Time to put the sommeliers in the spotlight: Aristide Spies

After having put all these lady top sommeliers in the spotlight, it is time to put another male top sommelier in the spotlight before they start feeling left out :-) . This time I’m putting no one less than the pride of the Belgian sommelier world aka Aristide Spies in the spotlight. For our readers who don’t know Aristide, Aristide is the sommelier who was able to become 3rd during the ASI World Championship in Tokyo in 2013 which is until now the best achievement of a Belgian sommelier in the ASI history (before him this ‘title’ was for our president William Wouters who became 4th, Marc Wattiez who was 2nd in 1989 and Herman Dedapper who was 3rd in 1983).

Aristide’s passion for wine already dates back to when he was 12 years old. It was during trips with his family to the Périgord region in France that he got enchanted by this wonderful grape juice. He was so enthusiastic that he subscribed himself for sommelier courses and eventually also cooking classes that he followed in parallel with his regular high school studies. After finishing his high school studies he went to Australia for 1 year as exchange student (Rotary Youth Exchange Student). Returning to Belgium he started working for the Michelin awarded restaurant “Les Forges du Pont d'Oye" where he started as bartender and eventually became sommelier at this restaurant where he learned a lot from head sommelier Pascal Carré who also put him in contact with the best professional sommeliers at that time.

I can say for a fact that Aristide is a very dedicated and passionate man when it comes down to wine and everything linked to it. In 2007 Aristide won the title of best Sommelier of Belgium, which was the first of the many titles he has gained and won over the years like Master Sommelier, 3rd best sommelier of the World, WSET diploma holder (level 3 & 4), etc…although it must be said that he sacrificed a lot of time for this by studying for many hours every day (for many years), travelled a lot and blind tasted wine at any occasion possible. For people who have no idea what the Sommelier World Championship is, it is basically like the Olympics where only the best of the best participate. The sommeliers participating should know everything about wine (from everywhere), spirits and cigars. I can only suggest to come and see the World Championships in 2019 that will be held in Antwerp and be amazed.

Today Aristide coaches and coached Antoine Lehebel who paricpate during the ASI World championships in 2016 and who will participate during the European championship in Vienna May 2017. Next to this he is also part of the technical comity for the ‘Best Sommelier of Belgium’ and ‘junior’ competition (they decide all the tests the participants have to do). He also selects wines and prospects for La Cave des Sommeliers. I know Aristide for a while now and I can only say that he is more passionate about wine every time I see him :-) and I must also say that I’ve (and sure many others as well) have learned a lot from him.

I won’t keep you any longer. Enjoy the reading!

What is your favorite wine region to work with?

I am actually very excited about many regions especially the ‘cool to moderate’ climate ones (Loire, Mosel, Burgundy, Alsace, Nahe, Jura, Savoie, Northern Rhône) which produce wines with great balance and quite often, more white wines. It helps because along a menu in a Belgian based restaurant, I found that there are more dishes matching well with white wines than with red wine. Especially because today people have a better understanding about the matches of a white wine with cheeses or white meat. Also the most important thing in wine for me is a good balance which is probably easier to find in cooler regions nowadays. So probably the favorite region to work with will be the Loire, thanks to its good value wines which is an important fact. If money doesn’t’ count, it would be Burgundy. If my heart could speak, it would be Jura, (I love Vin Jaune) and if I listen to my stomach, I would go for Alsace as the wide range of white wines produced there allowed us to make unexpected food and wine pairing.

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

A good sommelier is a professional in hospitality. He has to have a strong experience in restaurants! It’s impossible to learn how to be a very good sommelier without years « on the floor ». This experience brings her/him many little things which make the difference and the customer will of course feel that ! Often, the difference between a 2 or a 3 star Michelin starred restaurant is in all the details, the same story goes for a good sommelier.

Being able to manage a good service every day, to every guest, during a fully booked lunch and evening require experience, efficiency and proficiency.

Those skills are certainly part of his passion for wine, gastronomy and service. Passion because it takes many hours to learn and to work as a sommelier that without a strong love for this beverage, you simply can’t do it.

Passion for wines because a sommelier spends a lot of his time making his selection thanks to his profound knowledge, many tastings, meetings, travels,… then advising cleverly each customer according to its menu, taste and budget. And of course, once choice is made, organizing a professional service, good temperature, clean glasses, perfect timing,…

Passion for gastronomy because how can you advise customers (often with high gastronomic experience too !) if you don’t have tasted yourself many many recipes and many different food and wine pairing. We need to taste what doesn’t work together to be able to find what works well together and understand why !

Passion for service because a sommelier also spends long hours serving customers and making him comfortable and happy in his restaurant. This can be taught to a certain point but beyond, the sommelier needs to feel this himself and he needs to be happy making people feeling happy.

Is the job of a sommelier underestimated/valued?

I’m sorry to say so, but it depends of which kind of sommelier.

Most of them are doing their best to reach a high level of professionalism and customers will appreciate and recognize them. Is the employer recognizing it well or not, the answer to this will probably be linked with the balance between his capacity to make profit for the restaurant and his ability to make customers happy and satisfied and making them to come back again.

When and how did you get the passion for wine?

I was 12 and I was on family holidays in Périgord (France). We visited St Emilion and Monbazillac although this was more for the ‘old stones’ than for wines :-) . But my parents bought a couple of bottles and drunk it during our holidays with some foie gras and some duck confit. I was allowed to taste some and loved it!! But not only the taste, but also the vineyards’ landscapes, history, geography, I loved listening to all the stories there were to tell about them.

Back home I started wine tasting courses at night school and that’s how started my passion for wine at 12.

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

I am always impressed by sommeliers with very profound knowledge and experience in food and wine pairing like Olivier Poussier and Eric Baumard but my ‘biggest’ example was and still is my mentor, Pascal Carré, who taught me so many things since the first day we met and still keeps teaching me. Although I must admit that there are many excellent sommelier without any title … some of them are just not ‘competitors’ and are taking part to any contest, but this doesn’t make them less.

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

The first important thing I take in consideration is the season we are in. Same dish in the summer and winter sometimes needs a different wine. The order of the dishes in the menu is also very important as this will affect the type or ‘strength' of the wines I’ll serve . Then, of course, the power of the dish, the way each ingredient is cooked, the level of salt, acidity, sweetness and bitterness, the dominating flavor and the minor flavor, the texture and richness level,… Also important, the budget we have and customer ‘special taste’ if he has any.

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

Douro Valley because it’s awesome ! Difficult to find a place more spectacular than that and it’s not as small as many people might think! You can admire vineyards , from the river or the train or at a winery ! The wines from this region are very interesting especially old tawny and vintage ports but also the non fortified wines are improving a lot nowadays. So it’s possible to enjoy an entire menu with Douro valley wines as the range of wine styles is so large.

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

A very old Château Chalon or vin jaune

What is your most wonderful memory of hotel management school?

Actually, except the wine tasting courses at night school I did when I was teenager, the WSET and the Master Sommelier courses I did later, I’ve never done an hotel management school. So let’s say that to follow wine courses at 12 years old with my mum (because an adult needed to come along ) was the highlight of my learning :-) .

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

A tasting at Domaine de La Romanée Conti is a great moment. I had the pleasure to compare each Grand Cru from the barrel before tasting older vintages. Best memory is a 1998 Bâtard Montrachet from DRC, outstanding !

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