Words by Florence Robson
Our Head Sommelier, Adam Ramic, moved from his home country of Slovenia to London to follow his passion for wine. Now responsible for curating our wine lists across The Conduit, we caught up with Adam to learn how climate change is impacting the wine industry, to understand what makes a sustainable wine and to get his top tips for tasting.
What first triggered your interest in wine?
I actually come from a family of brewers and I never drank wine growing up. It was my wife who introduced me to wine; on our first trip together, we went to Spain and tried a lot of different wines. On the way back, I told her that I really wanted to learn about wine and become a sommelier – and that was that! Six months later, I had already signed up for my Level 3 sommelier exam.
What does it take to become a Head Sommelier?
You have to do a lot of tasting! People often assume that our job is easy because we spend all our time drinking but there’s a lot of research involved. There are about the 5000 different grapes around the world used for commercial production, along with numerous regions and laws that are constantly changing. It’s such a complex topic and you have to be learning consistently. Then there’s the tasting. To be a good sommelier you always have to be tasting new wines and sometimes this can be quite overwhelming. For example, when we opened The Conduit, we tasted thousands of wines in the first three months, often tasting 50-100 wines a day. Usually, you don’t eat or drink beforehand, or even brush your teeth, so that you don’t affect your palate. It took me months to want to drink a glass of wine again after that process!
How do you clear your palate after a tasting?
There are a number of ways to do that but one of the most effective is to smell your own skin! It helps the aromas to settle down.
What should people look for when tasting wine?
It’s easy to be intimidated when tasting wine but the more you practice, the easier it will be to spot the subtleties. However, it’s important to remember that wine taste profiles are dependent on your own feelings and sensations, and these are connected to your memories. For example, a particular smell might remind me of my teenage years, but it might remind you of your grandmother’s house. I like to say that wine is perception, much like any work of art. What I think is beautiful, you may not, and vice versa.
What contributes to the valuation of a particular wine?
You know how every bottle of Coca Cola tastes the same? With wine, you’ll have bottles from exactly the same vintage, same producer and same vineyard but they’ll taste different. That’s because one bottle may have used grapes from a part of the vineyard that was more shaded, and another from an area with more sun; or perhaps they were aged in different barrels and that’s impacted the taste. The best wines show a vintage characteristic, meaning they reflect how the environment was at a particular moment in time.
It’s quite romantic thinking about wine in that way – like bottling a moment in time.
That’s exactly what it is – time trapped in a bottle. Each vintage captures the spirit of the winemaker, their knowledge and beliefs, and their style of winemaking. In vineyards that have been owned for centuries, you can track the transition between winemakers and taste when younger winemakers take a different approach to their fathers and grandfathers. When the last bottle of wine from a particular vintage has been drunk, that’s it – you can’t get that moment back. That’s why those wines become so rare and highly valued.
How do you approach designing a wine list for The Conduit?
Before joining The Conduit, I worked for fine restaurants in Mayfair, like Isabel. The crowd there liked classic, super-fine wines. When I was invited to join The Conduit, I had to take a step back and think about how to approach creating a wine list from a different angle. There was a real opportunity to change the way people think about wine in one of the most influential areas in the world by introducing them to sustainable practices. I’m always looking for winemakers who really take care of their vineyards and think of themselves as keepers of the land for the next generation. I also took a lot of advice from friends in the sommelier world to understand how best to cater to the flavour profiles of our members.
Can you give a brief overview of the difference between organic, natural and biodynamic wines?
It can be quite complicated because the laws about these terms differ between countries; but the simplest way to explain it is as follows. ‘Organic’ usually means that there are no fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides used during the winemaking process (although you are allowed to add sulphurs for preservation).
The concept of biodynamic growing dates back to the 19th century and centres on the idea that a good farmer should focus on biodiversity, building winemaking practices from within the vineyard. For example, one winemaker we work with leads cows through their vineyard in winter, allowing them to eat the green leaves that would otherwise be wasted and to leave fertiliser, which in turn helps the grapes to flourish.
Both of these techniques are related to the process of growing the grapes, whereas ‘natural’ tends to refer to winemaking techniques. Natural produces mainly use biodynamically-grown grapes and don’t manipulate them during the winemaking process, incorporating various additives to create different flavour profiles.
British wine is having a real moment. What’s driving this trend?
Unfortunately, this is being driven by the increase in temperature caused by climate change. As we experience hotter summers, winemaking is emerging in places you’d never have considered 30 years ago. In the South of England, for example, sparkling wine is now being produced at increasingly good quality. The other side of this phenomenon is that it’s a terrifying time for winemakers in regions like Champagne, because they’re having to adapt to an increasingly hostile climate.
I’m going to ask you a difficult question: do you have a personal favourite winemaker or bottle of wine?
That’s a very hard question to answer! One wine I’d like to highlight is Rebula from my home country, Slovenia. It ages just as well as Chardonnay and has amazing complexity but a very different profile flavour to most wines. However, because it’s only grown in Slovenia it doesn’t have the same popularity as other whites.
What’s your favourite part of working as a sommelier?
Things are changing for the sommelier industry. Previously, sommeliers were mainly paid by commission and so diners at a restaurant would assume that a sommelier approaching their table would attempt to sell them the most expensive bottle of wine on the menu. In fact, when we meet guests our main goal is to make the safest bet for them, based on their personal taste. We always try and recommend something that’s the best possible value for money. I love seeing the surprise on people’s faces and helping them to change their mentality so that next time they come in they trust that we can help them to find something they’ll love.
On Wednesday 20th November, our Sommelier Team will be hosting a winemakers dinner for members with Journey’s End, South Africa. Tickets available through the portal.