Working with three different a la carte menus, including one where the customer chooses the wine first and then the kitchen adapts the food to match, can be a lot of fun. For young Swedish sommelier Emma Ziemann it still allows time to compete in major sommelier competitions – and time to win them. Crowned Best Swedish Sommelier for 2018, Ziemann talks to Peter Dean in detail about life at Gothenburg’s Michelin-starred restaurant Thörnströms Kök and what the challenges are of sourcing and buying wine in a market where the monopoly rules.
One of Ziemann’s desert island wines would be F.X. Pichler ‘Unendlich’ Riesling Smaragd 2007 from Wachau – served with gratinated lobster.
How long have you been a sommelier at Thörnströms Kök?
A little bit more than one year now.
What style of food is it and how easy is it to pair?
I would like to describe the food as classic Swedish with a playful touch of French techniques and a pinch of modern international influences. Overall very food friendly.
At our restaurant you can find the full range from the all-pleasing classic courses like Turbot with Butter Sauce that goes well with practically everything with bright acidity and is the perfect match for many of our more archetypal labels. You can simply not fail with Chardonnay and butter sauce if you want to play it safe.
But we also have a couple of courses flirting with the cured, pickled and preserved that nowadays defines the Scandinavian cuisine, here we like to experiment with flavours coming from skin maceration, lees contact and we often find our bottles containing classic grape varieties but from new contexts like, for example, Roussanne from California.
We are working with three different menus and À la carte and all of them have wine pairings which means that we are working with quite a range of alternatives. It is only the imagination (and budget) that sets the limits… fun!
What is your approach to matching food and wine?
I like to keep open minded with what kind of wines we can to try with our food. As a competing sommelier you need to stay attuned with new and old styles of wine and never stop exploring. This is helping a lot when working with as many different wines as we do. Everyone in the team at Thörnströms Kök is involved at some part in the pairings, which means that we can start quite broad and then slim it down to a few bottles that we actually try.
To know how the kitchen works and the flavour profile of the food is important. I like to work with clean and quite classic-styled wines. I also tend to be more prone to try New World wines, but often fall back on German and Austrian white and American Pinot. My goal is to make my guest long for another sip, so ‘refreshing’ is often an approach. If everything else fails I simply adore to work with sparkling wines, here you can work both with texture and flavours in the combination.
You have an imaginative menu where customers choose the wine first and then you cook the food to match. How does this work and is it very popular?
It is my favourite thing to work with! I hope that more guests would ask for it. Have you ever looked at a wine list and seen that beautiful bottle of wine but thought, well I want that wine but the food pairing will come in second hand..? There is the perfect moment to turn things around.
The menu we do is created around one or more bottles of your choice, you choose how many courses you would like and we come back with a suggestion on price and food to go with the bottle. Often we adapt courses from the existing menus, but we also create new dishes if needed. It is preferable to tell us in advance which bottles you would like, in that way we can prepare everything beforehand. But it is always possible to improvise during the evening if that is the case. We take in account specific wishes from the guest, but the most fun is it when the sommelier get the space to play with different temperatures, glasses and decanting. A wine can be showed in so many ways and this is a menu for the one that really loves to enjoy a wine at its full potential.
What are the unique challenges of being a drinks buyer in Sweden?
One thing that is a bit special is that we are working in a country with a monopoly. It is a common misunderstanding that restaurants are bound to this. We buy almost everything we use through agencies, we do import directly to our restaurants but that is more unusual, usually everything goes via our agencies.
A large part of the role as a sommelier in Sweden is, therefore, to establish relationships and long term collaborations with our agencies to get better deals and allocations. This also means that restaurants and private consumers see two different markets, which is interesting because the guests can only get some bottles at restaurants and at the same time they sometimes ask for wines that we do not work with. We often see that trends start in the restaurants and that slowly affects what the public is asking for from the monopoly or the wine clubs online.
How has the role evolved in Sweden over the years?
The fact that more and more options are available online has changed the scene. We also see more private collectors starting companies that target restaurants as a market. And that some restaurants create a side business where they import wines they like directly from the source.
How do you keep abreast of new vintages/ wines/ drinks?
Our agencies showcase their wines at fairs, or more often, drop by the restaurant and show us interesting bottles. I try to attend as many of these tastings as possible. To get a chance to build a reference bank of vintages you need to taste a lot and learn what is a producer’s style and what are vintage variations. I also try to travel and explore both other restaurants and wine regions. And, maybe most importantly, never stop collecting facts. I read most of the larger wine magazines, subrscibe to newsletters and read a lot of books and websites daily. It is hard work, but that is the foundation of the sommelier role.
