“Learning from the best”
For many people the 21st of October 2015 maybe be just a normal day like any other normal day. But for me, the 21st of October 2015 is a special day. It is the day I am in Buenos Aires to meet Alejandro Barrientos for an interview. Alejandro, originally from Spain, was introduced to me as one of the best sommeliers in Argentina and I am super excited and a little nervous to meet this great man. And when I finally meet him, I am impressed by his kindness, his modesty, his great knowledge fo wine and sense of humour.
We meet in his wine shop, Sacra Vinotecas, in downtown Buenos Aires. The wine shop is held in white and purple colours, freshly cut flowers are on the tables, wine bottles are displayed along the walls . The atmosphere is elegant but at the same time very personal. Alejandro Barrientos opened the wine shop after having worked as the head sommelier in one of Argentinas best hotels. He and the hotel were so good, that he even served the king of Spain! This information does not make me less nervous, I must admit.
Read on to find out how Alejandro Barrientos has become one of the best sommeliers, what advice he has got for you on becoming a good sommelier, what he has got to say about wine growing in Argentina and overall about his love for wine. Enjoy!
On becoming a sommelier
Agnes: Alejandro, thank you so much for taking your time to meet me for this interview. Let me ask you right at the beginning how and why did you become a sommelier?
Alejandro: I have a long history in working in the hotel and gastronomy business. I had several kind of jobs: I worked in the kitchen, in service, as a bar man and as a maitre d’hotel in many European countries. Back then, the world of wine seemed very far to me.
In 1994, I moved to Argentina and started working in one of the best hotels of the country. One evening, we had a degustation in the hotel with the director of the Argentinian school of sommeliers, Marina Beltrane. The world of wine fascinated me immediately and I thought to myself, that this is what I want to do. I was also ready for the next career step. I joined the sommelier school and received a very good training there. Luckily, I was still working in the first class hotel where I was in touch with a wide range of different customers, a first-class chef, a first-class head sommelier and above all a fantastic selection of great wines from all over the world. With this set up in the background, I could easily apply what I learned at sommelier school. I would really say that I had the privilege to learn from the best. After I finished my training, I worked as the head sommelier for about 15 years.
Agnes: Which advice would you give to people who aspire to become sommeliers?
Alejandro: First and foremost, you must have a passion for and be interested in wine. Be curious, stay curious. Keep on learning and stay modest. There is so much that can surprise you and you never stop learning.
Taste and smell as many things as possible: flowers, vegetables, fruits, spices. Get your nose and tongue out there! The better you know flavours, the better you can detect them in wine. Drink as many good wines as possible. With time and experience, you will also know the distinct flavours of various grape varieties and it will be easier to detect them. I also strongly recommend to take a professional course with a good school. There you learn all you need to know and meet like minded people.
One should also not forget that a sommelier is part of the restaurant business. Great service is important, it’s a must, but providing great service is hard work: you work long hours, you don’t have much freet time, you deal with very different people. It is important to have goood communication skills and to be able to understand people and to understand what they want. Well, you know, not all people are super nice. Hence, it is important to be able to deal with different kinds of people and first and foremost still be interested in serving their needs.
Having said that, there are also other employment opportunities for sommeliers like writing as freelancers, working for a publishing company, wine shops, wine estates. It really depends on what one wants.
Love for people and great wines
Agnes: How does your restaurant and hotel experience help you with running your wine shop?
Alejandro: After having been a sommelier for 15 years, I had quite good communication and people skills. And this helps. I can see what people want and what they search for. I understand their needs and can address them accordingly. I still enjoy making people happy and giving them what they search for.
Agnes: What do you love about wine and your work?
Alejandro: I love the fact that you can share wine and good times over a bottle with family and friends. Wine is a lot of fun and it brings people together. Also, it’s a world that is never ending. You can always find a new wine, a new wine maker, a new technique. There is so much wine in the world. In my experience, people who drink wine are very sociable and enthusiastic people. They are enthusiastic about wine and about life in general. As a sommelier, I can make people very happy by recommending a good bottle. When people are happy and content, the energy of joy and happiness comes back to me.
Agnes: Talking so much about wine, which is your favourite wine?
Alejandro: It’s difficult to say. I don’t really have a favourite wine. I love all wines. It very much depends on the moment, the occasion and who I spend it with. A situation involving a beautiful woman, for example, needs a different wine than a situation involving my male friends while we watch a sport programme. But if I had to choose one wine or style, I would say that I really like Pinot Noir and also blends that are made with Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Argentinian search for terrior
Agnes: Which developments are happening at the moment in the Argentinian wine industry? And what is interesting about them?
Alejandro: I would say that the industry is becoming more individual and diverse. More and more wine makers are searching and producing their own styles rather than producing wines that please as many people as possible. They focus on the properties and possibilities of the single grape in combination with the soil. I would say, that there is a search for terroir, for individuality.
I give you an example (here Alejandro takes a piece of paper and draws a picture for me): single vineyards close to the Andes have different soil properties. Areas closer to the mountains are higher up and have bigger rubbble. The lower you go, the smaller the rubble. One vineyard planted with the same grape can therefore exhibit different soil properties. Many wine makers today take only grapes from these different parcels and make individual wines to be able to bring out the specific terroir and compare the different influences terroir has. To put it simple: one vineyard with different soils and terroir makes different wines. These wines are what interests me and where quality and individuality is to be found in today Argentinian wine industry.
Another aspect is oak. We used to use a lot of oak in our wine making. The first oenologists in Argentina were French and they loved their oaky wines. So, oak continued to play an important role. In recent years, however, the excessive use of oak is decreasing. We want to put the grape, its properties and the soil into the focus and not so much the oak. Our soils are very rich and in combination with our good grapes the wines turn out very concentrated, very rich. There is no need for too much oak anymore.
Another interesting development that goes hand in hand with the decreasing usage of oak is the increasing usage of concrete eggs in different sizes and also concrete amphores. Here again, we don’t want any external infuence on the flavour and the concrete gives us just that.
Agnes: You have so much experience with wine. It seems you know everything. What is left for you to explore? What would you like to see? What would you like to learn or do?
Alejandro: I would love to open up a Spanish style Tapas Bar here in Buenos Aires. Obviously, with mostly Argentinian wine but also some nice beer on tap and tasty tapas.
Dwelling on the idea of a tapas bar in Buenos Aires, we finish our interview. I thank Alejandro for his hospitality, his openness and his willingness to share his knowledge with me and wish him all the best for the shop and all his future dreams and projects!
What did we taste?
- Casa Bohar, extra brut sparkling wine. Fruity flavours, good structure, fine perlage.
- Marchiori&Barraud Malbec, soft tannins, dark fruits, a little spice. 92 Paker Points. Great value for money!
Here is Alejandros website, if you like to get in touch for some good wines while you are in Buenos Aires!
Interview: Agnes Honka