When The Buyer was invited to Galvin La Chapelle to sample firsthand the wine-matching skills of Andrea Briccarello, head sommelier and wine buyer for the Galvin Restaurants Group, a sumptuous feast with impeccably matched wines turned into a fascinating insight in how Briccarello has helped the group expand into a variety of on-trade venues such as Michelin-starred restaurants, clubs and pubs.
The wines were impeccably chosen by Andrea Briccarello to match our food at La Chapelle – each one had a story to tell, was interesting in its own right and truly came alive alongside the food – the mark of a (soon to be?) master sommelier.
A lot can happen in 12 years in the restaurant business.
For Chris and Jeff Galvin, the sibling chef-patrons, it’s long enough to have opened 11 restaurants. To date, they include seven in London, two in Edinburgh, one at the Centurion Golf Club in St-Albans, one in Dubai (plus another coming soon), and a pub in Essex.
With yet more openings on the horizon, both in the UK and abroad, Andrea Briccarello, the group’s head sommelier and wine buyer is quite a busy man too.
Andrea Briccarello joined the Galvin brothers in 2009 for the launch of their third London venture, La Chapelle, the French restaurant housed in a restored Grade II listed chapel on the corner of Spitalfields market which earned a Michelin star in 2011.
Andrea is now responsible for sourcing and managing wines for the fast-growing and diverse Galvin Restaurants portfolio (with the exception of Galvin at Windows, the Hilton Park Lane and Demoiselle at Harrods).
An invitation to meet him at La Chapelle for the introduction of its Fine Wine Mondays bin-end promotion was therefore not to be passed up.
Wine-pairing part 1 – the starters
A glass of the house champagne Galvin Grande Réserve was a natural introduction, sourced as it is from Beaumont des Crayeres, a group of small growers who farm plots around Epernay. It is a classic, citrus and biscuity glass of bulles that befits a “revved-up bistrot”, as Chris Galvin describes La Chapelle.
Our starters – a perfectly tender pink breast of quail served with sweet and sour pickled onions – and mackerel with green apple jelly and shaved mouli were offered by Briccarello with a sample of three white wines.
First we had an Italian Verdeca from Puglia, Talò, Cantine-Feudi di San Marzano, 2016; a dry Riesling/Grüner Veltliner/Pinot Blanc blend Cuvée Wien 1, Weingut R&A Pfaff, 2016 and a Greek Semillon-Assyrtiko blend called Ovilos 2015 from Biblia Chora, which is a Greek version of a Bordeaux white blend with notes of lychee and herbs, a nice texture and more weight than the first two wines.
Picking one wine to match each dish Briccarello declared impossible and we rushed to agree, nominating the Verdeca with its spring flower aromatics and fresh palate as the best suitor for the quail, and the Riesling blend for the mackerel, its racy mineral and crisp acidity cutting through the oiliness of the fish and matching the zestiness of the green apple.
Having said that we can totally see why the critics are raving about the Ovilos – this is a first rate wine, with great balance and amazingly good value, a real cross between white Bordeaux and Greece.
The trials and tribulations of Briccarello – what makes the man tick
I was torn between wanting to listen to Briccarello’s insights on the wine business and wolfing down the succulent quail that lay begging to be eaten in front of me.
His job is clearly one that is challenging – maintaining a wine list that offers good value wines as well as top, first growths for the big spenders. The profile of the restaurant’s customers at La Chapelle varies greatly, from the largely business crowd midweek, to tourists and families on weekends, and numbers can be predictably unpredictable.
Briccarello’s own career began after leaving his native Piemonte in 1998 to work in London, first as a commis at the Connaught and eventually graduating from service to wines after completing wine training at the Savoy.
He has since worked extensively with Richard Corrigan, both at Bentley’s and Corrigan’s Mayfair, as well as the Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant, Umu. Although he is considered a specialist in Italian wine, Briccarello felt the Galvin list should be predominantly French, to reflect the style of cuisine, although it includes wines from around the globe, including China.
