Interview: Nina Jensen.
We caught up with the winner of the 2016 Castel Sommelier Cup, and the runner-up at last years’ Best Sommelier of the World competition.
Since taking home the 2016 Castel European Sommelier Cup in London in 2016, Nina Jensen’s career has gone from strength to strength. Last year, after a tense final in Belgium, Nina finished as runner-up in the ASI Best Sommelier of the World competition. We caught up with her to discuss her passion for wine, life as a sommelier at one of Denmark’s top restaurants, and the current state of the profession.
Hi Nina. Could you tell us a bit about your career path so far?
I work in Denmark at the moment at a place outside of the capital: a fairly newly opened restaurant called Lyst, in a city called Vejle. I have the pleasure of being Head Sommelier there. Before then I worked at a one star restaurant Kong Hans, and two wine focused Bibs gourmands: Anarki and Le Sommelier. I started out at Le Sommelier in 2012 working on the floor, and at that time I was surrounded by some of the best sommeliers in the country – I was basically introduced to wine on day one. Everywhere I’ve worked has been very wine oriented. I have been involved in a few competitions, which I enjoy. I started out doing that in 2016 with the Castel Young Sommelier Cup and also the Nordic Sommelier Championship. Both of them went very well!
Tell us more about Lyst. What is the restaurant’s relationship with wine?
On the food side, we work very strictly with locally sourced ingredients. I would say we have our base in Nordic cuisine but we get inspiration from all over the world. It's also located inside an actual work of art, which was designed by a famous artist Olafur Eliasson, who has worked on several other projects in New York and London as well as temporary exhibitions all over the world. We try to incorporate elements of the building into the way we cook and run the restaurant. It's very dynamic: we change the dishes every single week. We only have one set menu, so that much is decided… but our 20-25 courses change all the time. That means that we also get to work dynamically with the wine, which is a lot of fun. We offer three different wine pairings, and this way we can easily get through over 30 different wines on pairings a month with only three opening days!
The restaurant has a small guest volume (only 28 seats), which means we can work with super-rare, very exclusive wines on the pairings, because we only need about four bottles for one evening. We can change day to day if we like. We have quite a small team of five waiters, but we are all sommeliers too. We don't have an exact philosophy about any style of wine, so it's not dogmatic in that way. We have the whole spectrum, from quite natural stuff to very traditional styles. The wines we serve are mainly from Europe, but we also look to South Africa, the US and Australia. It's fun, full of energy, open-minded and curious.
How would you define the role of the sommelier today?
First and foremost, we are communicators. We are there to establish a link between those who actually make the wine and those who end up drinking it. That is the only thing that for me is the same everywhere. That's what you're there to do. Aside from that, there is a huge variation in what the role of the sommelier is. We are of course there to create understanding and respect around wine - If you understand something you are more likely to respect it too. I think the role is becoming more and more necessary in restaurants. The average person is becoming increasingly interested in wine and tend to spend more on wine too, especially young people. Each type of restaurant requires a different type of sommelier. The common ground is that it's always about communication, about understanding the need of the diners, and how they will best understand and appreciate the wine that they drink.
What is different about being a sommelier in Denmark?
You can divide Denmark into two parts: Copenhagen and the rest. In Copenhagen, you see a lot of natural wine. It is a natural wine hub. An average sommelier in Copenhagen would know a lot more about natural wine producers than an average sommelier in many other countries. Another main difference is that we do not produce wine ourselves, so we are not overly focused on one specific country. So our speciality is perhaps the breadth of our understanding, which comes from the fact that we can look to the entire world for inspiration.
How do you think the profession has changed over the last ten years?
