THE 3RD DIMENSION SOMMELIER
“A Pauillac with fish? Of course!”
Devotees of fish and seafood couldn’t wait for this iconic restaurant in Paris’s Invalides quarter to reopen its doors. Founded in 1983 by chef Jacques le Divellec, then closed in 2013, it was brought back to life a year ago and in spectacular style, took just few months to win a star in the 2017 Michelin guide. The driving force behind the rebirth is chef Mathieu Pacaud, who in 2015 opened two restaurants under one Parisian roof, Hexagone and Histoires, boasting one and two stars respectively. Divellec also owes its rapid success to some thirty staff, among them head sommelier Frédéric Turpaud.
“We’re proud of our star – it’s the start of a commitment to our clientele, but above all it’s a reward for all the work we’ve done”. For Frédéric work began at the age of 16, clearing restaurant tables in the 5th arrondissement. “Every morning as I walked past La Tour d’Argent I’d tell myself, ‘One day I’ll go and eat there. And if I can’t afford to do that, I’ll get a job there!’” At 20 he seized an opportunity to work for the Pourcel brothers in Montpellier (two Michelin stars), where he refined his skills before moving to another restaurant, taking over a cellar and meeting all the winegrowers of the languedoc. After 14 years in the South, only a major opportunity could bring him back to Paris, but that’s exactly what came, at La Tour d’Argent. “My boyhood dream! I learned so much with David Ridgway.” Frédéric then spent two years as head sommelier alongside Pierre Bérot at L’Angle du Faubourg (one star, Taillevent group), before joining Jean-louis Nomicos and his Tablettes (one star) in 2012.
The Divellec wine list covers nearly 40 pages, with some fifty wines sold by the glass. customers usually ask for whites, but the selection includes an equal number of reds. “We really can’t have people who love red wines with fish feeling uneasy about ordering a bottle. It’s our job to offer an appropriate selection for seafood cuisine. Languedoc reds may not always be easy to match, but we can always find a way to make the dish a little richer – with a sauce for example – so that everything works well together.” And Frédéric has another reason to offer reds: Indeed, it’s difficult not to have classified Medoc grands crus on the wine list when you have a Michelin-starred restaurant. “A Pauillac with fish? Of course! You just have to choose a vintage where the tannins are muted – Château Grand Puy Lacoste 2007 is delicate as lace!” He selects younger vintages of more accessible wines, such as château larrivaux 2011 “an excellent partner for the tenderness of fish.” Where the right bank is concerned he’s a fan of château Figeac, “My favorite Saint-Emilion although it’s not that style at all. The one I love the most? A legend, Petrus, 1973, the year I was born. I tasted it at the Chateau – what a gift that was!” During service Frédéric works hard to make sure all of his guests are happy. “When we want to do something special for certain clients, I avoid the obvious glass of champagne and the aperitif is too easily forgotten. It’s better to have a fine Sauternes or an old Rivesaltes, which can be drunk on their own after the meal.” The end of the meal is also the best moment to talk, when the guests have finished their conversations and the heat is off the sommelier. Before slipping in a comment about the wine, he always tries to get a feel for his customers’ level of interest, to avoid overloading them. With connoisseurs he stands back, while always remaining in site, or else he may gently guide them out of their comfort zone. “If I can see he’s a connoisseur of Chablis, I might suggest he explore the wines of Rully.” He goes on, “The hardest thing is to put novices at their ease and decode their words to discover what style of wines they like. You also have to take note of cultural differences. If an American asks for ‘a sweet wine’, he’s probably not looking for a dessert wine but a dry white with body, rich.”
On the kitchen side Matthieu Pacaud’s cuisine comprises a range of fish and seafood dishes. In finding the right pairings, the sommelier suggests wines that will harmonize with the dish while creating something more. “What fascinates me is the power of harmony itself, which can bring out a third dimension. The combination of lobster navarin and Pomerol Fugue de Nénin 2009 gives the lobster marvelous smoky nuances that you just can’t explain!”
With his reds with fish, rosés in winter, an Israeli gewürztraminer and a mystery wine for blind tasting, Frédéric certainly shakes up the conventions, but always gently. “I’m not a great rebel, I also look at how they do things elsewhere. In France customers often have to wait too long. In some of the major restaurants you will still see clients sitting there for 10 minutes with nothing to drink, not even water! Whereas in the US they’d be served a glass of water straight away. We need to learn from things like that.”