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The Interview - Roberto Della Pietra, Head sommelier, Roussillon, London

Published:  23 July, 2008

What is the main theme of your list?
The first criterion for the list is that the wines make sense with the food that we serve here. The head chef, Alexis [Gauthier], is really into southern French cuisine. His food is fairly close in style to classic French cooking, but with a Mediterranean influence and an emphasis on vegetables. The wines that tend to work best with the food are the more unusual wines from the regions in the south of France, and obviously wines from Roussillon play a big role. About 80% of the list is French, and about 30% of the wines are sourced from the core regions of Roussillon, Languedoc, south-west France, Jura and Savoie. We have very few wines from Burgundy or Bordeaux, although we do have quite a few from the Loire and the Rhne Valley. There is also a good selection from Italy and Spain, because they work well with the Mediterranean elements in the food.

Was it difficult to put together a wide selection of wines from Roussillon?

Roussillon is one of the most difficult areas from which to source wines. It's very small, three or four times smaller than Languedoc, with far fewer appellations. Many people think of Languedoc-Roussillon as a single region, and most wine merchants have the wines under the heading 'Languedoc-Roussillon' on their lists, although 99% of the wines are usually from the Languedoc. Out of my 15 wine suppliers, five are just for the Roussillon wines, because each importer only has one or two wines from the region.

Do you have any wines from more unusual regions outside France?

Yes, I have a couple of wines from Lebanon. One example is Chteau Musar, which is on almost every wine list; but there is also another estate, Massaya. It is half the price of Musar and completely different in style.

I also recently added some wines from Greece. I hadn't tasted many Greek wines until I went along to a tasting held by an importer who specialises mainly in Italian wines (Vernon Wines in Ealing). I had presumed that the wines would be old-fashioned, slightly oxidised and strong, but they were very fresh, with a lovely purity of fruit. I was very impressed.

How have your customers responded to the Greek wines?

I've had a great response so far, but these wines are not going to sell themselves: they are there to give me the chance to introduce our regular customers to something a bit different. Some regular customers don't even want to look at the list when they come in: they just ask me to choose the wines.

Which region or grape varieties are you most excited about at the moment?

As far as regions are concerned, I would have to say Roussillon and south-west France. In Roussillon, you get lots of white Grenache and both sweet and dry wines made from Muscat that work fantastically with asparagus. In the south-west, there are some really great varieties such as Gros Manseng, which you find in Juranon and Irouleguy. The wines have a great purity, and there's no oak ageing; it's just pure squeezed berries. I also recently came across a quite obscure local grape variety in Gaillac. It's called Loin des Yeux (far from the eyes) and is blended with Sauvignon Blanc to make a dry wine or used on its own to make a sweet wine. We have the Gaillac Sec Renaissance from Domaine Rotier on the list. The Sauvignon Blanc contributes citrussy, fresh, grassy aromas, and the Loin des Yeux brings toasty and nutty flavours to the wine. As a sweet wine the Loin des Yeux has a bitter orange aroma and is very luscious and rich, but with a fresh finish.

Have you made many changes to the list in the past three years?

Yes, but they have been very gradual changes because a wine list is not like a menu. You need major cash to make major changes! The list was already based around the wines of southern France, but I added more wines from Jura and Savoie and I increased the number of red wines from the south-west.

Why did you decide to add more wines from Jura and Savoie?

They are not very well represented on restaurant wine lists, and both are very small regions, so it requires a lot of research to source good wines. I like the challenge of that. I am also a great believer in matching wines with cheese, and there are some wines from Jura in particular that work very well with certain cheeses. Here at Roussillon, we sell a lot of our seven-course tasting menus, and about 70% of the customers who go for a tasting menu will also choose the sommelier wine selection, which gives them a small glass of a different wine with each course for 35. When it comes to the cheese, customers are sometimes a bit shocked because they are given several different wines: one with each type of cheese they choose from the cheeseboard. After all, when we are putting so much effort into the wines, why stop at the cheese?

Roussillon Restaurant, 16 St Barnabas Street, London SW1W 8PE. Tel: 020 7730 5550

Roberto Della Pietra moved to the UK from Italy 11 years ago, starting his career at Pennyhill Park in Bagshot. He worked with John Burton Race at The Landmark and at L'Ortolan before joining the team at Roussillon three years ago. Roussillon was awarded its first Michelin star in 2005.

Key suppliers: Baton Rouge, Champagnes & Chteaux, Corney & Barrow, Fields, Morris and Verdin, Great Western Wine, Laytons Wine Merchants, Les Caves de Pyrene, McKinley Vintners, Thorman Hunt & Co