Véronique Rivest, Top Female Sommelier in the World Talks Grapes, Champagne and Food!

By on January 8, 2016

For years I had been reluctant to dive into the world of ‘vino’ as I could never find a wine that sat well with me. Thinking that I was overly sensitive to the wine’s acid content and what felt like sheer gasoline flowing down my throat, I had pretty much given up any hope of really enjoying a glass of wine.

That all changed when I sat down with the Top Female Sommelier in the world, Véronique Rivest. Rivest shed some light on how I could thoroughly enjoy a glass of wine as she debunked many of the wine’s ‘sacred vows’ that have now become obsolete!

Admittedly a non-wine drinker, it was obvious that I had so much to learn. What better way to acquire that knowledge than by talking with a world renowned wine professional.

Rivest’s accolades are impressive to say the least. Over the past decade, Canada has witnessed, through her tireless efforts, win Canada’s Best Sommelier competition in 2006 and defended the title in 2012. Additionally, Rivest has garnered various international titles and achievements. Impressively, in March 2013, in Tokyo, she became the first woman to make the podium by taking 2nd place at the World’s Best Sommelier competition which is deemed ‘the hardest exam ever’.

And if that wasn’t enough, Rivest’s latest accomplishment, her budding chic wine bar Soif with Executive Chef Jamie Stunt, a Gold Medal Plates winner, has made the coveted Air Canada enRoute Magazine as one of Canada’s Best New Restaurants for 2015.

During her very busy schedule, Véronique Rivest sat down with me to talk about wine, some of it’s misconceptions, and Soif.

Master Sommelier

 

In your own words, what is the difference between a restaurant sommelier and a Master Sommelier?

The term has been much abused where today everyone seems to be a sommelier. First and foremost, a sommelier is a server who works in a restaurant serving people. We are servers with specialized knowledge of wine. Unfortunately today, everyone that takes a sommelier class calls themselves sommeliers even though they have never worked a moment in a restaurant.

There are two huge accreditations for wine:

  • Master of wine (UK based) These are not sommeliers. Includes lots of theory, argumentative research papers and a tasting component. No service components as they are geared towards the wine business.
  • Master Sommelier (Court of Master Sommelier is a UK and US based title). These are service professionals. Consists of a three part exam: theory, tasting and serving. There are three different levels: certified sommelier, advanced sommelier and master sommelier).

 

What are the basic wine ordering tips?

There is such growing interest in wine from consumers. Ten years ago there were few sommeliers. There are more and more now since restaurant owners realize the usefulness and the benefit of having someone who is wine savvy because their clients are.

Ask if there is a sommelier in the house to help you. However, whenever you ask for a wine recommendation, be it in a restaurant or in a liquor store, and if they try to make a wine suggestion without asking you any questions first, this is a RED FLAG, so don’t take their advice.

Are there some wine faux pas? Do’s and don’ts?

No such thing as a wine faux pas because taste is subjective. Our job is to make people happy. Another RED FLAG, is to steer clear of sommeliers that go down the road of trying to enforce ‘rules of drinking wine’ – enjoy what you like with what you like!

It’s not rocket science, its wine, it’s for our pleasure. The industry has for so many years been making people feel intimidated by wine, that it completely defeated the purpose of it.

Breaking the rules and its definitions

 

What ‘golden’ wine rules would you suggest or recommend to those new to drinking wine (like myself) that are willing to experiment and try?

Be very open minded; don’t let ‘old’ rules sway your opinion. If you are trying to improve your tasting skills be focused and be disciplined all the while having pleasure. Have fun ‘wine tastings’ with others as sharing is very important. Being able to have an exchange of opinions with others. Have a certain discipline and rigour in your tasting. With today’s technology where everyone has a cell phone attached to them, people should take pictures of wines that they enjoy and those that they don’t. This will help a savvy sommelier to recommend a wine based on the information that the client has provided them.

What does the reference ‘new world’ vs. ‘old world’ mean so that the average person can understand?

Old World are wines from Europe or wherever they have been making wine for more than a thousand years. New World is non-Europe. The American continent, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. Places where they have been making wine for hundreds of years as opposed to thousands. Old World and New World wines is a question of stylistic preferences.

New World wines tend to be often more fruit driven, fruitier flavours and are more expressive. They have more sweetness and more of the things that are pleasing to the palate. Conversely, Old World wines tend to be earthier. They do have fruit in them, but they can also have flavours such as tomato leaves, tobacco and leather. More earthiness and savouriness to them.

I generally categorize wines into two categories: Terroir wines and Technological wines.

Terroir wines are wines that are more representative of the place they come from. The flavours of the wines will be different based on the conditions of the land and the year that it was produced.

