Time to put the sommeliers in the spotlight: William Wouters

William Wouters

In the world of gastronomy it are always the chefs that are put in the spotlight! Time for a change I’d say and put that spotlight on the sommeliers for a change :-). Especially with the ASI Worldchampionship for sommeliers coming to Belgium in 2019, they deserve it more then ever! That’s why I’ve send 10 questions to a few top sommeliers to find out more about their world… The first sommelier I’ve send the questions to is William Wouters aka ‘el presidente’ 🙂  or better the chairman of the Belgian Sommelier Guild and the person who we have to thank for bringing the championship to Belgium. I personally already know William since I’ve been born and have to admit that I look up to William when it comes down to wine and knowledge about wine!! He has learned me lots of things and still helps me to discover wines, vineyards, etc… I also know for a fact that I’m not the only one looking up to him. Lot’s of Top sommeliers still ask William for advice or help. For many years William has worked and participated in lots of competitions at international level with results one shouldn’t be modest about!! What I also always liked about William is that his motto is “wine doesn’t have to be expensive to be good”!!! A motto that was also a golden rule in his restaurant (Pazzo)

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Every winegrower, (top)sommelier or person involved with wine I mention I’m from Belgium comes with a at least one story about a crazy night they had at the Pazzo winebar with William 🙂 (who used to be the owner of Pazzo). 2 years ago William decided to leave Pazzo in the good hands of  chef Ingrid Neven and Tom Dhooghe. The mean reason for that was William being able to spend more time with his wife and kids in Portugal. William’s wife Filipa Pato is a very renowned Portugese wine maker who comes from a long line of winemakers in her family. You could also see it as William changing sides 🙂 from sommelier serving the wines, to winemaker making the wines.

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Although it must be said he also spends lots of his time with his other passion… football. William is also the cook or better person coordinating the cooks for the Belgian national football team (Red Devils) and therefore also travelling a lot with them.

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What is your favorite wine region to work with?

Bairrada – you all know why… 😉 😉

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

A broad knowledge of all beverages and a good culture about food. Perhaps the most important thing is: a very good “social” intelligence

Is the job of a sommelier underestimated/valued?

Underestimated because a sommelier is a kind of a barometer in direct contact with the customer. He feels the straight needs and consequently acts to them. A good sommelier is a big added value in the front of a restaurant, bistro, wine bar, wine shop,…

When and how did you get the passion for wine?

From small on I was intrigued by the complexity of wine and the wine world in general, the diversity, the interaction with the climate, soil, grape varieties, perception of the winemakers, link to gastronomy… the more you know, the less you know, the more you want to know… (Confucius 🙂 )

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

Obelix, he fell into a barrel with the magical potion as a kid, I think sometimes the same happened to me, but I was probably too small to remember

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

Feeling… This is the biggest challenge for a sommelier! There is no such thing as right or wrong… Depends of many factors : people, the mood, time of the day, the weather, the budget, taste, …

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

Bairrada – you know why… 😉 . No, no kidding, I would recommend to visit as many wine regions as possible. As a sommelier it is very important to go into the vineyards and speak to the winegrowers and winemakers to understand better the wines that are made, and why they are made in a certain way. Wines for me should always reflect the place they are coming from. Authenticity is a key word for me

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

For all the wines I don’t know. So I think I still have a lot of work to do!

What is your most wonderful memory of hotel management school?

That I always “had to be” a volunteer to go to things related to wine and other beverages. I really loved it! Also to share these experiences with the friends and colleagues gave huge satisfaction.

A culinary or wine experience everybody should have had besides have a meal at your restaurant?

Whatever, wherever, whenever be open minded and keep your eyes, ears and certainly your tastebuds open! This is the intriguing trigger that will always keep you eager to improve as a sommelier! You are never done!

The top sommeliers of tomorrow

More than ever gastronomy is present in all our lives, you cannot turn on TV or you see a food related show. A part of gastronomy that seems to get a bit less attention is the beverage part… or so I thought!

