Time to put the sommeliers in the spotlight: Antoine Lehebel

I know it sounds strange when I tell you a Frenchman won the title of Best Belgian Sommelier in  and defended the Belgian colors during the World’s Best Sommelier Competition earlier this year 🙂  🙂 And yet it is all true!! It was my dear friend Antoine Lehebel has done it all with lots of pride and a big smile. Antoine Lehebel is head-sommelier of the Brussels Michelin starred top restaurant Villa Lorraine  and a great example that even if you didn’t go the hotel management school you can succeed as a sommelier!! You only need the drive of wanting to do everything to  achieve your goal … And I also know Antoine still has lots of ambition left as he already has lots of new targets he wants to succeed in 🙂 What I like about Antoine is that he is a very modest/humble person who loves every aspect of his job. Sometimes I wish I felt the same about my job 🙂  Just like with William Wouters, I asked Antoine 10 questions that give you a view in the life of a top sommelier.

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 What is your favorite wine region to work with?

I love the Loire valley because of the diversity of wines, and honestly you have so many great vignerons there. You can play with the style, color, age of the wines, and you can find a lot of original stuff too… and the region is really dynamic so it really is one of my favourite region to work with. I was born there too so there is a touch of chauvinism also… 😉

What does it take to be a good sommelier according to you?

Passion for wine, eagerness to share with people, and a bit of fun also, an evening in a restaurant should never be boring you need to have a good time, and a sommelier (or anyone working on the floor for that matter) should be able to make you feel at home.

Is the job of a sommelier underestimated/valued?

It depends, obviously as a guest you only see the tip of the iceberg, but sometimes do not realise all the work involved before your service, but we can feel more and more interest about this job, which is very gratifying, we all need to keep up the good work to make this role even more estimated in the future.

When and how did you get the passion for wine?

It all started in London when I started to work in an indian restaurant, the German Manager was a sommelier for some years and started to teach me a bit. I got hooked very quickly, and never stopped since then.

Who is your big example in the wine/sommelier world?

Well first that would be Thomas Heimann who’s been my mentor when I started in the trade, and then I do not think I have one “big example”, there are too many great sommeliers around.

What is your approach for pairing wines(or other beverages) with dishes?

There’s a sense of feeling obviously, and I always try do find some harmony in the flavours, but it is really fun for me to get quite technical too, i think the association of tastes, and their effect on the perception you have is an amazing subject to study. you can actually make a taste changing according to your pairing, which is a nice game to play, but obviously it takes a bit interest on that matter.

Which wine region would you recommend everybody to visit and why?

The Douro Valley without hesitation! breathtaking landscapes, brilliant wines, and the dry wines are getting better and better, I am very fond of that region. You can easily spend a full week there and come back for more because you never have enough time to see all of it!

For which wine would you make a big sacrifice to be able to taste?

Very old german rieslings, I have a great memory of a 1949 riesling Sonnenhur spätlese from J.J Prüm, probably the best wine I have ever tried (so far)

What is your most wonderful memory of hotel management school?

I actually did not go through any hotel management school, so I can not really answer this question.

A culinary or wine experience everybody should have had besides have a meal at your restaurant, shop, winery, etc..?

The restaurant “le pot d’étain”, in the Chablis region, at l’Isle sur Serein (well, it is lost in a small village 30 km from Chablis but is definitely worth the trip), the food is traditional french fare, very well executed, and the wine cellar is like….the best i have ever seen, with very kind prices and the best french wines represented in any region.

2014 Best Belgian Sommeliers Trophy

Wine has now more than ever become such a great deal of my life and I keep learning every day. Watching this year’s finals of the Best Belgian Sommelier competition made me realise there is still a very long way if I ever want to be as good as the finalists :-). What made this year’s final extra special is that for the first time the “Belgische Sommeliers Gilde”, “Prosper Montagé” and “VVS” have joined their forces in organising 1 collective competition (instead of all separate contests).

Every year again I am surprised how tough the finals of the Trophy of Belgian Sommelier is. Lots of people despise it a bit and don’t get the whole sommelier thing or the importance of it. Trust me when I say a good sommelier who knows what he’s talking about and how things should be done is a world of difference with one who doesn’t! During a dinner for example. I dear you to check it next few times you go out for dinner or lunch and after a while you’ll know what we’re talking about and their importance of making your food experience more complete! Another possibility would be to come and see the 2015 finals as they are open for everybody to come and see. You’ll be surprised of the level these guys work at. before I continue I must introduce this year’s victims 🙂 🙂 : Benoît Couderé (Karmeliet), Antoine Lehebel ( Villa Lorraine) and Jasper Van Papeghem ( Hostellerie L’ Esco )

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Some parts of the competition might seem simple, but they’re not. What first of all makes it so difficult is that there are so many different types of wine from so many countries each having their uniqueness but also similarities.Also there some ways/ rules on how bottles should be opened, decanted and served… On top of that all stages of the competition are to be done in certain amount of time going from 3 to 15 minutes. The first “test” is for example a very good example of seeming simple… Just like last year the finalist had to serve according to the rules of the art a particular bottle of J.L Telmont champagne. So far nothing special might think, which is true if it weren’t for the fact the finalist has to explain what is special about the champagne he is serving, taking into account that the oldest person at the table is celebrating its birthday and that all of a sudden somebody from the public joins the table and asks a Belgian beer (and yes here again the finalist has to tell something about)… still taking into account he only has I think it was 10-15minutes (not sure anymore) to fulfill this task and there is a whole room full of top sommeliers, journalists and “regular” people watching your every move .

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The most difficult part according to most spectators was where the finalist has to make corrections to a wine list. The errors on the wine list can be grammatical, a wine being in the wrong section of the menu, as well as that for example there is written a wine is Millésime but according to the other specifications it is not possible this wine is a Millésime. Me personally I always find the most difficult part the tasting and recognizing wines or alcoholic drinks… where they have to tell as much as possible about what they taste, like country, grapes, vintage, etc… knowing they (the jury) try everything to confuse the finalist by for example serving the drink in a black tinted glass. FYI the whole completion gets followed by a bailiff to make sure every happens correct and that all 3 finalist get treated in exactly the same way. Also the jury judging the finalist exists out of a international group of people of Top Sommeliers, Top wine journalists (no, not talking about myself ;-), but about somebody like Fiona Morrison for example). After all 3 participants did their thing the answers are show, this sometimes gives big surprises.

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Again, I think I still have to learn a loooooooot before I could ever participate or to maybe even get close to level of the participants. This year’s winner was Antoine Lehebel ( Villa Lorraine)!!!! Last year he was 2nd and before the start already a favorite. All 3 participants were very good, but Antoine gave the most correct answers and seemed the most fluent of all 3. Congratulations to Antoine! I must admit I was jealous about all the gifts he got :-). Another advantage of the joined forces of the organizers of the contest is that the winner gets even more gifts than last year 🙂 I hope to see you guys next year to get a new view on the world of sommeliers!

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More about the celebration of the victory in my next post …