explanations of their craft and principles. In Jean Berthet-Bondet from Château-Chalon in Jura (I love his vin jaune!) you have a place, a person and a delicate and ancient maturing technique (editor’s note: wines are matured under a “veil”) requiring patience, with a rare grape variety. The feelings you get when drinking a wine brings all that back in seconds! An old Château-Chalon served with Bresse chicken in a vin jaune, cream and morel sauce is simply out of this world. It could be blowing a gale outside and you’d be so content you wouldn’t care!
Is a sommelier’s job ultimately about conveying one’s feelings?
You need to experience these sorts of things yourself in order to share them. Not everyone is fortunate enough to drink old vintages, travel to distant lands, or meet winemakers on their estates, but if we try to be the best possible ambassadors for our cellars and create a special bond with customers during fine-dining experiences, we are doing our job properly. Being a sommelier is not about acquiring knowledge for the sake of it. It’s about sharing things we’ve enjoyed in the hope that people enjoy them as much as we have. All customers have their own preferences, so you have to guess what they’ll like in a fraction of a second. Why are they here? What do they want? Are they with someone? Who? Do they want to spend a lot of money? It takes experience to sense these things and make the right recommendations throughout the course of a meal.
Luxembourg must be a particularly good place to be a sommelier, since people here have more money than elsewhere to spend on the finer things…
It’s true that people here often know a lot of wine-growing regions. They are also inquisitive and ask good questions. Customers from Luxembourg and Belgium for that matter, with whom we are also very familiar, are demanding in a good way. There is a wine tasting tradition here, which means we have to be good at our job.
Globally, competition among medium-quality wines is fierce, but much less so among the top varieties.
Informed amateurs often say that one of the benefits of Luxembourg is its impressive selection of fine wines, which is almost disproportionate to its population.
Exactly. Luxembourg and Belgium are very open-minded countries. When I speak to Italian or French colleagues preparing for major competitions, they tell me they have real difficulties finding good wines to practise with. In Paris, both the locals and tourists want to drink French wines. No one is interested in fine Argentinian or Australian wines, so they are very difficult to find. I have a sommelier friend in Verona, Italy who has the same problem. It’s mission impossible to get fine German Rieslings or Uruguayan Tannats down there! Countries that are big exporters import very little, so sommeliers struggle to try out wines from other countries. Moreover, when you look at the nationalities that currently excel in competitions, the Scandinavian countries, which produce no wine, are in first place. Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark import all types of wine, their purchasing power is high, and people are educated to a certain extent about wine. They benefit from these conditions that do not exist in the major producing countries.
The role of sommelier is sometimes seen as slightly old hat. Properly trained sommeliers are quite rare in Luxembourg…
I think it’s a bit of a cultural issue. At times, competition is intense in certain areas. It’s incredible how many major restaurants in London, New York and Melbourne work with great sommeliers! In this country, it seems to me that people think everyone buys wine in restaurants so why take it any further. Restaurant owners may not have realised the benefits of taking on sommeliers. While it’s true they are paid more than a maître d’ (although certainly not twice as much), if they are good, this will potentially be reflected in sales. They help sell more wine, boosting customer retention through good advice. They also increase profit margins as they purchase wines at lower prices than maître d’s who order from catalogues. They sniff out bargains and negotiate good offers. There are plenty of little tricks to stimulate sales and increase a cellar’s profitability while meeting customers’ requirements. Beverages are the balance sheet item with the highest margin, so they should probably be left to the true specialists! It’s a shame when a very good chef lacks a very good sommelier to enhance his dishes. We are talking about food/wine pairings, aren’t we? Well here, we’ve got the means to do it properly, so let’s make the most of it!
What is your view of Luxembourg wines?
I have been familiar with them for about twenty years, which is not a huge length of time, but I have definitely noticed that their quality is increasing. There are some ambitious cuvées out there, either in terms of the blends, maturing process, or unusual packaging. The trend is positive. And the Route des Vins is gorgeous. I’m a passionate cyclist and love riding in Luxembourg. Not only are the roads fifteen times more scenic than in Belgium, but also some magnificent vistas await those exploring the Luxembourg wine region. Although it’s so close, it feels like being on holiday – it’s fantastic!
Luxembourg winegrowers regret not being more well-known abroad. Do you believe it’s possible for them to improve their global reputation?
I believe that Luxembourg wines have a bright future if the winemakers continue to improve. Globally, competition among medium-quality wines is fierce, but much less so among the top varieties. Switzerland could be a good source of inspiration. I’m not sure the Fendants sustain and captivate the entire country, but the viticulture over there is fantastic with a wide range of grape varieties, top quality wines … and of course very high prices too! Should Luxembourg winemakers perhaps increase their commercial cooperation to enter new markets? I believe that there is strength in unity. And perhaps climate change is a boon for the Moselle. Could they be making Syrah on the Moselle in ten to fifteen years’ time? At the moment, that seems a crazy idea, but in a few years’ time, why not! If Luxembourg winemakers also produce great red wines, this will create new opportunities. Whatever the case, they’ll only survive if they take the quality route.
It’s not easy to be open to new ideas without losing personality or copying…
Sure, but look at wines produced by Mouton-Rothschild: in 1989, their ABV was 12%, which rose to 12.5% in 1995, 13% in 2000, 13.5% in 2005, and now 14-14.5%. It’s all well and good saying Bordeaux wines should retain their style, but is this a 12.5% or 14% style? It may soon be too warm in Luxembourg for certain traditional white grape varieties. Pinot Gris with an ABV of over 14% is perhaps not the future. It’s better to make the most of the situation and turn it to our advantage rather than merely enduring it. Even if all necessary steps were taken to limit climate change, it wouldn’t stop tomorrow. If Luxembourg has to change its grape varieties and the style of its wines, so be it! It might boost its reputation.
There are already signs of such a trend. Estates are planting new grape varieties, trialling new vinification methods, offering cuvées with novel blends, etc.
I’ve noticed that too and it’s really positive! Alongside all that, there’s also the organic viticulture sector, which is gaining critical importance at global level. Major progress is being made in places like Alsace, Germany and Austria. And it sells wine! I work with, Jean-Claude Pujol, a winemaker from Languedoc, who has not yet converted to organic viticulture, but his son who is taking over the estate has recently begun the transition. And he told me he was glad the estate was converting as he was beginning to see a fall in his sales because he wasn’t applying organic methods. His son has 40 years of work ahead of him and can therefore go for it and take risks! Customers love organic wine…