As you might know next to the ‘senior’ competition for Best Belgian Sommelier the Gild of Sommeliers yearly organizes (already since the 70’s) Best Belgian Junior & Junior Commis sommelier. The junior competition is actually for students from the 6th and 7th year of high school (chef school) who do a specialization ‘beverage knowledge’. I was surprised about the turn-out of young students (accompanied by their teacher). What I also didn’t know is that Top sommeliers are like rock stars for the students 🙂 Really they wanted to go on the picture with some of the judging top sommeliers and get some tips and tricks 🙂 🙂 WHO KNEW…

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Wanting to participate in a competition like this is already an accomplishment on its own. I mean it takes a lot of courage to stand in front of a whole group of people (fellow students and judges) and execute/answer your questions , especially knowing that most of the contestants don’t have lots experience yet… especially if you compare it with the participants of the ‘senior’ competition who have years of experience of working in general, but also from visiting lots of vineyards, etc…

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Nevertheless the level of knowledge and know-how is very high amongst the students and it’s a stiff competition!! This year’s event was also for me the first time to be present for the finals as previous years I wasn’t able to make it. Something also nice to know that I found out while browsing through last year’s pictures is that last year’s participants of the 6th year were participating this year in their 7th year 🙂

Finalists 6th year 2015

Finalists 6th year 2015

Finalists 7th year 2016

What I did notice was that 5 of the 6 finalists were of the Ter Groene Poorte chef school… I don’t want to say that one school is better over the other, but it looks like the preparation at Ter Groene Poorte was done really well. Another thing that was remarkable was that 90% of contestants were women!! This means that women are finally catching up. It would also be great if more women would participate for the ‘Senior’ competition, but it seems in a few years they will.

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The competition for the ‘Junior Commis’ exists out of 3 ‘tests’ with as special topic Languedoc and for the ‘Junior’ out of 5 ‘tests’ with special topic Portugal.

6th year students had following questions:

  • Decant a white wine wine and serve this
  • Tell as much as possible about 2 wines and if participant knows he/she can say which one it is
  • Pair wines with a 4 course menu (+ appetizers) of 55EUR
    • Appetizers
    • Spring role + smoked mackerel + lemon herb + rucola
    • Asian style sole rolls + gnocchi
    • Lamb filet in filo pastry + green asparagus + gravy with sage

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7th year had following questions:

  • Serve champagne in accordance with good practices rules
  • Pair wines with a specific 4 course menu (+ appetizers)
    • appetizers
    • Terrine of rye wing + watercress coulis
    • ‘Moscovite’ patato + sour cream
    • ‘Black Angus’ filet + early vegetables + marrowbone
    • Pineapple + coconut + sesamy
  • Decant a red wine
  • Describe 2 wines as good as possible and say which wine it is.
  • Recognize 3 alcoholic drinks

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What makes a good sommelier a top sommelier, for me, is his/her presence and his/her knowledge about wine and the ‘Fingerspitzengefühl ‘…Nothing irritates me more then when I’m at a restaurant and you ask a sommelier for advice about which wine to take with a specific dish/meal that you can feel they’re just playing darts. Not that I need a sommelier to speak an hour about a wine he’s serving, but a little word on why he’s serving that wine doesn’t hurt anybody. Another important feature is daring to make the non-safe choice of wine and surprise your customer…instead of serving the classic option maybe go for something more funky or unknown (and still budget friendly). When I say this I always have to think of Dirk Niepoort that said some of his wines aren’t drinkable on their own, but work perfect with some dishes.

It wasn’t easy for the judges to quote the finalists, but they managed. The winners were:

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6th year Elise De Waele

7th year: Yannih Paton (who insisted his school to subscribe him and came alone to the competition. Talking about willpower )

I’m looking forward to next year’s game!!

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.

Antoine winelist

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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 …