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Time to put the sommeliers in the spotlight: Christian Martray

My list of sommeliers I get to interview gets more impressive by the day. The next sommelier in line to put in the spotlight is Christian Martray. For the people who wouldn’t know who mr Matray is, when I contacted him he was on his way to have a little get together with a few unknown chefs like Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchont (to name a few) in Paris… Yes indeed basically a sommelier of the top shelve :-) I can say for a fact that mr Martray is quit the personality in the world of wines! He is THE biggest ambassador when it comes to terroir driven winemakers and also known for his precise notes about wines. So it won’t surprise you when I say he is also a writer :-) What will surprise you is that he even wrote the introduction a Japanese cartoon series (Manga) "les gouttes de Dieu".

About Christian’s career the least you can say is that has been dull or without variation. If you ask me it has been a journey that lots could only dream of. His first steps in the restaurant business were taken at Paul Bocuse’s restaurant in 1985. Funny enough these first steps where taken in the kitchen and not in the restaurant as sommelier. I have to admit that I forgot to ask why he started working in the kitchen and not in a function more wine related… then again I would guess at young age if you get the chance of working in a institute like that it doesn’t matter what you get to do as you’ll always be learning. Christian also admits that mr Bocuse has been a great master and source of insipiration!

After this wonderful start Christian continued his career as head sommelier at renowned restaurants like l'Ermitage Ravet and Albert 1er à Chamonix Mt Blanc. In 2008 together with restaurant Albert 1er Christian started an original concept to make some more exclusive wines accessible for the advanced wine amateur by organizing oenological lunches at advantage price. They had over 60 lunches like this and were able to work together with of many wonderful vineyard like Chateau Yquem and Bollinger to name a few. I can only encourage concepts like this :-) :-)

Today, after 25 years of head sommelier, Christian felt it was time to head another direction and say the restaurant business partially goodbye. It started with helping his friend and Best sommelier of the world in 2000 (ASI) Olivier Poussier selecting wines for a webshop and ended with Christian now working as a fix value to organize tastings (worldwide) write tasting notes ,etc… for this online web shop I guess you already figured that this is not your average web shop :-)

Christian with Olivier Poussier

I hope you enjoy reading what this passionate wine lover has to say and trust me it is a lot (just like when I’m passionate and enthusiastic about something). Before I unleash you to ready Christian’s answer I want to get something of my chest and I hope Christian won’t be mad. Doesn’t he remind you guys of Tintin? Tintin du vin it would in his case ;-) :-)

What is your favorite wine region to work with?

​I will of course step aside from Beaujolais where I am born to stay fair for all other regions ! I am a big fan​ of Rhône Valley wines. I like the complexity of all kinds of wine produced from north to south. This region produces a wide range of fine wines including dry whites to the rarest and sweet Hermitage Vin de Paille or Rasteau fortified sweet red and of course a wide range of grape varieties such as delicate and very perfumed viognier for Condrieu or velvety syrah for Côte Rôtie, powerful grenache for Châteauneuf du Pape. The success of this region is growing year after year. It represent for me pleasure and tradition, and the winemakers are very friendly and they really deserve this recognition.

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

​ A good sommelier first of all should be dedicated to his guests. He has the skills to listen carefully, to respect their needs and their wishes. No guests look alike, there is always a way to please them particulary, to make them feel unique so that their stay will be unforgetable, choosing the wines that will please them and the best wine pairing according to their budget, without talking about money ! He must keeps his eyes and his palate open to discover all the wines and spirits around the world. The clientele travels a lot, with internet the knowledge of wine is more accessible and this is why an extended knowledge is necessary and be always very open mind. Nevertheless, a good sommelier needs sometimes to temper his explanation, beeing precise, concise so that he can be the best wine advisor, without beeing pushy or stressing his guest insisting to sell the bottle he wants to taste, forgetting that the target is the pleasure of his guest first of all.

Is the job of a sommelier underestimated/valued?

