First it was chefs who took Catalan avant-garde cuisine to the very summit of international opinion. Winemakers followed, with creations born from their terroir which made a great name for themselves. And now sommeliers are bringing things full circle, ensuring that both the food and wines are properly explained to diners.
Roger Viusà, César Cánovas and Ferran Centelles are three sommeliers with a stunning knowledge of wines and cooking. They have headed and continue to head some of the country’s foremost restaurants and wine bars. They are young and they started out even younger. They all emphasise the fact that they enjoy dealing with people. All three of them reached the wine world somewhat unintentionally. But this territory of senses and landscape entrapped them through its intangible qualities, and also through the wisdom needed to care for a vineyard and expertise in the wine cellar.
The sommeliers we have chosen complement each other. They represent different backgrounds and different options within this world and help us to understand the range of possibilities the profession has to offer: César Cánovas (Monistrol de Montserrat, 1971), National Gastronomy Award winner in 2011, has been voted the best sommelier in Spain twice, best sommelier in Catalonia twice and has also won the Ruinart Trophy twice. He was born into a family of restaurateurs, the owners of the Racó d’en Cesc in Barcelona. There, against his family’s will, he built his first wine cellar. Years later he would become the head of the team of sommeliers of Monvínic in Barcelona, considered by media such as The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal as one of the best wine bars in the world.
Ferran Centelles (Barcelona, 1981) carried off the special Sommelier Award 2010 at the National Gastronomy Awards. He had no relatives in the gastronomy sector but started to study hotel and catering because he wanted to be a chef, ending up as sommelier of El Bulli for twelve years (2000–2012). After that he took to teaching and to spreading wine culture. He has recently become an international opinion leader, the specialist for Catalonia and Spain for Jancis Robinson, a world-acclaimed British wine critic, wine journalist and Master of Wine.
Roger Viusà (Roses, 1978) claimed the title for second-best sommelier in the world and the best in Europe in 2008, a year after receiving this same distinction in Spain. He started out as a kitchen help in several hotels on the Costa Brava. It was there that he made contact with the restaurant and wine world. He discovered that he had an extraordinary taste memory and simply went for it. Wine gave him a professional “reason why” and a personal passion. He trained alongside Josep Roca in El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, now regarded as the best restaurant in the world. He subsequently joined the Moo restaurant in Barcelona’s Hotel Omm, the first to offer a pairing menu in the city. He now has his own establishment, Plaça del Vi 7 wine bar in Girona.
Caught up in wine
None of these young sommeliers had ever imagined that they would specialise in the world of wines. So what was so enticing about the wine world that led them all to forge a career in it? When César Cánovas began to work in the family restaurant, he recalls that there was no creative incentive until the day he had to make up his first wine list. Centelles wanted to be a chef, not a sommelier, although, as he himself puts it, “wine found me”. The pleasure of tasting wines eventually became a profession. And Roger Viusà, after training with Jaume Subirós from the Motel Empordà in Figueres and the restaurant’s sommelier Jaume Portell, took charge of El Celler de Can Roca, which transmitted to him a kind of essential and poetic philosophy linked to the idea of a job well done, the land and natural wines.
After discovering this world, the young sommeliers took up the gauntlet of carving out a professional career. César Cánovas turned the wine lists of his parents’ restaurant upside down, doing away with wines that had taken root there through a flawed and somewhat unprofessional dynamic, proposing stimulating alternatives. “We came from a hotel world where wine was bought by the crate, determined by price and motivated by friendship,” he recalls. Taking risks and winning tasting competitions brought him renown and led Sergi Ferrer-Salat to call him to kick off the Monvínic adventure six years ago. This wine bar aims to be a world benchmark and this ambition makes the work of a sommelier even more complex. Monvínic usually stocks 3,500 to 4,000 wines from twenty different countries.
The case of Ferran Centelles is diametrically opposite, since at the tender age of seventeen he ended up in El Bulli, already a world benchmark for gastronomy, where he stayed until the summer of 2012 when the restaurant closed. It was in El Bulli that Centelles moved toward the wine world, even though it was not a pairing restaurant. He remembers that it was an extremely creative, modern cuisine where everything else took a back seat. “I used to open large bottles of wine after lunch, after coffee, for many clients, as a way of celebrating their meal,” he says.
After a spell at El Celler de Can Roca, Roger Viusà took up the position of sommelier at the Moo restaurant in Hotel Omm in Barcelona. It was the first restaurant in the city to pair all the dishes on the menu, which meant that there could be up to six wines for each menu. At that time Viusà also became an internationally renowned sommelier. However, unlike others, he had always wanted to run his own business to be able to offer more daring and personal wine and food options. In 2010 he partnered up with Carlos Orta, owner of the Villa Mas restaurant in San Feliu de Guíxols, and they agreed to start up the Plaça del Vi 7 wine bar in Girona, which opened on 5 January 2012. That is the story so far, and one that he is very happy with. It is a quality establishment, where Viusà opts for natural wines, vigneron wines as they are known, marked by the character of the land, the vineyard, the weather, respect for each vintage and inevitably by the character and personality of the wine-makers.
Ferran Centelles left the restaurant business to concentrate on teaching and disseminating his knowledge of all things wine, and he also reviews wines: over the last year and a half he has set up Wineissocial.com with two friends, a virtual wine club whose aim is to promote wine culture and wine-drinking in a simple and economically feasible way. He also teaches at Outlook Wine, the subsidiary in Catalonia and Spain of these British wine courses, managed here by the sommelier David Molina. Centelles is in charge of the drinks department of Bullipèdia, part of Ferran Adrià’s elBulliFoundation project. And for some months now he has also been the Spanish specialist for Jancis Robinson, one of the world’s most influential wine journalists. This position, which he regards as a responsibility and a source of knowledge rather than of prestige, is important for Catalan wines because Centelles is an international opinion leader who knows this area very well.