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Time to put the sommeliers in the spotlight: Fiona Morrison

You might have noticed that the sommelier or even the wine world is mostly lead by men. The number of lady sommeliers is not as high as we would like it to be... although the tables are turning as more and more ladies are finding their way towards the wine/sommelier industry. The sommelier I want to put in the picture today is the one and only Fiona Morrison!!! A role model to lots of ladies (and men) in the wine industry!! Fiona is one of only three Masters of Wine in Belgium and the only woman. Next to that writer of MANY wine articles and books (for which she received the James Beard Award and the Prix Lanson), she creates wine lists for SN Brussels Airlines, is a wine consultant at Christie’s, gives conferences, is a Trustee of the Institute of Masters of Wine and a newly elected member of the Academie Internationale du Vin, a high powered wine think tank. She also is a regular judge at the Best Sommelier of Belgium contest.

As if all of that was not enough Fiona’s main occupation is helping her husband (the one and only Jacques Thienpont) to make the wine and manage their three estates that I think need no introduction: Le Pin (Pomerol – one of or if not the most renowned/exclusive wine house from Pomerol), L'IF (Saint Emilion) and Chateau Goubau (Côtes de Castillon). And in between all of that she still found some time to answer my 10 questions!!

What always fascinated me about Fiona is the fact that she speaks British English, makes wine in France and lives in Belgium :-) :-) (or at least she commutes between her homes in Bordeaux and Belgium). One day I’ll find out what the story is behind that ;-)

What is your favorite wine region to work with?

I obviously spend most of my time working in Bordeaux; making wine, buying wine, visiting producers and selling wine from there – I came of âge with Bordeaux and I know it intimately. However I love working with our fabulous collection of Burgundy estates and my interaction with them gives me so much pleasure.

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

I would rate personality and communication skills above knowledge. If you don’t have the right way of communicating with your clients and transferring your knowledge in a clear way, then all your training and tasting is worthless. As a client, you can tell immediately if the sommelier has the right attitude.

Is the job of a sommelier underestimated/valued?

No. I think today thanks to the World Sommelier competition, the Master Sommelier exam, the film “Somm”, the rôle of the sommelier is better understood and appreciated than ever before. Today, sommeliers are more important than the wine press in spreading the word about new wines, starting new trends, pointing out forgotten treasures.

When and how did you get the passion for wine?

I was lucky to grow up in a household where wine was a part of most meals. Sunday lunches were always a time when my father opened a great bottle of wine. At University there was a Wine Society; I finally came to run it and with a team, won several blind wine tasting competitions against other universities. The rest is history!

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

I have enormous respect for Gerard Basset – he is ambitious but very humble still and I love his enquiring mind and his attitude to wine. I also believe that sommeliers take themselves to seriously sometimes, my antidote to that is William “Pazzo” Wouters who I love to laugh with – alongside a great bottle of wine of course.

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

I am so curious that I’m always trying new things. I look much more at the texture of the dish and the type of sauce it is served with rather than whether it is a steak or a sole. I often think of wine as that crucial squeeze of lemon on fresh fish – it brings out the freshness and the flavour of the dish without overwhelming it. Of course, wine should then be able to be tasted for its own merits so I look for “food wines” with good acidity, fresh fruit, balance and elegance – I am not a great fan of oak or extraction and I don’t feel that I have to play by the rules.

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

Here I would have to say Bordeaux. First of all, the city of Bordeaux is drop dead gorgeous now that it has had a make-over and has so many great bars and restaurants and places to visit (check out the new Cité du Vin).

Then there are so many legendary places to visit – a drive up the D2, the route de chateaux to see all those famous names – Margaux, Palmer, the Léovilles, the Pichons, Latour, Lafite, Cos – the list goes on. A visit to the Right Bank is made spectacular by the medieval beauty of St. Emilion and the rolling vineyards and countryside. Entre-deux-Mers has great castles and bike trails and very democratically priced wines. In fact , there are so many different styles of wine at so many price points that there is a wine to suit every budget and taste.

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

I was born in a great vintage, so I love it when I have a chance to get my hands on that. I also adore the wines of Egon Muller: his Scharzhofberger vineyard is fabulous and I have had the great chance to taste some historic older vintages. Once you have tasted a great wine, you want to repeat that expérience again so I am often making big sacrifices for the sake of great bottles!!

What is your most wonderful memory of hotel management school or viticulture studies?

It was the camaraderie of studying so hard for the Master of Wine exam and knowing that so few of us would make it that it made our tastings, courses and lectures so intense and wonderful. I am so proud of the Master of Wine institution and the way it can open up the lives of wine professionals to a new way of thinking, tasting and communicating about wine.

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

Some of my most vivid culinary and wine memories are those that were the most simple, often experienced “alfresco” as a picnic or barbecue. I remember lobster bakes on the beach in Maine with a stash of old Burgundies from the 1960s that I bought as an odd lot at an auction and we drank out of old goblets; I remember end of harvest barbecues with freshly picked cepes served raw with olive oil and salt and young Le Pin. You don’t need too much ceremony or a white tablecloth to have a legendary expérience…..although a dinner with Josep Roca when he paired the best of Spanish wines with his brother’s cuisine came pretty close.

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