The greatest challenge he faces though, apart from buying for such a diverse portfolio, is keeping up with the fast pace of change. “Promotions are essential to the restaurant business and that’s why everyone’s doing it”, he says. Hence the new Fine Wine Mondays deal which offers discounts on fine bin-ends ranging from Hirsch Vineyards divine San Andreas Fault 2013 for as little as £80, right up to a 1989 Château Palmer 1989 with £340 knocked off its On List price, down to £785.
Despite Briccarello having had Hermitage La Chapelle Paul Jaboulet available by the glass in the past at La Chapelle, he is sceptical about offering fine wines by the glass moving forwards across all venues as he is not convinced customers are willing to pay the pro-rata price for a single shot. But that is not stopping him experimenting – he is currently considering introducing a Coravin list to test the water and extend offers while he is currently using Coravin at La Chapelle, especially for their magnums.
Coravin, he reckons, is “the best invention since sliced bread… it really changed my world.”
As well as revising the wine menu at La Chapelle and the other fine dining locations on a monthly basis, he manages smaller lists for the pub and the golf club. He relies largely on suppliers for internal training to his sommeliers and bar staff as industry tastings are time-consuming and external training is costly.
When he does find the time to go to tastings, he likes to do it slowly, savouring the wines properly and giving them the respect they deserve. He likens the business of winemaking to training for the Olympic Games. “You get just one shot at it,” he says. All the years of hard work, training and expertise that go into it can all be over in a moment.
It is here that he believes the sommelier really does their job – filling the knowledge gap without making the customer feel uncomfortable. Up-selling at his venues is strictly a no-no.
Wine-pairing part 2 – main course
Putting his wine-pairing skills to the test once again we picked two different main courses that would have tested the very best sommelier.
The first was a ‘Miranius’ 2013 from Celler Credo in Spain’s Penedes region that was a biodynamic Xarel.Lo, all salty and lean.
The second white was a Sicilian blend ‘Millesulmare’ 2014, from Santa Maria La Nave, that reminded me of a Côtes-Catalanes with its distinctive saline character while the third was actually from that neck of the woods – a real wild card this – an orange wine from Le Soula made primarily from Vermentino, called La Maceration du Soula no.14.
There were notes of rich marmalade and a great freshness in this wine that worked perfectly with the complexity of the dish and showed why Briccarello describes a good wine list as “Like a pack of cards – you need to have a bit of everything in there.”
First was an outstanding Armenian wine from Zorah, Karasì 2013, second was a Southern French blend of Pinot Noir/Grenache called Wanted Gang No.7, 2017 and third we had the beautiful Chêne Bleu Helöise 2010 whose Syrah/Grenache blend had really benefitted from time in the bottle.
The food proved to be every bit as good as it looks. The calf’s liver had a crunchy, caramelised top that I love. And, as I suspected, the Chêne Bleu Helöise from the Rhône is my preferred wine choice of the three. But I would find space on my table for all of them.
Wine-pairing part 3 – dessert
Our desserts, Ile Flottante for Monsieur and a cheese course for Madame, are served with a Palás Moscato D’Asti from Michele Chiarlo and a high altitude Argentinian Tupungato Chardonnay from Bodega Catena Zapata respectively.
By now Madame is a little ‘tired’ and losing focus. The cheese is a little bland for my taste, but the accompanying sweet pecans and crisp-bread are sublime.
Monsieur was neck deep in Ile Flottante with a look of intense pleasure on his face, the light Italian fizz working a treat at the end of such a flavour-packed meal.
In the cold, sober light of the following day, I am still feeling the warmth from our dinner at La Chapelle.
To quote Jeff Galvin, this is indeed “fine dining with the edges knocked off”, and I say, all the better for it.
One thing we were both agreed on was that Briccarello’s pairing skills had been impeccable.