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17/01/2017

"Making wine accessible to all"

"Making wine accessible to all"

Wouldn't it be nice if wine wasn't the exclusive domain of specialists? This is something that Stéphanie Rigourd, a distinguished sommelier and Wine Director of Raffles Hotel in Singapore, tries to encourage with her clients on a daily basis. She is today seeking to connect with the general public and banish the often antiquated image of wine. When it comes to finding rare bottles or talking about the work of traditional winegrowers, her enthusiasm may well be contagious!

How would you describe the joys of wine?

Firstly, every wine has a story to tell. When you open a bottle, what you actually have is a little piece of the land in your glass. Some French wines from 2003 for example have a characteristic "jammy" nose, which is the result of years with lots of sunshine. Tasting them is a trip back in time. Wine is also a little piece of the world in your glass. I drink wines produced by wine growers from all over the world because I’m passionate about what they do. It even brings me to tears.

 

Where does your passion for wine originate from?

I was raised in a family of pleasure seekers! Every Sunday we would get together and my father would cook us some delightful little dishes. He would start work in the kitchen very early and would take out large glasses before bringing a bottle up from the cellar. He was no expert, but he knew how to appreciate a good wine. And so I developed a taste for it at the age of five, dipping my shortbread biscuits in it. This remains one of my guilty pleasures even today.

 

How did you become a sommelier?

By watching the character played by Louis de Funès in the film "L’Aile ou la cuisse" (The Wing or the Thigh). I thought to myself, "one day I'll be just like him!" I began by enrolling at the hotel training college of Tain-l’Hermitage, which has a special section for sommeliers. I then worked at the Bastide de Gordes in the Vaucluse (Southern France) and at the Sources de Caudalie, before becoming head sommelier at the Charlemagne restaurant, which has a Michelin star. I learned a great deal there.

 

And how did you finally end up in Singapore?

One day, a client who worked for Hilton offered me the opportunity to work there. I was 22 years old and I took up the offer. I worked in a restaurant and then in a hotel before becoming a wine consultant for several hotels of the Group’s hotels. I later joined Raffles as the wine director in July 2015.

 

There must be a world of difference between someone who loves French regional products and a client from Southeast Asia...

That's right, and I discovered the culture while I was learning English. First of all, this is a region which has a shortage of sommeliers. Even-though I have seen a consequent improvement, Furthermore, the market is not yet mature. Clients mainly buy "big label" products like Pétrus, which in my view isn't particularly interesting. What I really enjoy is helping them discover the wines on my wine list and making the moment special.

 

How hard is it to change consumption habits, which are basically established as social norms?

It's all the more challenging as I am only 29, and I'm a woman working in a man's world— one in which the men are often older, and where the women drink little to no wine at all. Before being able to do anything, I always have to prove myself. I simply try to be as humble as possible.

 

Even in France, we’re sometimes afraid that the sommelier will try and sell us the most expensive bottle...

It's precisely this reputation which detracts from our profession, along with the arrogance of certain sommeliers. What's more, we have lost a lot of credibility due to sommeliers who don't possess the necessary knowledge because they've been poorly trained. Fortunately, a new generation in Asia and in France has understood that we need to react by practicing our profession in a more modest and dynamic way.

 

How do you go about changing established practices?

In the future would like to put together a training programme to support future sommeliers in Southeast Asia. I've been working on the project for some time. Additionally, I give wine classes which allow clients to discover wine without paying exorbitant prices. For six years now, they've been so popular that there’s a waiting list! Now I want to go further by filming my interviews with winegrowers to change the views that people— particularly young people— have of the wine world, to present it in a more accessible and less snobbish manner.

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