Technological (or industrial) wines are wines that are quite simply a ‘recipe wine’. There is enough technology today to fabricate wines where one can go to a winemaker and ask for very specific requirements when making wine: the desired colour of the wine, the alcohol content, dry or sweet flavourings, with or without tannins, the flavour notes in it, etc. Technological wines are made with case studies to fit a certain profile for a certain segment of the population. They are made to taste the same wherever you buy them, whenever you buy them.

There’s no country that has the monopoly of quality when it comes to wine. And, there are very few bad wines out there compared to 50 years ago, let alone 20 years ago.

Myths and Misconceptions

 

Why does white wine have a ‘not so good’ reputation in comparison to reds, which are deemed to be superior?

It’s a myth, a beginner’s myth and a snobby myth. Just like there’s no country that has the monopoly of quality, there’s no colour or wine style that has the monopoly of quality. Most wine lovers after years of tasting and learning, usually go back to drinking white wines. In North America, 70% of wines consumed are red, much of which could be attributed to this misconception that reds are superior.

There are no rules, just go out and try stuff and drink what you like!

How does a consumer know if quality is reflective of the price point of a particular bottle of wine?

It’s impossible to really know. As with many things, usually price is an indicator. Another BIG misconception is that wines that age have to be very expensive. Price can be an indicator, but at a certain point wine falls into the luxury product category just like cars or watches. No wine in the world costs more than $30 or $35 to produce. So wine that sells for $2,000 is like the car that sells for $500,000, it’s not worth that. You are paying for the image, for the rarity, for the prestige and marketing.

What is your wine shopping advice?

When reading wine reviews, don’t go on the wineries website for impartial reviews for obvious reasons. Seek out 3 or 4 wine reviewers’ recommendations with their suggested picks and see what you end up liking. This will determine what source helped you out the most. The key to remember is, wine is very subjective even for wine writers and sommeliers. Anything that has to do with taste, there is no exact answer.

A $200 bottle will never be ten times as good as the best $20 bottle you ever had. As you go up in price, the price quality ratio starts dipping. So the best price quality ratio ranges between $15 and $50 for a good bottle of wine.

When you know more, you enjoy more. Trust your own taste and feelings!

What do you think is the most versatile ‘go to’ wine out today?

Champagne is the most versatile wine. It goes with everything! It’s the most food friendly wine there is.

What wine or wines do you think are underrated?

Champagnes and sparkling wines are generally underrated for their food matching qualities. Even individuals that love Champagne will still typically have it only as an aperitif as opposed to enjoying it with main dishes.

Greek wines have also been underrated. Their wines are unbelievable! Amazing grape varieties that no one has ever heard of. Made from grapes that are not found anywhere else.

Marriage of Food and Wine

 

How would you describe the marriage between food and wine?

There are no set rules when it comes to food and wine. It’s a matter of constantly experimenting to find the right matches of what wines will compliment the dish and vice versa.

Eat what you like and drink what you like and you’ll be happy!

The concept that to always be on a mission to attain the perfect food and wine ‘match’, will take away the pleasure that was first seeked out.

At Soif, I’ve always insisted on having simple foods. Just give the best ingredients possible and play with them as little as possible and let the real flavours shine through. Just like in winemaking, the least you play with it, usually the better the product you’ll have in the end. The reason for having very simple preparations at Soif, is to really let the wine shine.

To me a wine bar is not somewhere where you go for the most precise wine and food matches, it’s more for exploring wines.

What are the hot new wine destinations?

I’ve become a huge fan of Greek wines. I was struck with Greece’s great history and tradition of wines. Their amazing wine culture with grape varieties only found in Greece, in addition to their great food culture.

Over the years, German wines have been undervalued and have had the stigma of having the ‘sweet wine’ reputation, which is false. German wines are the most complex, long lived incredible wines on earth. Germany makes wonderful dry white wines; however, their sweet wines achieve a balance that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anywhere else. A wonderful synergy between acidity and sweetness.

Speaking of travelling, why is it that on vacation I can enjoy a nice bottle of wine but when I come home, it’s a completely differently story?

It’s the perfect example of the importance of our environment and how it influences our tasting. Taste is something that is easily influenced by outside factors: time of day, temperature, your mood, who you’re with and atmospheric pressure. It is the influence of your environment on your appreciation of something. The same great tasting wine that you enjoyed on vacation basking in total pleasure, will not taste the same if you enjoyed it on a cold winter’s night after a long stressful day at work. Environment and frame of mind changes our taste even though it’s the same wine.

Véronique, the woman behind the glass

 

Véronique Rivest with some of her staff at Soif, including her General Manager Gaby Lamontagne and Executive Chef Jamie Stunt.

Congratulations for enRoute’s nomination and success, what does that recognition personally mean to you?

It’s huge as I don’t even consider us as a restaurant, we’re a wine bar! It’s a huge honour and absolutely exciting!

