Raising a glass with Roberto Zanca from Hotel du Vin Cheltenham

As a semi-finalist at the Moët UK Sommelier of the Year 2014 awards, Hotel du Vin's Roberto Zanca certainly knows his stuff when it comes to wine. SoGlos catches up with the head sommelier to talk training, trends and tastings.

Roberto, tell SoGlos readers a bit about yourself and where you work.

My name’s Roberto Zanca and I’m head sommelier at Hotel du Vin in Cheltenham. I’m half-Italian, half-Portuguese and have lived in Cheltenham for four years.

What attracted you to the town?

I studied at university here and then left and went back to London where I worked at Chapter’s restaurant in Greenwich, and then I worked in Horsham, Petersfield and the Winchester Hotel du Vin before returning to Cheltenham.

How did you first get interested in wine?

When I was studying for a degree in hotel and tourism management at university I took some transferrable skills courses in wine and it developed from there. I got the WSET (Wines and Spirit Education Trust) diploma and then did the advanced course with The Court of Master Sommelier.

Was the training intense?

There are two types of training in England, the WSET, which is more trade led, and The Court of Master Sommelier which is more catering-led.

The WSET is more structured because it takes two years, while you work at your own pace for The Court of Master Sommelier which leads to becoming Master Sommelier. There aren’t many people in the world with the diploma and I need to pass one more very difficult exam to become a Master Sommelier.

What does the day-to-day role of a sommelier at Hotel du Vin entail?

It involves lots of staff training, advising customers, food and wine matching, organising events, reordering wines, updating the wine list and going to tastings as I’m always on the lookout for something interesting.

Are most of the wines on Hotel du Vin’s list French?

No, they are from all over. It’s always good to have wines from around the world. Usually if the sommelier is from France they’ll put more emphasis on French wines, if they’re from Italy they’ll favour Italian wines, but I’m actually pretty balanced because I like wines from all over the world. But of course you must have French wines because they are the largest producers.

Do customers have a clear idea of wines they like, or are they open to suggestions?

I have to say unfortunately only a small number are open to suggestions which leaves my door a bit shut. I like to suggest wines that are a bit off the beaten track that might be interesting or offer better value for money.

People tend to go for the big names like Chablis or Sancerre without considering other regions because that’s what they know. With reds they go for Malbec, and you pay a premium price for it because everyone likes it.

What are the most popular choices?

There is a tendency to choose New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Argentinean Malbec because it’s what people talk about, and what you find very visible on supermarket shelves.

Can you taste the wines first?

I don’t have anything against customers tasting wines by the glass but it’s different when I need to open bottles; if you want to taste 10 wines then I need to open 10 bottles which can get very expensive!

Are there any particularly unique wines on the list at Hotel du Vin?

At the moment we’ve got a white Derthona Timorasso which is a grape variety indigenous to Piedmont in Italy. For reds, it is Cuatro Pasos which is made from Mencia, an indigenous grape from northern Spain.

How many wines do you have in your cellar at Hotel du Vin?

We’ve got 450 bin numbers. A bin could be 10 or 50 bottles, so bin number means the type of wines.

Where do the best affordable wines come from?

I would say wines from the Languedoc region of France are always good value and some are fantastic quality as well. Portugal is also very good.

What would you recommend someone order if they want to blow the budget?

With our wine list it’s a difficult question because we’ve got so many different wines but probably, if I want to push the boat out, it would be a bottle of Henschke from the Eden Valley in South Australia.

What are good options if someone is just starting to drink wine?

My first taste of wine was when I was about 10 years old and it was a sweet Mateus-style sparkling rosé. Thankfully my palate is much more sophisticated now, but at that time I loved it. So you need to start with something that’s light and crisp, like a Picpoul de Pinet from Languedoc or an Albarino, which is slightly peachy, from the Rias Baixas area of Spain.

Do reds need to be decanted?

We always do it here if the wine requires decanting and we know there are sediments in the bottle. I don’t for wines such Malbec as it doesn’t really improve its taste but I always decant wines from Bordeaux or Barolo because it gives air to the wine to develops its aromas and flavours.

