In sommelier Raul Diaz’s native Chile, making a career in wine is not unusual – Chile is prime wine country after all and Raul grew up surrounded by vineyards where children go “to run around and play”. Wanderlust also played a part and wine provides a good excuse to see the world; Raul’s travelled the length of his homeland exploring vineyards and wines. Arriving in the UK he worked as head sommelier and training manager for Jascot’s Wine Merchants before establishing his own wine school in West London.
I was raised in Surrey (albeit not far from Denbies Wine Estate), where wine never featured in careers’ advice, despite the industry’s value to the UK economy (according to the Wine & Spirits Trade Association it generates £17.3bn in economic activity, employs 170,000 people directly and 100,000 more along the supply chain). If anything, working in hospitality is often seen as a stopgap until something better comes along.
Fifteen years in, and Raul is passionate about debunking the mystique surrounding food and wine pairing for both consumers and chefs. He urges students to follow their preference and taste. Take advice from experts, but first and foremost drink what you like and choose what works for you.
In Chile, Raul explains, the drinking culture is quite different and “wine is part of the diet”; his nonagenarian grandparents drink wine every day. Chileans, he says, trust their instinct and are confident about what they enjoy; pairing wine with ceviche is uncomplicated when food and wine matching is an organic, natural process.
For anyone fixated on finding the perfect bottle to accompany a leg of Easter lamb, Raul’s laid back, fearless approach is refreshingly unencumbered by rules.
But how to avoid the hype about certain vineyards and producers – from first growth Bordeaux to ‘cult Cabernets’ - and their correspondingly overrated wines? Spend over £100 on a bottle and the fun evaporates, says Raul.
That’s reassuring news for a beginner like me with a budget hovering around the £13 pound mark. I really enjoy our Taste of Saturday Kitchen Experience selections, all under a tenner and available on the high street.
And what about underrated wines? I’ve tasted excellent examples from regions neglected in WSET textbooks, from Georgia, Bulgaria and Lebanon. Raul is in raptures over what he calls a ‘fat wine’, a white Bordeaux that’s “intense, beautiful, lovely, nutty” and “full of muscle, viscosity [and] oak.” At £25 a bottle, I’m sold.
We both agree that the industry can be frustrating; falling in love with a bottle at a tasting only to discover it is “seeking representation in the UK”; unless you commit to a palette (around 600 bottles), you may never encounter it again.
But there are upsides to devoting one’s life to wine. Raul declares undying love for German Riesling. “It’s so versatile, so many styles, so many soils” and with low alcohol (between 9% -12%), you can have a bottle in the evening and “get up and swim next morning…even drink it at 11.00 am!”
Raul extols Rieslings at The Oak in Finsbury Park, where he curates a list reflecting the trend for aromatic wines. In the last five years, he’s chartered the rise of less intimidating wines with distinctive, easy-to-pick out flavours.
I’ve been surprised by Welsh wines (including a fantastic natural sparkling Blanc de Blancs from Ancre Hill Vineyard). Raul’s such a big fan of British wines that he’s partnered with Gusborne wines to offer tours and tastings.
Ahead of Suppermelier, I’m keen to learn more about Raul’s no-fuss approach to food and wine pairing, and invite his suggestions for the latest recipes from Cactus Kitchens. For clams cooked in cider with apple and pancetta, he recommends any “Albariño, Vinho Verde or a Grüner Veltliner” (all aromatic varieties). I pick a Loire Valley Muscadet Sur Lie Sevre et Maine.
For Emily Roux’s rabbit stew, Raul plumps for a Barbera (a high acidity, low tannin grape grown in Piedmont); Jumilla (from Spain); or Carignan. I choose a rustic Cote du Rhone red that holds its own with hearty fare.
Comparing what we love about the industry, Raul explains that his commitment to wine education is about connecting with people and introducing them to the pleasures of wine, “I learnt early on you make a wine list for them, not for yourself!” Raul sees endless opportunities to help people develop their understanding and knowledge.
Whilst I’m the first to admit I love PR tastings, I agree with Raul. For me, the magic lies in the thrill of discovery, the desire to share my encounters with astonishing wines and to encourage people to try something new; to pass on the knowledge that you don’t have to spend a fortune to drink well. And there is always more to learn. It’s the story in every bottle that draws us in and holds us. And the people from the winemakers to the wine drinkers who make this such a rewarding industry in which to work.