Things are changing really fast. I would say that one of the key things that have changed is that the average consumer understands a lot more about wine. That is something that you can now expect from most guests. Of course, technology, and especially social media, has made a big difference. It has focused a lot of attention on a small number of wines. Wines that were perhaps already considered rare now receive extra attention, creating the whole phenomenon of what we call "unicorn wines". It has a positive and a negative side. The positive side is that people get a lot of information about wine, and they can use it to widen their horizons, but the negative side is that people can become very single minded in the way that they drink. More and more people only want to drink the wines that look good on social media. That is something we need to look at and talk about. You cannot drink wine because you want likes on Instagram. It must be because you truly enjoy it, because you're curious. Diners need to be brave enough to take the advice from the sommelier offering reasonable alternatives to rare wines. Part of our job is to try to break down that wall.
In terms of how we implement technology in restaurants, I think we will see more wine lists on iPads. We have already seen the rise in the use of QR codes during the Coronavirus. I find that smart and efficient. We will see that kind of thing more and more fast paced brasserie/bistrot settings. In fine dining restaurants, I think a lot of people will stick to the book because there is also a certain amount of charm to having wine lists printed on luxurious materials.
What are your abiding memories of the Castel Young Sommelier Cup in 2016?
First of all it was a lot of fun! I met a lot of very nice people! It was also hugely unexpected. I did not expect to get as far as I did! I remember it also as a very well organised and extremely serious event too. I felt that everybody who was involved in the organisation really respected the candidates and really wanted the competition to be as fair and challenging as possible. Meeting all the people from the different countries was extremely interesting too.
Of course I think it was also the last time I met Gerard Basset. That's something I'm going to remember.
What do you remember from last year’s best Sommelier of the World competition, and what did it mean to you to get so far?
My memories are of very deep focus. I remember the waiting times, which give you a lot of time to think! I enjoy competing. I love the challenge. I love the adrenaline rush. I love that you need to control your emotions. I would say that for that competition I had put in a lot of preparation, so I was perhaps a bit shyer towards the other candidates. I spent a bit more time just by myself. Of course getting so far was beyond what I had dreamt of. I had hoped for the semi-final so reaching the final was unbelievable. I was the first one on the stage so I only realised that I was in the final half way through the first half. I remember thinking that I had achieved more than I had hoped, so then it was all about just enjoying being on that stage and getting as much information as possible from the experience. Good memories!
How important are international sommelier competitions for the profession?
I find them extremely important. I know that competing is not for everyone and you definitely do see some of the best sommeliers in the world without any of those kind of titles because they just don't enjoy competition. But I do think that it's extremely good for everybody, because it gives you something to be inspired by, something to achieve, and most importantly it brings attention to the craft that is being a sommelier.
Where does your passion for wine come from?
It came about when I started working on the floor because I wanted to get my waiter’s certification, which takes almost four years in Denmark. At that time I was 18 years old, so I had been drinking wine but I didn’t particularly enjoy it. However I knew for some odd reason that I was going to find it interesting. That is why I applied to the restaurant where I did, because I knew they were good with wine. If you're engaged from day one you pick up a natural interest, and you are surrounded by people who can introduce you properly to wine. Then I realised how wine and food can work together, and that was when I knew I was completely hooked.
What are your feelings about Bordeaux wine?
It's funny you should ask that, because if you look at Bordeaux wine in Denmark, it's not the most fashionable to drink. But actually I really love Bordeaux. It's one of the areas that appeals to me. You just need to drink it when it's mature. That's the challenge. Many sommeliers in Denmark have never tasted a perfectly mature bottle of Bordeaux. They would say, "It’s overpriced, it's so harsh, not interesting to drink". Well I would say of course not if you drink 2016 right now... Of course there is quality to the wine but I can easily understand people who would brush Bordeaux off as something "posh". But I have been very lucky to have tasted some mature Bordeaux and I am deeply enchanted by it. So I really have an affinity towards Bordeaux and that's even something I would be willing to fight for! It's never going to die, but it's a shame that young sommeliers don't get a chance to engage with it.
Find Nina on Instagram at @vonjensen
More about Lyst at restaurantlyst.com