Having been named Best Sommelier in Belgium in 2014, Antoine Lehebel DipWSET, is getting ready to compete in the Best Sommelier of the World contest in Antwerp next year. He shares the secret to sommellerie success and how to cater to Belgian consumers’ increasingly discerning tastes.
What made you choose a career in wine?
I originally studied business and marketing and after a year studying in Denmark, I enjoyed my experience abroad so much that I decided to move to London for a while.
As a Frenchman arriving in the UK, and without much experience, I started working as a waiter in various restaurants and six months after my arrival was hired for the opening of a new Indian restaurant. The wine list was about 300 references gathered by Thomas Heimann, the general manager. I helped with tidying the bottles in the racks and soon got hooked. I think the passion and interest Thomas was putting into wine made me want to know more, so I started taking WSET qualifications rather quickly.
A couple of years later I went back to France, working in several classical restaurants, and then moved to Belgium where I currently work for Bon-Bon, a two Michelin-starred restaurant focused on Belgian products.
I had wanted to do the WSET Diploma for quite some time and moving to Belgium allowed me to take it and finish it in 2017.
As a WSET Diploma graduate, what inspired you to complete WSET qualifications and how has your formal education aided you in your career?
At first, I needed a formal education in wine because I had none at all and WSET seemed the best to me. I really enjoyed the progressive approach as well as the tasting method, which is great when you are a beginner.
When I took the Diploma, I was working as a sommelier for a couple of years and what I wanted was a more global picture of the wine world, because while working in Michelin-starred restaurants you are actually serving and tasting some of the best wines in the world, but it is always valuable to have a bigger picture, and to place this in a global context.
It is always valuable to have a bigger picture, and to place [wine] in a global context.
You will be representing Belgium in the Best Sommelier of the World contest next year. How are you preparing for the competition? What skills do you think are most important to demonstrate?
My preparation includes a LOT of theoretical knowledge, hence thousands of flashcards, but also tasting. It is a lot of effort, I do three hours of work everyday outside my working hours for the restaurant but working everyday on the floor is the best training you can get.
For me the most important skills are the social interaction you’ll have with your guests. It might sound basic, but a sommelier is first and foremost working in hospitality, so the most important part is to be able to make people in your restaurant feel at home and well looked after. That is a very social skill, and in a way, you can not really learn that in books, practice is the best.
What bottles have you noticed are particularly popular with diners at the moment? Do you curate your list to match current trends or stick to a tried and tested formula?
The classics are always popular (Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Rioja, Chianti, etc.) but there is definitely higher demand for organic and biodynamically farmed wines, and I believe that is a good thing. The new generation is very open-minded, they like to discover new things and are not really sticking to one style or region, they like to be surprised and trust you easily.
When working for La Villa Lorraine, I had a big list and I could have wines from all over the world. Almost all countries were represented on the list. At Bon-Bon, the list is shorter but I still try to have all countries represented.
Moreover, we serve a lot of wines by the glass, and I change these almost every week. I also try more and more to adapt the wines to the season. We had a very hot summer here in Belgium, so I have served loads of fresh reds, light and juicy, some rosés too and I will very certainly move on to richer wines for winter.
For me the most important skills [for a sommelier] are the social interaction you’ll have with your guests.
Belgian consumers are said to more frequently be drinking wine in restaurants and spending more per bottle. Why do you think this is and how should restaurants capitalise on the trend?
I could not really say why, but I agree fully with this. Belgian consumers love going out, they are true epicureans and when going to a restaurant, they enjoy the experience to the full. Restaurants should be offering a good quality, well chosen selection of wines with some diversity to match different tastes. I think you can do it with 25 references on your list, and today the choice of high quality wines is extremely high, so there is no excuse not to do so.
Consumers are getting more and more knowledgeable, hence demanding quality, and as a restaurant you must absolutely take that into account. Price is only one of the factors influencing consumers to buy or not. If you provide quality, people will pay extra.