THEY don’t make wine waiters like they used to. Most of those I know are not at all intimidating, but are friendly, hugely well-informed, and, contrary to what you might expect, are not out to try to flog you a more expensive bottle than you can really afford.
They aren’t even called wine waiters any more, but sommeliers, a French word the exact meaning of which is lost in the mists of time (or the haze of wine), but may have had something to do with pack animals in Provence. Whatever – sommeliers are a good thing. Trust them!
Ian Cobham, one of the best in our region, is the very model of the modern sommelier.
He’s made wine commercially for a top estate in France; he’s toughed it out in the wine trade; he flies planes, surfs, races bikes and loves to share his love of wine with others. He’s been head sommelier at Newcastle’s Hotel du Vin since it opened on City Road in October 2008. I couldn’t place his accent and asked him if he hails from Australia. But I was wrong, of course.
He was born in Norwich, though his family’s roots are a little further north and, after a few years in the Bahamas and Cayman, grew up in Canada, where he went to university to study French and Spanish.
His dad trained chefs, which partly explains why they travelled around so much – he also gave Ian a love of food. But wine didn’t figure at all in Ian’s plans, even when he applied for a job in Spain with a firm that offered cycling holidays.
Racing bikes was his real passion and he liked the idea of staying in five-star hotels but, instead of Spain, the company offered him a job in France, in Beaune. "Where’s Beaune?" he asked a friend, "It’s the home of red wine, you idiot." So off he went, ended up finding lodging with a wine-making family in Pommard, had a ball cycling round the vineyards and decided that what he’d really like to do was make wine himself.
"Cycle training went out of the window," he recalled.
"I went back to Canada, did a couple of scientific courses and tried to enrol at college in Beaune," he told me, but the paperwork didn’t work out and he ended up instead at Plumpton College in Sussex which, despite being this side of the Channel, is hugely respected in the world of wine.
Two years later, he emerged as a qualified winemaker and was immediately snapped up by a company which sent him off to the Minervois in southern France to oversee the making of a batch of Chardonnay and Merlot destined for Somerfield.
His next job was a huge step up: he became cellar master at Château Saint-Georges, the leading property in Saint-Georges Saint-Emilion, whose red wine is often finer than that made by many estates in neighbouring Saint-Emilion itself.
He made the 2002 vintage, not an easy debut in a tricky year, but his wine has been much praised. He loved working with his two cellar hands, Jacques, who’d been there for over 40 years, and Dominique, who had been there for 20. "They knew just when to kick a pump or a press."
Jacques also introduced him to the wine that Ian still counts as his favourite, Château Figeac, one of the Saint-Emilion superstars. "I love the way it balances the three grapes in its blend (Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) in equal proportions," he said. "It’s so much better than the heavy Merlot-dominated wines done in Saint-Emilion today."
But the dream was shattered by problems out of his control. Back in Britain, Ian spent time first trying to set up his own company and then worked for a much- respected importer, Charles Taylor, before the penny dropped and he admitted that he was tired of sales. He saw that being a sommelier might give him the chance to enthuse about wine, and also enable him to save up to go back to France one day, hire some vines and make his own wine.
His first job was with Malmaison on the Quayside and then he did a stint in Glasgow, but when the invitation came to the new Newcastle Hotel du Vin, he says, "two days later, I locked the door, leapt on a motor bike and came down."
Although the Hotel du Vin already had put together a very fine cellar, he’s been able to craft it further, and hugely enjoys the opportunity to share his knowledge, not just day to day, but through special wine diners and other events (I had a night off recently, went to one of the dinners and had a ball). The Hotel du Vin website will tell you more (www.hotelduvin.com/hotels/ newcastle ).
What next? The dream of producing wine hasn’t died, but Ian recently finished a beer-making course at Sunderland University and last month he qualified as a pilot. I could say that the sky’s his limit; but on reflection …
Wine of the week
NAKED Grape Riesling, Pfalz, 2008 £6.64 Waitrose
A lovely lemony, spicy smell and a clean, just off dry, mouth-filling flavour of lemon, lime and sherbet shows why good German Riesling is unbeatable for sheer taste and value for money. Try with spicy seafood or chicken.
Pinot Grigio isn’t my favourite grape, but d:Vine Pinot Grigio 2008 from the relatively cool vineyards of Germany’s Pfalz region, has the crisp, juicy acidity that Pinot Grigio crucially lacks when grown on much warmer sites.
It has the flavour and smell of ripe green apple and is a bargain at £4.99 (in Asda). Marks and Spencer have reduced a Spanish favourite from £9.99 to £6.99 for the next few weeks: Conca de Barbera, Marqués del Costal, Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2004.
It’s warm, soft, raisiny, lingering and with a spicy, oaky finish. Another red, the new 2008 vintage of Vacqueras, Domaine de la Curnière is reduced to £7.99.
Fairly deep, it has bags of ripe, herby black and red fruit, with peppery spice and a great balance between tannic bite and a silky texture: super value at £7.99.