Katherine Houston sits down with James Lloyd, head sommelier at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, in the Chelsea establishment to discuss his inspirations, the key to creating an award-winning wine list, the rarest wines he’s ever tasted, and more, in our exclusive interview.
What is your favorite part of being a sommelier?
There are many facets that I do enjoy; my favorite is being able to guide a lot of the guests that we have to make sure that they have a total experience. To hear the feedback that they’ve really enjoyed a wine pairing or particularly enjoyed a bottle of wine; is very, very rewarding to hear. When somebody tells you you’ve done your job well, it’s rather pleasant. It’s instant feedback as well.
Are there any particular wine regions or countries that have inspired you most or most recently? How did they inspire you?
My interest has been peaked in Italy once more. There are a lot of new producers coming out with new styles, not just sticking with the old traditional methods and techniques. There are some really forward-thinking producers out there at the moment, which is really exciting; great wines for food pairings coming out of there, which is something we need to concentrate on a lot. But also going back to the classics, definitely Burgundy is interesting at the moment. There’s a lot going on there right now that I particularly enjoy. There are also a lot of producers looking at the organic and biodynamic ways of doing things and producing some really beautiful, beautiful wines at the moment.
How do you create a three star wine list? What goes into making a three star wine list?
A lot of blood, sweat and tears – is the straight answer to that! It’s a question of, for me at least, creating a list which encompasses all the world. It doesn’t matter how big or small or popular the area is, finding styles of wine that fits every palate, every price point – it’s making a complete and complex list, but also presenting it in a way that’s quite simple. Our advice must be simple as well. So there’s a lot of clever buying – for want of a better expression – it’s searching for those little wines which are great value, fantastic to try, and hopefully getting people to try new things.
What are your wines of choice during the summer?
I have to say I do like a good old German Riesling. Especially producers from people like Joh Jos Prüm, a lovely Kabinett or something such as a nice Graavher Himmelreich, or a Wehlner Sonnenuhr Kabinett. Producers like Karthäuserhof, they’re really sort of very lean, very fresh, great acidity, a little bit of residual sugar coming through that just makes it really easy drinking, without considering food or anything. And it’s a little lower in alcohol if you’re inclined that way.
To select just one, I would say the Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Kabinett, Joh Jos Prüm 2006 (Mosel, Germany) something with a little bit of age like a 2004 or 2006.
Which restaurants or wine bars do you visit when you are looking for a good list in London?
In London the wine club 67 Pall Mall is a particularly good place. If you’re wine-minded, the whole place is just designed for wine and enjoying great wine as well, so they have hundreds of wines by the glass. They’re great value also, which is fantastic and, shall we say, in an arena which is nice and relaxed, where you feel you can ask for assistance from the great team of sommeliers there.
Are there young sommeliers who you believe will go on to achieve great things?
I’ve actually got a couple here which I think have got great potential to do something here. Very young, very keen, my young commis sommelier Moritz Dresing and my sommelier Sara Rossi, who have both come to me fairly recently. There’s a lot of potential there, I think to be honest any young sommelier who’s got a keenness to learn and willingness to work hard, and most importantly, to do a bit of graft behind just learning about wine, has got the potential to do so.
What inspiration do you take from The World of Fine Wine magazine?
It’s the general knowledge, which is something that most sommeliers do; we like to gain knowledge whether it is physically about wine or about the wine world and what’s going on, and The World of Fine Wine magazine gives that in spades.
A lot of the time it’s simply using it on the website, so you flick in and flick out, we don’t really have a lot of time to sit down and casually read a magazine! But it is quite nice if you have a spare five minutes to sit down and have a play with it really.
What do the wine awards mean to you? How has this affected you and your establishment?
To me personally, it’s extreme pride. There’s a lot of hard work that goes into our wine list to reach a three star level of Michelin stars [equivalent], we have to be complete and this is part of it as well. To be judged by, what I consider to be my peers and who I look up to, and for them to give me a thumbs up and say I’m doing very well, that makes me a very happy man.
