20 minutes with –  Raimonds Tomsons, A.S.I. Best Sommelier of Europe and Africa 2017, A.S.I. 3rd Best Sommelier of the World 2019

by Valentin Jestin at Château Belgrave, Feb.20 2020

          Dourthe has always had a special bond with sommeliers and beverage managers. Pierre Dourthe was originally in 1840 a hotelier in a village located in the South of Bordeaux when he decided to launch a wine business. Since then, we have been building a strong relationship with restaurants and hotels throughout a worldwide network of people that have become our ambassadors in the on-trade. We are very honoured, 180 years after our creation, to welcome the Best Sommelier of Europe and Africa 2017, Raimonds Tomsons.

V. Hello, good to see you here Raimonds.

R. Hello, thank you for the warm welcome.

V. I looked at your CV, and it is quite impressive to see the number of competitions you have won in such a short period of time. To name a few, you were the first in Eastern Europe to win the Best Sommelier of Europe and Africa in 2017. 2 years later, you finished 3rd in the Best Sommelier of the World Competition. Maybe you can tell us more about yourself? About how you came to the wine industry?

R. Sure…so, I’ll try to be very short.

Well, I come from Latvia, from a very small seaside town. As a child, I was very competitive. I was doing lot of sports, playing football. My parents actually wanted me to become a musician, so I finished also a musician school, I played clarinet. But I had a feeling it was not my call. So after the school, I tried my hand in foreign languages, I wanted to study English and German. It did not work out this well, however I do have this language with me. I went to a school in Riga, in the capital of Latvia, which trains bartenders and waiters. And after the first course, in 99, I went during the summer to do some practice in a restaurant, in the best restaurant in Latvia and in Baltics, called “Vincents”. And actually, I’m still working there, since 1999, already for 20 years!

And in this restaurant, there was a very famous and passionate chef, so of course you’re dealing with hospitality, with serving guests, which I really liked.

V. A chef from where?

R. He’s Latvian, had a huge experience outside Latvia, he came back in early 90’s and, together with an investor, established this restaurant. Of course in a restaurant ambiance, you’re dealing with fine cuisine, you have some wines as well…I fell in love with wine in this restaurant! So I wanted to know more, I started to enjoy, study, travel, and at one moment of course I understood that my knowledge was lacking. So I decided to study Austrian wine economy, got a certification WSCT diploma. And with help and support of the owners of this restaurant, I finished this diploma. Additionally, I started to take part in several competitions, I was successful. And, finally, here I am, sitting with you, enjoying a good glass of wine in the middle of Bordeaux!

V. Before a competition like the Best Sommelier of the World, how do you prepare yourself?

R. It’s all a bit like preparing for sports or Olympics. Of course there are many things to do, it’s all about planning. I would say you need at least a year before competition to study, to taste, to train. If you can do more that’s even better. But the preparation of course is all about theory, because you need to read a lot, you need to study and you need to have a system how to remember regions, appellations, grape varieties, history, people, vinification and plenty of other things. So the theory is really broad so you need to have a long time studying.

Tasting, tasting is like going to gym: the more you taste, the faster and efficient you’ll become. You need to develop your vocabulary, your words, your style. Of course in a frame which is correct when you taste wines. And then of course, the most important value of a sommelier is to serve guests, so as for all professions experience is the key. You need to work in a restaurant, you need to serve guests, you need to understand the glasses, temperatures, the conditions and many other things…

V. Talking about the consumers – because of course a sommelier is a bridge between us, producers, and people actually drinking the wines – what would be the most important trend in our industry in Eastern Europe?

R. What everyone is talking about is this trend towards low intervention and organic wines, biodynamics as well, the style of wines which a lot of people call natural wines, however it has no definition…this kind of sense of organic, healthy living, healthy drinking, especially it’s very popular among the youths, the young generation. So it is a trend. We don’t feel that much that in Latvia and Eastern Europe but it’s gaining popularity. So this is one…

And I think that people in Eastern Europe, they are a bit more…their head is a bit more free, they’re more open-minded, they are not linked to specific history or wine culture like in France for example or in other classic wine-making countries. They are willing to try all the new things, wines from Eastern Europe, from the Balkans great wines. I think Greece will shine in the future.

V. That’s an important point. When you build your wine list, I guess you have that in mind… Do you try to be as exhaustive as possible or do you have a more restrictive approach?

R. As a sommelier of course, I would put all the freaky interesting small regions, but as a manager of restaurant, you have to think about the business aspect. I have to sell wine, I have to make our owners happy, so we need to make profit. It’s a nice balance: you need to have classic, reliable regions and wines on your list, and we have also some smaller appellations, some organic wines, some low intervention wines on your list as well. So we could please all kinds of character and style of consumer.

V. Do you write down on the wine list whether it’s organic or not?

R. Actually, before I came to Bordeaux, we revised our wine list and we skipped it, because we thought it was too complicated.