Being a sommelier for over 20 years, what made you aspire to pursue your education and further your investment to compete in the World’s competition?

I always loved studying. Always wanted to be a ‘forever’ student. I was always afraid to specialize in one specific area by fear of missing out in other topics. With wine I touch everything: geography, history, chemistry, biology, marketing and economy. Wine allows me to touch my ‘generalist side’. Just wanting to push further, not wanting to be the best or be competitive.

I’ve read that there are major life sacrifices by studying and traveling for the World’s competition; if you don’t mind me asking, what sacrifices did you have to make?

No such things as sacrifices, they were choices that I made. It’s an investment, putting off trips and home renovations for my studies. My husband and family have always been very supportive.

What inspired you to open Soif?

I always wanted to give back to the younger generation of sommeliers. To give them the necessary tools, the knowledge that I have, to help them move forward in wine competitions. All Soif servers are hospitality professionals with solid wine knowledge.

Since sommeliers must have a vast knowledge of wines, they must also have an extensive knowledge of the culinary arts and the varied cuisines that our world has to offer. How do you prepare for that?

I read everything I could get my hands on and lots of eating! Constantly trying new ideas for wine and food. And with the love of learning and sharing, it’s fun seeing what works and what doesn’t, and hearing what others think.

What would you say is the hardest part of your job?

Human Resources is the toughest and the most rewarding. The people we work with are the most enriching. We are very fortunate to be in an industry that allows us to have instant gratification. Looking at guests be on cloud nine from their evening, but with that there are also guests that are miserable and have their complaints. Handling those types of personalities comes with experience.

You don’t choose your customers. That is where tact and diplomacy come into play!

What are your biggest pet peeves in the wine industry?

I can’t get over the fact that writer’ constantly misspell the word “palate”. And not far behind, the use of the term ‘fruity’ or ‘fruité’ when describing wines. People typically use the term fruity thinking sweet, but in the professional wine jargon ‘fruity’ or ‘fruité’ refers to wines that have really ripe fruit flavours and aromas but can be fully dry.

What is the biggest life lesson that has played a pivotal and crucial role in your success and in life?

Being curious and being humble. Stop worrying. Stop obsessing of what others think of you. It’s debilitating and stops you from doing things in life. Surround yourself with people who are real professionals that are supportive. As opposed to those that pass judgment and will put you down, and ironically those are the ones that more than ever, know the least and have a need to step on others to move ahead. Real professionals regardless of their field are modest and humble. They will guide you and when you make a mistake they will call you out on it, but will be supportive and help you move forward.

With the recognition and success of Soif, what are your aspirations for it?

Soif will definitely be the focus for several years to come so that it can sustain long term success. Who knows maybe some babies will come from Soif. I’ve developed this wonderful network of friends and sommeliers from around the world that share the same passion and might open Soif in tandem with somebody else. Soif on the beach sounds pretty good!

In regards to competitions, I will always be involved in that aspect in one form or another. Whether as a competitor again in the future or as a coach for others who dream for more in their wine careers.

What is the overall experience you’d want your guests at Soif to take away with them?

A wonderful sense of happiness!

Rivest’s tips to remember

• The role of a sommelier is not to tell you what you should eat or drink, but figure out what you like and suggest a wine that will make you happy. Their role is not to tell you what to have, but rather tell you what will happen if you have ‘this with that’.

• Try to understand the reaction of certain wines with food.

• Experiment with different foods and flavours.

• Play with wines that have tannins to understand its reaction to different foods while being mindful that tannins harden with fish and soften with rare red meats. For example: start by cooking a nice piece of fish, taste it and then taste your white wine. Proceed by adding some lemon juice to your fish and drink the wine again. The taste of the white wine will never be the same. By adding lemon juice to your fish, your white wine will seem to be less acid and fruitier. By contrast, if you like acidity you won’t enjoy that. Just like with steak. Cook two similar pieces of steak, one medium-rare and one well done served with a very tannic red wine. With the well done steak, the tannins will harden and stick out. However, with the medium-rare steak, the tannins will melt and become really rounded.

• If you don’t enjoy a bottle of wine, put the cork back in and try it again the next day to see if you change your opinion of it. Always give wine a second chance.

Throughout history and time, from regions spanning the globe, wine and food have always had a harmonious marriage. They complement and accentuate each other’s subtle nuances to the point where, when one is tasted alone, key flavour notes might not be so evident. And having had the pleasure of dining at Soif, and experience first hand what the right wine recommendations can make to an already perfectly executed meal, I can see how Soif has earned its deserved success!

And so I’ll take the advice of the Top Female Sommelier in the world and assign myself the arduous task of drinking more and more glasses of wine until I find one that pleases my palate…one sip at a time!

Cheers!

 

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