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The Interview - Thierry TrigeauChef sommelier, Simpsons Restaurant, Birmingham

Published:  23 July, 2008

Thierry Trigeau, 44, was born in Rouen and has been a sommelier for the past 10 years. His previous experience was with the Brasserie au Theatre in Bordeaux, Restaurant Alexandra in Montreal, Canada, and at Thornbury Castle near Bristol, and he has also spent a short spell as a winemaker at a petit chteau in Bordeaux, near his home in Cadillac. He joined Simpsons, Birmingham's leading Michelin-starred restaurant, in January 2006.

How did your interest in wine develop?

Wine has always been an integral part of my family life. My father was a hunter and my mother was a 'bonne maman', a superb cook, who would turn the game that my father brought home into delicious terrines and pts. Wine has always had its place on our table, and I enjoyed the fascination of matching game and wine, even at an early age.

What were your first great bottles and who influenced your early career?

My first great wines were a Meursault 1er Cru 1978 and a Brane-Cantenac 1982.

They really turned me on, but perhaps the greatest inspiration in my life was my teacher at wine school, Georges Lepr, chef sommelier at the Paris Ritz, some 25 years ago. He passed on his love of wine, and the message that, at heart, wine was a simple pleasure. He warned against being big-headed and pretentious, and reminded me that 'the sommelier is the last cog in the machine. He is the person with the knowledge and his position is to serve the wine in its best condition.'

You are from the world's foremost wine region, Bordeaux. Why did you choose to work in England?

Without question, England is the world's leading wine market. It gives me a great opportunity to experience and discover wines from across the globe, and to improve my knowledge. In France, we are very set in our ways and, although we produce a lot of wine, we tend to stick to our regional loyalties.

In what ways do the customers in Birmingham differ from those in Bordeaux?

I feel the atmosphere in England is much more informal and congenial. The customers are less arrogant, and are more receptive to learning about wine and wine-matching suggestions.

What was the attraction of Simpsons?

I enjoyed my time at Thornbury Castle, but realised that it was time to move on.

I had increased the list there from 200 to 400 bottles, but had taken it as far as I could go. Simpsons was a fantastic career opportunity for me. It was not simply

a move to a Michelin-starred restaurant,

it was also a challenge to make the wine list commensurate with the status of their cuisine.

So what have you done since you arrived here?

Well, Andreas Antona has placed his trust in me and allowed me a free hand. When I started, the wine-list consisted of 300 bins, but I have now increased it to 600, with the value of our cellar rising from 30,000 to 250,000. We have wines from as little as 22 a bottle, right up to our top wine costing 1,300, but, more importantly, we now have some 28 wines by the glass, from Champagne to dessert wine. It offers the customer so much more flexibility and choice. I'm particularly pleased with the way the wines can interact with our special seven-course tasting menu.

Your wine list is still mainly French?

That's true, about 80% of the list is French, firstly because Andreas has a love affair with their food and wine, but more specifically, the wines simply work better with the cuisine. I am fully aware that the wine list is not simply for my own pleasure or that of Andreas, otherwise life would be boring. Our passion and appreciation must be shared with our customers. My role as sommelier is to explain everything about the wine and food match to enhance their understanding and enjoyment.

What's your favourite wine on your list?

Without question, the best wine I've got is a Chteau Margaux 1990. It's so powerful, with profound mushroom and undergrowth flavours, but in terms of value, it must be the 1985 La Conseillante Pomerol. The wine has a perfect silky texture, and flavours that just melt in the mouth.

What do you look for when choosing a wine for your list?

The problem with our profession is that the final selection is decided by margin. All the time, it's margin, but what's happened to passion? Even my lowest-priced wine is chosen on quality.

Are you satisfied?

Yes and no. I think we've come a long way in a short space of time, and the list now matches our Michelin-star status. I have around 25 suppliers, but the problem I have is sourcing mature wine. Too much that's currently available is not at its best or ready for drinking. I'd also like to broaden certain areas to achieve a wider price-band selection. For example, there are some great Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois and Petits Chteaux that offer excellent entry-level wines, which can help educate customers to appreciate the wine style without paying a fortune.

Any final thoughts?

I think there are many sommeliers who push too hard on money, and it gives our profession a bad name. When I engage with a customer, I try to gauge what the customer is happy to spend, and make a recommendation to suit his pocket.