Why did you want to be a sommelier?
First of all, I liked wine. But then I got fascinated by the fact that you could combine so many different topics into one subject. As a sommelier you need to grasp everything from chemistry, history, geography and much more at the same time as you need to show social skills, be capable at a handicraft and work with flavours and aromas. It is endlessly versatile but in the end everything boils down to make your guest experience something very special – the wine is the medium but it is packaged in ambience, service and knowledge.
Who has been the greatest inspiration in your career so far?
Hard questions! I have met so many people that inspired me in so many ways just through their effort and passion, many of them just by being there or working beside me. Most important to my success would be the ones I have met during the competitions.
I like to be challenged; determination which comes from that “I-am-going-to-show-them” feeling is very effective on your progress. One of the people that has evoked that within me would be Sören Polonius (nowadays also my coach in Swesomm, the Swedish national team), Ellen Franzén that is both friend and perpetual opponent and Gustav Cansund that been my sparring partner for years now.
People I admire from the distance would be Arvid Rosengren and Veronique Rivest who, in my opinion set a stunning example on breaking new ground balancing competition with careers and life outside work and being some of the most successful sommeliers in the world. And they never seem to stop smiling.
What do you see as the most important skills a sommelier must have?
Grit, knowledge and social skills. And a decent pinch of humility. We can never be done, we need to keep the good work up, and we need to work with our colleagues and guests with the same respect and care as we show our beloved bottles.
What makes the right kind of background to be a good sommelier?
I do not think I know two sommeliers with the same background. That is good because I think that you can always learn something from every experience. My background is not limited to the restaurant business, and even if it took a little bit longer time to get where I am today, it helped me be more flexible and open minded which is good when working with people.
You are currently Sweden’s top sommelier for 2018. How did that come about?
I innocently stumbled into my first competition in 2013. I was not even done with sommelier school at the time, but I liked the concept of competitions and decided to continue on. It has been a trial and error thing, improving and learning to compete – I am mostly self-taught and never received any formal training until now when I am a part of Swesomm, the Swedish national sommelier team.
The Swedish Championships was held in Stockholm in May earlier this year. The competition is open to anyone to attend, but the level is high. The tasks in the semi-finals included an extensive theoretical exam, decanting, written blind tasting, recommending spirits and we also did beer and food pairings for a long menu.
After a long day the finals started and we continued up on the stage with a service where we rotated between three tables where we served champagne, cheeses, recommended beverages, shake cocktails, talked about organic and biodynamic growing. We also did blind tastings, quizzes and certainly more things that I have forgotten about now. It took 12 hours from the start to the announcement of me as a winner.
What does the award mean to you?
A lot, it took me five years of hard work and the competition in Sweden is tough. I can now proudly put my name on a list beside a lot of competent sommeliers that I really admire. People now know my name. It means a higher credibility at work, it is a little bit peculiar though to go from one day being just me to being regarded an expert the next. Luckily my colleagues see to it that I keep my feet on the ground! It has also given me the opportunity to travel and see the world and learn more and opened lot of doors to exciting experiences.
What was your most nerve-racking moment in the competition?
The waiting for the next task is the most nerve-racking… the waiting to hear your name called is even worse.
Is it good for career progression do you think?
Absolutely. First of all, you need to keep up and work hard to get here. That shows stamina and determination and the progress is staggering if you put your mind to succeed in competitions. I also like to see the competitions as full-sized interviews, even if you are not winning you get the chance to show your skill and personality directly to a jury that consists of the best in our field. All of them could represent your next employment.
Will you enter the world’s best sommelier competition?
I hope so..! But in this up-coming event Sweden is already represented by Fredrik Lindfors, so that would be far off in the future.
If you could have just one white wine and one red wine what would they be and why?
At the moment I would be delighted with a F.X. Pichler ‘Unendlich’ Riesling Smaragd 2007 from Wachau, it is just such a beautiful expression of Riesling, intense, clean and precise. With lobster season in Sweden (which started on the 24th of September, and is a big thing on the west coast where I live) I would like to have a chilled glass of this with gratinated lobster after a long day at sea.
Or Terroir Al Limit “Les Tosses” 2012 from Priorat, Spain. This is one of my goosebump-wines, the first time I tasted it was in the vineyard itself looking out over Priorat’s breathtaking landscape with those aromas from dusty earth, wild rosemary and pink peppercorn in the background, followed by a stunning barbecue in the sunset. Still a bit young I know, but I still dream of that perfect moment and looking forward to revisit that place in my mind when I can open one of these again. Even if I know that it will be worth the wait if I can hold on just a little while longer…