What wines pair the best with turkey?
You can go white or red but it depends on what garnish you’re putting it with. I think whites are traditionally a good way to go, and we can pair a lovely Chardonnay from Burgundy. Looking at the reds, we’d need to look at something a bit lighter so maybe go to an area like Bierzo in Spain. Or possibly looking at a New World Pinot Noir, a nice coastal Pinot Noir from the US, or maybe looking at some of the Australian pinot noirs, they’re fantastic as well. For white a Pouilly Fuissé, Dme Cordier and for red Ultreia de Valtuille, Raul Pérez, Bierzo.
What wines pair the best with beef?
For beef in terms at looking at more European traditional ones we can look at the wines from, Bordeaux as a rule, but some great ones from Italy, like a nice one from Tuscany – a Siepi from Castello Fonterutoli – it’s beautiful.
For me, with beef, as long as it’s got a good bit of power, good structure, good tannins, we’re on the right track I think. I would choose a Siepi, Castello Fonterutoli, Marchesi Mazzei Tuscany, Italy.
Who do you think the best sommelier in the world is? And who do you think is the best in the UK?
It’s a very difficult question to answer. I can probably give two examples from my personal experience. The first one for me is my mentor and someone who trained me all the way up, and taught me to be what I am today, I guess. He’s a gentleman called Ronan Sayburn and he’s one of the master sommeliers. He’s been a massive influence on me and my career in terms of how I hold myself, my knowledge, my professionalism, and more importantly how to work hard and get your head down and to enjoy what I do. He’s been a massive influence to me but I know for many, many people in the UK and maybe further afield as well, he’s been massive.
The other one who I think is probably the most influential, although unfortunately I’ve had little contact with him over the years, is Gerard Basset. I think every sommelier around the world probably knows that name with good reason. I’ve worked with many people who have worked with him and trained under him and all of them are just amazing. Their enthusiasm and simply joy for the job – I can only presume that comes from one man and that comes through from himself.
Who is the most influential sommelier of all time?
Gerard Basset. I’d say previously or currently he has the influence; he’s on everybody’s lips. I don’t think there’s anyone in the industry who doesn’t know who he is. For me, that’s how influential he is.
What is your go-to celebratory sparkling wine/Champagne?
I’d have to say unfortunately I go to Champagne more than sparkling wine, generally, and our house pour here throughout the group is actually a fantastic Champagne. It’s called Ayala and it’s a Cuvee which we’ve had especially made for us with extra age; it’s not open to the market but I have to say it’s rather enjoyable. It’s a fairly recent thing but Gordon has done a lot of tastings and we’ve come up with this product and it’s absolutely fantastic. That’s the Ayala Brut Majeur, ‘Extra Age’, NV.
Otherwise I do like to give the small guys a go such as English sparkling wines – things like Nyetimber for example, are what this country can actually do – a Nyetimber, Blanc de Blancs.
It’s interesting you had the house pour created for the restaurant?
It’s exactly the same as the Ayala Brut Majeur that’s out on the open market but what we’ve done is aged it for an extra year so it’s aged for four years rather than three and it’s rather good, [the extra year] certainly does make all the difference.
What is the best bottle of wine you’ve ever tasted?
The best bottle I’ve tasted is a Chateau Latour 1945, it was just… exceptional. I always think about wines in their historical references and obviously ’45 is a very important year for the world, as it were. I like to think of what went on in those times too, but the actual wine itself was just everything you’d ever want – it’s got great fruit, structure, great balance, great length and it’s just something which evoked wonderment: it was an absolutely beautiful bottle of wine. Fortunately I’ve tried it a couple of times to which I’m very happy to say all of them were amazing.
What is the rarest wine you’ve ever tasted?
I’ve tried a few Lafite Rothshilds from the 1800s and Latours so I’d say some great first-growth Bordeaux from the 1800s from various producers. There can’t be many more than a dozen bottles left in the world if you’re lucky, so that’s very fortunate.