​ The job of sommelier became in high class gastronomic or stared Michelin restaurants more important when the food service became more simple, with the chef creating special recipes served directly in the plate. Then the two main actors were the chef and the sommelier. Thanks to the numerous sommelier associations and therefore the numerous sommelier competitions around the world, the sommelier became more popular outside his restaurant. I think it gives a special attractiveness for the job of sommelier, even for the young generation, the sommelier is not only dedicated to the wine service. He started presenting wines outside for companies, to share his passion, to share his knowledge, and we all know the wine is a fantastic way to communicate. Like my friend Olivier Poussier, World Best Sommelier 2000, we are writing for the Revue du Vin de France, without being a journalist, but our view of wines, as we are touching so close the final consumers and we have a special relation with all the winemakers, is taken very seriously. I feel in France, Belgium, Switzerland, in England too there is a great respect for the job of sommelier. Outside of Europe I will say Japan has a big wine sommelier association and also many wine connoisseurs, that all have a great recognition for the job of sommelier.

I will say for the young generation, this is sad that some restaurants want a sommelier but don't invest enough. Only few sommeliers have the right pay check and can say that their wine trips, their spare time dedicated to the wine tasting are paid by the owners. I personally invested lots of times and personal money to access the knowledge I have today. This is a personal effort. Estimated by the guests, the public of course, but there is still a lot to do so that the work of sommelier obtains his right recognition.

When and how did you get the passion for wine ​?

I grew up among vineyards, my grand-father was winegrower and winemaker in Beaujolais, on the famous gorgeous Château de La Chaize, 360 acres of vineyards in one piece, all on Brouilly appellation. My father and mother were also winemakers till 1967 and in charge of this very unique winery since 1968 and still now. Actually my parents started being 'regisseur' of this estate (wine director) the exact day I was born 48 years ago !

My only brother Laurent Martray became winemaker too, we were visiting restaurants at very young with our parents, that's why on my side I decided to be a sommelier. We also did wine tours in Bordeaux and Switzerland when we were very young ! Wine has always been a common talking subject, passion for wine was revealed very early !

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

​ It's a difficult question. Because I was very lucky to meet several very talented sommeliers ​that really counted and gave me time and showed me the way to be a good sommelier. I will say that Olivier Poussier is number one for many reasons, we worked in the same company, I was already a close friend before he became world best sommelier. He is among the very few to stay very high level in terms of knowledge and wine tasting skills, very very talented, never ends learning, never stops tasting, writing, sharing ! I have a great respect for all world best sommeliers of course, I am only worried about what some can do with their title. Excellence has to stay the target they had before. The temptation of selling their name and tittle to promote low quality products, wine or coffee are not the best example to give to future generations of sommelier.

I was also very impressed by Philippe Bourguignon, head sommelier of Laurent, which is a famous restaurant in Paris. This man just retired, he gave me lessons of wine at the Steven Spurrier Wine Academy in Paris, when I was working as a young sommelier. He showed me modesty, talent, teached the right way to treat a guest with elegance and of course talk about wine with passion without exaggerate, what we call in French "la bonne lecture du vin", clear, simple. He is among the best, 30 years in the same restaurant !

Philippe Bourguignon by Julien Binz

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

​ Pairing wine and food gives us the right reason to exist ​and perform in a restaurant. We need to agree that sometimes a guest wants to decide himself for the wines, no matter what his choice of food is, choosing a bottle because this is the birth year of his wife or a special favorite wine region this couple share together. On side of those particular cases, on a regular basis, we definitely need help the guest finding the right choice of wine pairing with their dishes. It's a way to sublimate the excellence of a dish from a great chef. Knowing the ingredients is not enough, I use to ask to taste the sauce in the kitchen, just to realize what was the proper wine to match. This is so important. We were so sad in Bordeaux Châteaux during a big event, when one of the best red cabernet wines in the world, vintage 1990, was served with a mixed cheese plate with a slice of Comté, a piece of Brie de Meaux... I could never have worked with a chef that has no interest for pairing wine and food. I was fortunate to have met and of course stayed many years in restaurant Ermitage Ravet (Switzerland) and Hameau Albert 1er (Chamonix-Mont-Blanc), where I organized menus with wine pairing. This is the best way to fix the memory of our guests, when we meet them again, they remember pigeon served with the delicious Syrah from Côte-Rôtie, often they don't remember what was the name of the wine, but remember the excellent pairing... and the sommelier !

