In Vino Päritas – With a Whetted Appetite For Victory

Photo: : Pär Strömberg

Photo: : Pär Strömberg

”My first sommelier competition was Lily Bollinger Award 2012, which I won,” says Frida Hansson, who is considerably more humble than this first quote might indicate, but then again – you have to have a certain attitude to become a successful competing sommelier.

The otherwise familiar friendly face at trendy Restaurant Babette, which recently won bronze in the category Best Drinking Experience from the Swedish Gastronomy Prize 2016, did her sommelier exam at Restaurangakademien and graduated with a mission, landing the prestigious prize in her first-ever competition, which of course whetted her appetite.

Spending her years as a recent graduate working at Eriks Vinbar/Gondolen helped her on the way to developing a daily routine of tasting some of the best there is to taste and working next to skillful and experienced colleagues. After that, she continued competing and placed second in Moet & Chandon Sommelier Award, followed by two more second places in the Swedish Championship, one second and a recent third place in the Nordic Sommellerie Championship held in Copenhagen earlier this fall. We met up for a chat at her day-to-day base Babette, where she has been working as sommelier since February this year.

First of all, congratulations to the bronze medal in the Nordic Sommellerie Championship. How was your experience at the competition?

”Thank you! The competition was very well organised, with relevant and fun tasks. The day of the competition is always quite fun, with all the excitement and adrenaline. I’ve been competing my whole life, in both gymnastics and horse-back riding, so I get a real kick from the adrenaline and nervousness that comes out of competing. With that said, I was really disappointed when the competition was over. For once I was satisfied with my performance and I didn’t think I lost that many points that I obviously did.”

How did you prepare for it? Are there specific parts that are harder than others in the competition?

”The theory is always the hardest part to prepare for, mostly because the world of wine (and all other beverages) is so complex. You can never learn it all and it’s so easy to lose yourself in one country, or one region or whatever, but when you study for a competition you don’t really have the time for that. You have to study everything. Of course you have to practice on the practical tasks as well. Decanting and similar tasks are quite static so they are easier to practice. Blind tasting is a must and also one of the most fun things to practice. It’s so important to blind taste when you’re in the sommelier business. It’s easy to become comfortable and think that you know your palate.”

The Nordic countries have quite a prominent place in the top sommelier competitions around the world. Why do you think that is?

”I think a strong reason for that is that we’re not wine-producing countries, we have a selection of wines from all around the world which makes us taste a lot of different wines. Also, we are leading gastronomic countries with a fantastic food scene, which also helps push the sommelier scene.”

Sweden has an exceptionally strong national team. Tell us a little about how you train and work together.

”We have a very dedicated coach in Sören Polonius, who helps us with preparations before a competition. He is also the one who organize the team, putting together tastings and master classes and makes schedules for us with different topics on which we then write tests to each other. We all help and support each other and when there is a competition, like the World Championship this year or the European Championship next year, we all try to be there to support.”

Spending her nights at the small floor at restaurant Babette, Frida has been noted for her bottle selection and service. As a constant contender on the competition floor, I’m curious to hear a little more about the combination of the two worlds within the wine universe.

When you work on the floor in your restaurant, how do you use your competition skills in your everyday practice?

”It’s more like the other way around, I use my everyday practice from the restaurant when I compete. Even though a sommelier competition is made up to reflect an everyday service, that’s not the case. It’s not like my guests care how I carry the glasses to their table or if I pour the wine from their left or right side. But of course all the theory and blind tasting helps me in my every day work as a sommelier. That’s why I’ve been competing for so long, because it’s a good way to keep on studying and to make sure you learn new things all the time.”

When building a wine list, what are the parameters involved to making it attractive to such a diverse clique of customers as you meet here in Stockholm?

”I think that’s the key – diversity. That doesn’t mean that a good wine list must contain wines from all over the world to be attractive, there can be diversity in a wine list covering just one country. A restaurant with a niche can apply that niche to the wine list as well, and still make it diverse and attractive. I think a good wine list covers interesting and talented producers from respective areas, it also covers various vintages and not just the recent one. It’s always a treat to see a wine list with some older vintages. And also, it must be fairly priced. Today it’s easy to get hold of almost anything as long as you can afford it, but where’s the pleasure in drinking overpriced wine?”

When at a restaurant or bar, people tend to be a little afraid when it comes to actually talking to the sommelier – Swedes perhaps more than others, are afraid to make a fool out of themselves. Do you have experience of this and what can you do to make this easier?

”Actually I have never experienced that. Most of my guests either know their wines and just want to have a second opinion on something or some guidance, or they do not know anything but can describe what they generally like and mostly buy themselves. I think it’s very important for those of us who work in the business to ”un-snob” everything about wine. Wine doesn’t have to be expensive to taste great, it doesn’t have to be a heavenly match with the food you are eating, it doesn’t have to be drunk in correct glasses. Wine is and should be fun. It’s something that connects people and something that should bring joy and not anxiety. As long as you think it tastes great, it tastes great, no matter what everybody else say or think.”

Do you think the interest for wine is here to stay, constantly increasing or have we already seen the peak?

”I think we are far from the peak. If you’re looking at the increasing knowledge just in Stockholm, just imagine when more and more people outside of Stockholm starts demanding more diverse wines as well – that’s when the wine scene will really change in Sweden. People are getting more and more continental, and more and more aware of what and how they are dining. Wine is a natural partner to every good meal and I think Swedes are moving more from the heavy-drinking-on-weekends lifestyle towards a more healthy relationship with wine, where it’s OK to have a glass of wine (and stick with only that one glass) with dinner on a Tuesday.”

Babette has been at the forefront of a more alternative selection of natural and crafted wine. With their easy-going atmosphere and lovable style of presenting their delicious menu, it feels like one of those places you could always drop in for a great treat and experience. Frida and the crew seem like the absolute best when you want to feel out the latest in the wine business.

Can you foresee or predict future trends on the wine scene?

”It’s always hard to predict, but in a perfect world the Systembolaget’s monopoly stops and the new trend in Sweden would be that people can go to their local wine shop to buy their bottles, where small producers and a more diverse assortment will be available. I really hope and believe that day will come.”

Do you have terroir or grape variety that you favour, or are you a vintage and producer kind of person?

”It depends on what region we are talking about. Some regions are very vintage-dependent, whereas others are more stable. Great producers make good wine every year. I have a quite broad taste but I prefer when I can taste the origin of a wine.”

Do you have a specific wine you like that you sometimes feel a little guilty or ashamed of?

”No. I have never really understood the term ‘guilty wine’. In my opinion people tend to care too much of what other people drink and think. If you like something then you do so because you like the way it tastes, and it’s your personal taste and nobody else’s – what’s there to be ashamed about?”

And what do you yourself prefer in your glass, at home on a night off?

”It depends on the season and the company. You can never go wrong with champagne, but at the moment I’m craving cool Syrah and traditional Sangiovese.”

Fall is soon turning into winter again and we head for darker times. What would you suggest our readers to taste during these months to lighten up their days?

”Madeira. From all the different grapes, for every moment. Makes you happy every time.”

Words: Pär Strömberg