What are the optimum drinking temperatures for wine?

I like to serve my red wine cooler and white wine warmer than people usually like, but I need to serve what people like and not what I like! When wines are too cold you can’t really taste the flavour and if you serve red wine too warm then it becomes slightly too flat in your mouth and pretty heavy.

Should you still pair red wine with red meat dishes?

Not really. I think people should drink whatever they want with foods they enjoy; if you like Pinot Grigio with your steak you should have it. Of course it wouldn’t be ideal because it doesn’t have the tannins which help clear the palate. If you get a rib eye with lots of fat, tannins, commonly found in red wine, help clean your mouth and the more protein you eat the more tannins you should have.

Are dessert wines still popular?

Yes, although most people like to drink red with their cheeses but for me it’s a no no because cheese, especially creamy ones, coat the palate. If you have a glass of red wine after cheese you can’t actually taste the flavour because the wine hasn’t got the structure to clear the cheese from your palate so you need something thick, sweet and white instead. I prefer Tokaji from Hungry or Loupiac from Bordeaux instead of Port.

Are screw tops an indicator of inferior wines?

No, but they age differently as the cork imparts flavours into the wine while the screw top is good for keeping freshness.

How long does wine keep once it’s open?

It depends on the wine. I’ve kept some Semillon from Australia in the fridge for three months and it still tastes very fresh, while some reds are oxidised after two days. Generally I wouldn’t keep wine for more than three days after opening.

Is there anywhere else in Gloucestershire that you rate for wine?

Aside from Hotel du Vin, I think there are two other places in Cheltenham that take wine seriously and they are No. 131 and Ellenborough Park.

What’s the best way to learn about wine?

Taste, taste, taste and never stick to the same wines because you might find new ones you like. There are hundreds of grapes that need to be discovered, Sauvignon Blanc is long gone for me. At places like Hotel du Vin and Ellenborough Park there’s always a sommelier around to ask for advice.

If you were to have a glass of wine at home what would you reach for?

It depends what I fancy. I never have wine when I finish work, I’d rather have a beer as it quenches my thirst more in the evening.

I tend to drink wine with meals, maybe it’s because I’m Italian and we don’t usually drink without food. There are lots of different wines in my cellar at home and if I fancy a glass I’ll use my coravin, a machine that lets you drink a glass of wine without pulling the cork out.

We’re experimenting with the concept at Hotel du Vin in Tunbridge Wells to see how customers respond to it. It means you can offer more expensive wines by the glass without having any wastage and it’s very fashionable at the moment, especially in Michelin-starred restaurants.

For more information see Hotel du Vin, call 0844 736 4254 or visit hotelduvin.com directly.

By Anna McKittrick

© SoGlos
Monday 01 June 2015

Your comments...

More interviews you might like...

Interview with Dee Campling

Interior designer and stylist Dee Campling describes herself as ‘obsessed with interiors.’ After making her passion a full-time...

Fiona Hesford made Daisy May Cooper’s Swindon Town dress for the BAFTAs.

Interview with the maker of Daisy May Cooper’s Swindon Town Dress

It was the most talked about dress on the BAFTA Red Carpet. Daisy May Cooper, one of the stars of the BBC mockumentary This...

Find out more about Love From a Stranger. All images © Sheila Burnett

Agatha Christie's Love From a Stranger interview

Agatha Christie’s thrilling ‘whodunwhat’ play, Love From a Stranger, is heading to Cheltenham’s Everyman...

SoGlos talks to Liz Earle ahead of her appearance at The Handmade Fair.

Interview with Liz Earle MBE

An ambassador for natural health, wellbeing and beauty, Liz Earle MBE is set to deliver an inspiring talk at The Handmade Fair...

SoGlos talks to the dedicated team at The Barn at Severn & Wye Smokery.

Interview with the team at The Barn at Severn & Wye

Find out more about Gloucestershire’s leading foodie destination, The Barn at Severn & Wye, in SoGlos’s team interview...

Unmissable highlights