Discovering a Rich New World

WITH ALEX NICHOLSON

SOMMELIER

How did you initially get into wine?

My passion for wine began in 2012 when I was working at a little off-the-beaten-path wine bar. They served what the locals liked to drink: Sancerre, Chablis and Pinot Grigio in the summer, while Malbec, Cabernet and Nebbiolo all were the favorites in the winter.  When I started there, I had no particular passion for wine – it was a means to pay for university. Those wines were lovely and I was able to taste the classic grape varieties of the world at little to no expense to me and read a little about them and the places they came from. Then there was the day – like Alice falling down the rabbit hole – when my whole perspective was forever changed. The wine? From Calabria, a blend of Nerello Cappuccio and Nerello Mascalese grapes that would be more recognized from the southern Italian island of Sicily. Instantly, I was engulfed. This was something very new and unheard of in Ottawa at the time, but I was determined to share it with whomever would listen. And so began my obsession with the obscure and underappreciated.

I continued reading every wine book I could get my hands on – to this day, there are wine books scattered all over my living room. After I moved on from that little wine bar, I went straight into WSET level 3 and on to French Wine Scholar, as well as completing the northern half of the Italian Wine Scholar.

The world of wine is ever changing and incredibly traditional all at the same time. You can walk the line of history and innovation in the same glass. You can travel the world, hear the stories of the families that have been making wine for centuries, without leaving your seat.

What I love most about wine is discovery. Do not get me wrong, I love a good classic. (They are classics for a reason after all). However, what I love even more is discovering an unheard-of winemaking region and traveling there for the first time through the liquid in the glass. Tasting an ancient grape varietal that has been brought back from the brink of extinction by a labour of love.  Just as much, I love an offbeat pairing, whether it is Riesling vermouth with foie gras or sherry with tartar. Watching a guest’s face, as you explain a new wine or pairing to them, twist from unease to satisfaction when they try something completely different for the first time.

That is my spice of life. I get to share those experiences with others. Watching someone’s eyes light up in excitement with an unfamiliar but wonderful experience. How can that not bring passion into my career?  Weird can be, and is, wonderful. Just because it is foreign to us, does not mean it can’t be amazing.

My true passion is exploring the esoteric and under-appreciated and bringing these new experiences to our guests.  After all, going out to dine should be about more than just being out of the house.

What does your current position involve?

Wine director/head sommelier at Eighteen. This includes buying and selling wine, maintaining inventory, managing profitability and training staff. I was responsible for the entire hospitality group training in September, which was really cool. Generally keeping the list pepped up and entertaining for those that are repeat diners, which means changing our by-the-glass programs as often as possible. And I do all the pairings for the tasting menu.

What is your pairing method?

When I was growing up, I actually cooked with smell instead of taste. Because once you put an ingredient in the food, you can’t really take it out. I find that I first have a sense of a dish just by how it is described, because I have at least smelled all of the ingredients at some point in my life or have a sense of what they taste like. Often, I don’t get to taste the dish before I pair the wine. So, I try to think of the main component of the dish; sometimes the protein is not the main flavour profile. If the sauce has more flavour to it than the actual protein of the dish, I might pair a red wine with fish, or a white wine with a beef dish if I find the acidity, sugar level, and body match well. It is hard, but it is fun. That is why I always end up with offbeat pairings rather than doing something straight by the book. There is a book called “What to Drink with What you Eat”, but it doesn’t mean you always have to go by what it says or what you heard or learned 10 years ago. Things have changed.

How often do you change your list?

Whenever I think a wine is exciting or is something the guests will like, I bring it on by the glass. Or if there is an opportunity I cannot pass up. For instance, if some back vintages are available and we know the team will be able to sell them and support them through education and talking to guests, I will bring them on.

Any surprises lately?

We brought on Mitch who used to be the sous-chef at Riviera and he is super creative. It is nice getting these random dishes that I would have never thought to put together. His creativity is really fun to play off of. The clientele is starting to change a bit too. We are getting lots of younger people and we are going to be doing lots of tastings. We try to keep it exciting. It is nice to see more livelihood being put back into the restaurant industry.

What would you recommend to people that are new to wine?

Learn the flavours that you like rather than trying to stick to the same wine every time. If you know you like something fruity, there are fruity wines in the world other than Cab Sauv or Malbec. If you know you like lighter wine, you don’t always have to stick to Pinot Noir. Just learn the flavour profile that you like, then you can branch out from there. And don’t be afraid to ask questions – ask as many as you want! There are no stupid questions. And we are all nerds deep down inside.

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