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

​ Again difficult to answer...I could immediately answer Beaujolais, my birth place ! But I am curious and love travel, I have been in South Africa, New Zealand, Japan, China, Argentina, Chile, USA, Canada, Hungary, Switzerland, Austria, ​Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece and of course almost everywhere in France vineyards. There is always a unique climate, a landscape different that bring us great wines everywhere we have been. We met so many fantastic men and women dedicated to their wines and terroirs.

If you really want me to choose only one, I will say New Zealand. This country really impressed me. So beautiful landscapes, people very friendly, the climate, the way of life and of course the wines ! They grow fantastic pinot noir very pure, chardonnay that has the right balance, the freshness I am looking for, maybe this is because I am not fond of body-builded wines...

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

​ I have tasted Romanee Conti several times, in the winery, in the restaurant Albert 1er, I could say the same for Petrus and Yquem. Those wines are known to be among the very best in the world, it's a target for most wine lovers. I keep saying I am very fortunate !​

I am also a big fan of Coche-Dury wines, in Meursault. I make several sacrifice each year for it ! Tasting the chardonnay from Meursault Perrières, Meursault Genevrières, Puligny Montrachet Les Enseignères, ​sharing them with close friends and family is wonderful. As this winery produce a tiny production of Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru, that I really not offen tasted, this particular unaccessible, rare and almost unaffordable ​wine is my next grail, the ultimate big sacrifice ! and maybe if I can add another wine, I miss the exquisite wines of Lalou Bize-Leroy, Domaine Leroy. I used to taste them frequently in the past, buying many cases ​when I was head sommelier in Ermitage Ravet, but now this became inaccessible. Another next big big sacrifice !

What is your most wonderful memory of hotel management school?

​I remember we were coming each year to serve the ​wine-dinners for the annual sale of Hospices de Beaune wines in Beaune. It was incredible dinners, with fine wines, we were all students, serving (and tasting) incredible Grand Cru wines dressed with black tie and this uniform called in France "frac", we were in another time ! The dinning room was huge and magnificent, build in the XVth century, with walls between 5 up to 7 meters high covered by original tapestries d'Aubusson...such a unique historical place for a party ! In that time, in the 80's, we were young and it was the big thing for our hotel management school of Thonon-Les-Bains, in Haute-Savoie, pouring Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses from the 70's, Chambertin Grand Cru,...and many more.

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

​We all admit, having an access of fine food and fine wines becomes really a privilege. I wish that more people could stop consuming industrial food and wines. Simply taste the homemade bread by my friend Gérard Berrux in Les Houches, near Chamonix-Mont-Blanc is a must. He is growing himself on his family land his wheat without any chemicals, he then controls all process. Tasting good tasty fine food, not obviously in a gastronomic restaurant is a great experience.

​ Of course if I could highly recommend to enjoy one time in life the restaurant Alain Passard in Paris, such a dinning experience with such creativity, intense flavors of all ingredients including famous vegetables from their own garden. Unique !

In France finding a good restaurant working with best local products, making themselves most of what they offer to the guests tend to be difficult to find. That's why I am a big fan of Italy, its food and the wines too ! You can more easily share a very simple meal with fantastic home made pasta, very tasty local italian vegetables, enjoying often many affordable wines.

I try to share this passion of fine food and wines with my nephews, showing them what is a good wine made correctly, what is a good culinary product and how to cook it right and taste and explain together what wine will be the best (I was working as a trainee in Paul Bocuse kitchen in 1985).​​

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