The job title on his business card may read “deputy general manager”, but Christopher Delalonde is a man of many talents. Born in Senegal and raised in a suburb of Paris, Christopher became a master sommelier in 2009 and was crowned UK sommelier of the year in 2010.
His career has seen him serve as the head sommelier at The Square, the twice Michelin-starred restaurant in Mayfair, and work for three years with Gordon Ramsay when he opened his eatery at Claridge’s. So what led such a star of the wine world to his current post at the recently-opened Hotel du Vin in St Andrews, Fife?
“With my wife being from St Andrews and with having two children, it was always at the back of my mind to move to Scotland at some stage,” explains Christopher as the winter sun streams in through the hotel’s windows. “Everything here is more down-to-earth. I’m still passionate about wine, but here I can strike a better balance between work and spending time with my family.
“Scotland is a different market to London. We want to make sure people can come here and find something that they like at a price tag that they like.”
Hotel du Vin opened in the seaside town last year after taking over the Golf Hotel, a favourite haunt for student balls and dinner dances and home to the up-market Ma Bells bar, which has been retained by the new owner. The 36-bedroom hotel on The Scores – the road closest to the sea – serves French-style food with Scottish ingredients in its bistro, with a Comté cheese soufflé followed by a sirloin steak on the bone providing the best of both worlds for dinner.
Sitting down with Christopher the following morning to discuss the hotel’s wines, it was clear that he is relishing the fresh challenge of helping to establish the Hotel du Vin brand in St Andrews. No detail is too small, with the chief wine waiter waxing lyrical about making sure he has the best glasses and decanters in town.
Wines to dine
The bistro’s a la carte menu includes a “wine shortlist”, which features 68 wines, half of which are available to order by the glass, including Champagnes, ports and dessert wines alongside the usual reds, whites and roses. Offering such a range of tipples by the glass gives wine lovers the chance to enjoy samples of Albariño, Grüner Veltliner or red Saumur without having to commit to a full bottle.
Having a broad range of wines by the glass also pays dividends when it comes to food and wine matching – if one of you wants fish and the other fancies a juicy steak then the “shortlist” can cope admirably. It also opens up options for enjoying a glass of one wine with your starter and then trying a different wine with your main course.
Some of the dishes on the a la carte even come with suggested food and wine pairings, making the job even easier if diners don’t want to consult Christopher or his team. Fleurie with a duck shepherd’s pie, a Tannat from Uruguay with the mousse au chocolate or a Californian Chardonnay with the cheeseboard are all present and correct.
Yet – as you would expect from an up-market hotel that is trading on its wine credentials – the fun doesn’t stop there. The “full bin list” on the core wine menu opens up a whole range of exciting options, with the prices steadily climbing to match.
“What’s really exciting within the wine list is the way in which it is structured,” says Christopher. “It was created so that the wines aren’t just arranged according to their colour and their appellation.
“That’s how classic sommeliers would arrange their wine lists. But for the comfort of the guest – which is more important – we have created a segmentation, not to patronise people but to help them understand.
“So we have segments like ‘crisp and dry white wines’, which are things like Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc, or ‘earthy and unoaked’ because many people don’t like too much oak but are interested in wines that have a sense of place, like Albariño or Grüner Veltliner, or ‘aromatic and rich’ for things like Viognier and Torrontés.”
It was a third wine list that really caught my eye though. The “sommelier’s choices” list gives Christopher a chance to express some of his own personality and gives him the freedom to choose bottles that he believes will match the food on offer in the bistro and enhance the diners’ evening.
“To start with, it’s an unbalanced wine list, with more reds than whites, and that’s because I drink more reds than whites myself,” Christopher admits. “So that means I’m very picky about the whites that I drink.
“Second of all, Scotland has a relatively cold climate so we tend to drink more red wine than white wine, particularly with dishes like game or the richer, more powerful flavours of winter, like in stews and roast meats.”
The wines on the sommelier’s choices list draw on Christopher’s 22 years of experience in the catering industry and include bottles from producers that he has met regularly and visited in their vineyards, including in Burgundy, Italy and Spain. A Riesling and a Pinot Noir from New Zealand take their places alongside more traditional choices like Barbera and Chianti and Rioja.
“It would be lovely to have 1,200 bins but here I just don’t have the room,” smiles Christopher. “So I might have just three or four or six bottles max then when I run out I usually try to get something else to satisfy the demands of returning customers, something different, something new, something just a bit more challenging, to help them discover new wines.”
But if the a la carte includes food and wine matches and the core wine list is split into easy-to-understand sections, is there any point in having a sommelier to hand? Christopher thinks that he and his staff still have a key role to play, bringing knowledge and experience to help explain about subtleties such as variations in vintages from one year to the next.
“You have to check with the customer what they’re looking for –not patronising or criticising, but just making sure that they’re not going to be disappointed and say ‘I wasn’t expecting that’,” Christopher maintains. “In my job, it’s important to pass on that knowledge so that customers receive what they expect.
“It’s far too easy to make a faux pas. At the end of the day, the wine they choose may be good but I want it to be excellent.”
Sommeliers – and, whisper it, French sommeliers in particular – are sometimes portrayed as almost cartoon bad guys, wine waiters who tut and criticise as you look down their list. Christopher on the other hand was as breath of fresh air and was very warm and welcoming with the wines he had to show. It will be interesting to see if Hotel du Vin capitalises on having such an experienced expert on board and if he is allowed to have an influence on the wine lists of other hotels in the chain.
Sharing a glass
Like many sommeliers, Christopher is a big advocate for sherry, especially the Bodegas Gutiérrez Colosia Manzanilla, which – when he serves it as an aperitif – “gets your senses going and challenges the palate, but isn’t as dominant as Champagne”. There’s a good balance here between the acidity and the peachy fruit notes, along with flavours of almonds, cloves and cooking spices.
Another wine that works well as an aperitif but also has enough body to stand up to food is The Liberator Francophile Chenin Blanc from South African producer De Morgenzon. This white combines all the honeysuckle and ripe peach and apricot aromas you’d expect from Chenin Blanc along with the classic brambly apple and honeyed peach tastes. Its high acidity makes it very refreshing.
As well as promoting sherry, many wine evangelists are also continuing to sing the praises of Albariño, a white grape variety from Galicia, which Christopher describes as “green Spain”, comparing its rainfall to that of Kent. The Condes de Albarei Albariño he showed off had deliciously ripe melon flavours, with good structure and enough weight to stand up to food.
One thing that really shone through was Christopher’s love of Syrah in all its various forms, from the Rhone through to South Africa and The Liberator Francophile Syrah. Syrah is often called Shiraz outside Europe and can be big and brash, and sometimes a bit harsh. But this Syrah was very juicy, with lots of blackberry flavours and a hint of violets on the nose.
Finally, Christopher served the Luigi Bosca Malbec from Argentina, which he characterised as “delivering what you are looking for from a Malbec, but without being too over-the-top”. The wine was full-bodied, with plenty of red cherry and blackcurrant flavours, along with a touch of vanilla from the well-integrated oak.