NAvigating the wine list at Fifteen Cornwall
with sommelier Elly OWen | INTERVIEW & IMAGES BY Beth DRUCE
As the sommelier at Fifteen Cornwall, it is Elly Owen's job to ensure diners drink wine that they will not only enjoy, but that will compliment their food and bring out the flavours as the chef intended. Fifteen Stories spent a morning understanding the history behind the wine list at Fifteen, and how diners can navigate the plethora of names, dates and places that they are faced with when handed a wine list.
Part of the Fifteen Cornwall team since 2008, Elly has been a sommelier at the restaurant since 2010, and head sommelier since 2015. Elly has a strong understanding of the restaurant and its Italian connections, which first informed the shape of the wine list when the restaurant opened back in 2006. “Fifteen Cornwall’s relationship with Italy stems back to the opening of Fifteen London, back in 2002, and Jamie Oliver’s longstanding passion for Italian cooking and food. Although Fifteen Cornwall has evolved and changed over the years, the heart of our cooking and ethos remains true to our original roots of Italian food and wine”. Consequently, what distinguishes the wine list at the restaurant from many others in Cornwall is the presence of so many varied and interesting Italian wines.
Most recently, Elly launched Uncorked, Fifteen Cornwall's dedicated wine club. The club is an opportunity for people to enjoy an evening focussed on a specific wine, spirit or champagne, via events that run regularly throughout the year.
The Wine List
A wine list can be a daunting proposition, with numerous names and dates to be deciphered. Whilst the details listed will differ somewhat from bottle to bottle, there are four things to look out for when looking at a wine; The region in which the wine was made, the grape (or blend of grapes) that the wine has been made from, the name of the winemaker and the vintage or year it was made. We've circled these elements below to highlight this, but bear in mind they always won't be listed in the same order.
The Grape and the Region
There are over 10,000 wine grapes throughout the world, yet only a handful of these are particularly well known; grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are among the most famous. “Traditionally, the grape was of less significance than the region in which the wine was made” explains Elly “and this is why wines of the ‘Old World’ (wines from the countries or regions where winemaking first originated, compared to countries where the winemaking industry is relatively new) didn’t always list the grape on the label, and instead focussed on the area where the wine was made”. Meursault, St Emilion and Cotes du Rhone in France and Barolo, Chianti and Valpolicella in Italy are examples of some of the great wine regions of the world. It can be confusing, in the beginning, trying to distinguish between grapes and regions, but as you become more familiar with the major grape varieties and regions you’ll start to recognise these when you look at a wine list.
Elly also explains how quite a few of the wines that are served at Fifteen Cornwall have very interesting stories and provenance. "Perhaps the best example of this is San Patrignano, who, in addition to making wine have a rehabilitation centre in Italy where they train people in different trades. One of these trades is wine and viticulture but they also train residents in mechanics or construction. It's an amazing project and the wines rock. In fact many of the winemakers whose wine we serve we visit and develop really strong relationships with".
What makes the wine list at Fifteen unique?
“We have a great selection of Italian wines at Fifteen Cornwall” explains Elly, “but we also have wines from all across the globe including Greece, Hungary and Patagonia. The restaurant operates with up to 110 wines at any one time and this means that every wine has to earn its place. I am very lucky as I have the autonomy to determine what appears on our wine list, but that means I have to work hard to ensure I have wines that cater for all tastes and budgets. The Fifteen Cornwall tasting menu offers a wine flight in the evenings which gives great freedom to select wines that complement the individual dishes being served. On the wine list at Fifteen Cornwall I have organised the wines in each category by country and then by weight, so you will always find the lighter wines at the top of the list and the fuller, more complex wines towards the bottom".
Tasting Menu and Wine Flight
Every evening Fifteen Cornwall offers a tasting menu with matching wines. “Together with my team of sommeliers we will have a look at the food and match wines to each of the dishes that the chefs have prepared. We are looking at how each wine will balance, enhance or change a dish as even the most subtle differences can alter the way the food will taste. Some of my favourite matches this year have been with a Pinot Grigio Ramato which is a skin contact wine from Visintini which is in Friuli in Italy. This wine has a lovely texture and can traverse across many dishes but also take the fuller flavours of a dish like inzimino de ceci and plaice (a chickpea stew served with plaice, pictured below). The wine has lovely pear undertones and a beautiful acidity. Our rabbit garganelli is a rich, very savoury dish and is absolutely delicious with the Barbera d'Asti with its high acidity and low tannins. With the mussels with bitter punterella I serve a bright white wine with lots of minerality, like Dalz Otto Arneis which is from the King Valley in Victoria, Australia".
Pairing Wine and Food
For the vast majority of people the wine will be chosen after the food has been decided, however if you are keen to drink a particular wine, by all means select the food to go with it, or ask your waiter or sommelier to make some suggestions. "I truly believe that wine is only as good as the extent to which you enjoy drinking it, meaning that you don't have to drink red wine with red meat and white wine with fish or chicken" Elly comments.
Having said this, Elly points out that just a few guidelines can really enhance your wine drinking experience at Fifteen Cornwall. "Hearty dishes such as steak or a beef stew benefit from big and hearty red wines which have body and some firm tannins to help digest and balance the strong meaty flavours. A salty dish will be complimented by a high acidity wine, which will cut through the salty flavours. Where there is a sommelier, there is a great opportunity to explore wines that you may not have drunk, or even heard of before. By asking just a few simple questions a sommelier can ascertain what sort of wines you enjoy drinking and what will compliment your food".
At Fifteen Cornwall one of the things that is most important to Elly is that the diner drinks something that they will love. "I will always ask a diner 'What do you like to drink?' and encourage them to tell me their preferences, including how much they would like to pay. It is as important to me that I choose a wine that is within a customer’s price point, as it is that I choose something that they will enjoy".
Ultimately, for Elly, it is about expanding a diner's experience of drinking wine, and arming them with enough information that they may start to feel confident about making their own pairings in the future.
"In building the wine list at Fifteen Cornwall I have spent a lot of time thinking about how these wines work, how they taste, how they will fit with the food on the menu and how they will sell. But in reality all the wines I buy for Fifteen Cornwall are wines that I would drink and enjoy myself, wines that I hope people come in and fall in love with or that help celebrate special birthdays and anniversaries. I get to talk about them and share their stories with our customers. It’s a unique and amazing thing and I love being able to use the knowledge I have gained to help people to not only enjoy wine, but also learn something about it, and in turn hopefully enhance their experience at Fifteen Cornwall".