V. That’s why I’m asking… You can have so many labels, so many ways of doing things, so many certifications…I think the most important for a producer is to take the responsibility of having an environmental-friendly approach. And after, the sommelier is here to explain each chateau’s approach…

R. Yes, exactly! Too much information…I mean, look at the labels…sometimes, French labels can be confusing, with all the names, appellations…And, of course, to be correct you need to write them down, if it’s Pessac, or Haut-Médoc, or Pomerol etc…and if you put like, I don’t know, by the name “organic”, or “natural” …people will be like “Ok, what’s that?”. That’s why the waiter or the sommelier is there. If he feels the consumer is really eager to know more about the wine, and if he is open-minded to start a conversation – because sometimes in the restaurant, people are coming to enjoy food, wine, girlfriend, wife, company, business, and not necessarily someone who is serving you…so all these aspects are important. When we recommend a wine, and we have the feeling it’s the right moment, we will give more details about the wine…you know “this is a low intervention wine, they don’t use any sulphur etc…”

V. I’m sure the food and wine pairing is an important aspect as well at Vincent’s. For me, there is no gastronomy without the complex flavour of a fine wine pairing a dish. How do you see that?

R. Well, wine and food matching, you’re absolutely right, is very important. Although, sometimes, I have the feeling we are over-reacting and we are trying to make things too complicated. There is a certain theory behind wine and food matching: tannins are good with proteins, acidity cuts through the richness, saltiness with acidity etc…sweet with dessert, white with fish, red with meat…However, I have travelled a lot and my pairing wine with food is based on experience, on feeling. I taste the dish, I smell the dish, I see the flavours and immediately comes a wine to my mind.

V. And many wines are very versatile as well. Sometimes there is no proper rule, it depends on how you cook, it depends on everyone’s palate too…

R. Absolutely. The palate of the guest is the most important. So it’s a combination of feeling, a little bit theory; you have to do it in a very humble, easy going way. We do a lot of things with our chef so, yes, just make it easy, and try to bring out the best experience for the guest.

V. In the trend you were talking about, where is Bordeaux and where do you see Bordeaux in the next couple of years?

R. I think Bordeaux is still very important. It’s the DNA of fine wines, the DNA of wines which have a great ageing potential, history, people, traditions, culture at the end of the day. So I think it will be always very important. Of course we are dependent on the economy…perhaps…it’s not cheap wine obviously, it’s a wine which has a certain price and value so that of course limits the range of consumers. But it will be always very important in fine cuisine, in good lists of fine restaurants. Also we saw today we can have a wonderful Château La Garde. I would sell it on my list around 50-60 euros, it’s a good value and you can afford it. And of course it’s a classic region, you have to understand that people are looking outside and as I mentioned, they are eager to try new things. Also, Bordeaux demands a certain level of experience and knowledge from the consumer. It’s not the wine which you would start with. It’s really good that Bordeaux demands certain respect from the consumer as well “know our history, come and visit us, explore, and then you’re ready to taste Bordeaux”.

V. You have been working in this restaurant for quite a long time, in the past years have you seen a change in terms of requests from the guests regarding Bordeaux?

R. I would say more or less it’s very stable. Ten years ago our wine list was more expanded in terms of Bordeaux. Now the times have changed, people in our market drink less super-fine wines…You can sell quite easily a wine from Bordeaux if the price is up to 150/200 € a bottle. Then you can sell it, you can open it by the glass. If it’s more than 200€, then you have a very limited spectrum of consumers who can afford it, who understand it. If I approach a guest and he asks me “can you recommend me a wine?”, of course I will recommend a wine for 250, 400€…so you need to feel the guest.

V. You have tasted several wines from us today, two vintages of Château La Garde from Pessac-Léognan and Château Belgrave, Grand Cru Classé, Haut-Médoc. What are your feelings and do you recognize the identity of each property? Can you tell us your opinion about these wines?

R. Absolutely.

Let’s start with Château La Garde. 2010, obviously a great vintage, one of my favourites, I can tell. It’s a combination of concentration, density, tannins, but also amazing freshness and purity of fruit. La Garde is an estate which is perfectly approachable already now. It’s ready to drink, it’s a wine more driven by elegance and freshness, and a fruity character. It’s a very gastronomical wine. You can drink it on its own, especially the 2014, which is specifically fresh and pure. 2010 of course has a bit more concentration, and I think it’s perfect with a bit heavier cuisine or food. But indeed both vintages are perfectly approachable now.

We move to Château Belgrave…of course it’s another league we’re entering! Again 2010 is a very complex wine, still quite youthful, starts to show its evolution notes, tobacco, truffle, this kind of flavour aspect; tremendous intensity, but very polished, very find-grained tannins; if you like concentrated and richly-structured wine, you can easily open a bottle now, but of course it has the potential for many years. 2014 again, a vintage which is sometimes not respected as much as 2015 which has followed or maybe 2010, but I think it’s a really great vintage to discover, especially if you like your wine a bit lighter, fresher; red-fruit character, acidity and a bit chalkier, sandy-textured tannins; it’s an amazing wine to discover and to enjoy with different kind of food.

And we finished with Essence de Dourthe, a very exciting project. We tasted 2000, the first ever vintage, merlot and cabernet from two wonderful estates of yours. This is a wine again which is driven by evolution and maturity. You have all these complex flavours of truffle, mushroom, earth, tobacco, spice box, and then underneath you have dry red fruits, balsamic vinegar, hints of herbs, of hay, the beauty of evolution of Bordeaux, absolutely tremendous and complex wine, perfectly enjoyable now!

V. Thank you very much for your feedback, you’re doing it well. And thank you very much for your comments. I hope you will enjoy the rest of your trip in Bordeaux.

R. For sure, thank you very much.