Time to put the sommeliers in the spotlight: Tom Ieven

I really start thinking that once the “wine bug” has you in his power it never lets you go. The next sommelier is yet another example of somebody left his university studies for what they were and go into a totally different direction. Let me introduce to you this year’s (2018) winner of the Best Sommelier of Belgium competition Tom Ieven. During Tom’s ‘chemistry studies, or better during his weekend work at the top Antwerp gastronomical restaurant De Schone van Boskoop he realized he didn’t really see himself working in chemistry but rather in the restaurant business. That’s why he changed course and started his studies in Hotel Management. During this studies a good friend of him Wouter Van Steenwinkel (with who Tom had worked at De Schone van Boskoop) was starting up his own restaurant Ardent and saw in Tom the perfect sommelier and maître for his new restaurant (that is where I got to know Tom as a passionate sommelier).

During his years at Ardent you really saw Tom grow and learn a lot about everything a (good) sommelier needs to know. He obtained a few WSET diplomas (and the sky is the limit). Many times I had asked Tom if he didn’t want to compete at the Best Sommelier of Belgium contest, but every time he told me he preferred competing when he feels ready for it… and I guess he was right, as at his first time competing in the finals he became the Best Sommelier of Belgium :-) :-)

About 1 or 2 years ago Tom decided to leave restaurant Ardent and go up a level and start working as head-sommelier of 2 Michelin star awarded restaurant ‘t Zilte. I think there is still a very nice future awaiting for Tom in the world of sommeliers and wine.

What is your favorite wine region to work with?

Difficult to pick only one region because there are a lot of very interesting wine regions. I also think that it’s very important for a good sommelier to work with a diversified range of regions. As Riesling is one of my favorite grape varieties, I would pick the German Mosel as one of my favorite regions. The wines made there have such a nice minerality and expression of terroir which is always a pleasure to taste and also very friendly to combine with food. At this moment I am really into the wines from Austria’s Burgenland, specifically the ones made from Blaufränkisch. Something I can’t forget to mention is Burgundy, always very pleasant to work with as well. But as I already said, that’s what I like for the moment and I love working with wines from all over the world.

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

According to me, everything starts with passion. If you have a passion for wine and all other beverages, you can become a good sommelier. When passion is present, it all begins with a huge theoretic background but what is even more important is the communication with the guests. To understand what type of wine they want to drink and feel what they expect from the sommelier are essential. A good sommelier, in my opinion, never stops learning, not from his books nor from his customers.

Is the job of a sommelier underestimated/valued?

Sometimes I think it is because it’s not only tasting wine and doing service. We also work a lot of hours, we have to study in between and do tastings in the weekends. Being a sommelier never stops. Having said this, there is a lot of fun in the job so for me it’s an enormous pleasure to do. I love my job and I feel it’s getting more and more appreciated by others as well.

When and how did you get the passion for wine?

I came to Antwerp to study Hotel Management and joined a fraternity. Over there I met Luc Dickens, who was working as a sommelier in ‘De Schone van Boskoop’. One day he needed someone to help him and I was the first who said yes. Not knowing yet I had to work in a one star Michelin restaurant: my first experience in gastronomy. I liked it a lot and started working there every weekend. After service Luc gave me a glass of wine and told me the story behind this glass. I saw how passionate he was and I said to myself: ‘That’s what I want to do as well!’

So, thank you Luc for inspiring me!

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

All my colleague sommeliers are examples. They are all doing a great job to give people that extra experience during their restaurant visit and I can learn from each of them.

If I really have to pick one sommelier that I really admire: Arvid Rosengren. Not only for the wonderful title of ‘Best sommelier of the world’. He has a huge knowledge and a perfect, humble way to bring it to his guests. He is really down to earth and realistic. A fantastic and interesting sommelier!

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

Taste, taste and taste. Taste the dish, taste the wine and taste it together. There are a lot of basic principles which we have to keep in mind. Don’t only look at the main ingredient but at every component in the dish because some ingredients can change the taste of the dish a lot. Taste is something very personal so in my opinion you can’t please everybody with a specific combination. The goal is to please as much people as possible. Don’t always take safe options and try to make a nice contrast!

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

South Africa. It doesn’t only have great wines but it has a fantastic nature and wonderful places to visit as well. I was lucky I could visit it last year during my honeymoon. Great wine regions are the most interesting places to go on holiday and I’m not saying this because I love wine. Climate is something very important for winemaking, and nature has a lot of influence on the style of wine. Important things are large bodies of water, mountains and so on. This means that great wines and nice places to visit go hand in hand. For example: the wines of Walker Bay surrounding the seaside town of Hermanus. Hermanus is near the ocean, we spotted whales over there which was an amazing experience. On the other hand this is a factor why wines from the Walker Bay are so clean, fresh and having a crisp acidity. Another example is Constantia on the southern slopes of the Table Mountain range.

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

I’m very happy that I’ve had a lot of chances to taste great wines. I would like to taste every wine I don’t tasted before. More specific, I think it’s very interesting to taste older vintages which are not always easy to own yourself. I really like the evolution in wines. At this moment for example I would really love to taste the single vineyard wines of Anselme Selosse.

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

During my WSET diploma education, we had courses taught by different masters of wine. One course I will never forget is the one taught by Fiona Morrison. All the information and wines she shared were amazing.

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

A visit to the cellars of Bollinger. At my first visit to the champagne region I had the opportunity to visit Bollinger, a champagne house I really like. They work in an amazing way. The rooms with magnums of reserve champagne keep on coming. When I think about that, I dream about making my own blend of Bollinger with a selection of the reserve wines.

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