Uncorked: Sarah Helliwell

By Joe Lutrario contact

- Last updated on GMT

Sarah Helliwell head of wine Wilding restaurant Eight Stony Street

Related tags: Uncorked, Wine, Sommelier, Sarah Helliwell, Wilding, Eight Stony Street

The head of wine at Oxford’s Wilding and Frome’s Eight Stony Street on her top three restaurant wine list and her favourite wine producers.

Tell us about the moment you first became interested in wine… 

I was always intrigued by wine growing up, we spent a lot of holidays in Bordeaux and I was fascinated with the way adults were so interested in a drink. But I think the moment I really fell in love with the industry was at the cellars of Domaine de L’Hortus in Pic Saint Loup (Languedoc-Roussillon). The wines were so intense and tasted exactly of the incredible place we were standing in. I became obsessed with the ability of wine to transport you somewhere, like a postcard you can taste and smell.

Tell us about your wine list at Wilding and Eight Stony Street 

We have around 400 wines and they are a really eclectic collection of just delicious bottles. Everything we stock has to deliver in the glass and taste amazing while showcasing the place that it was made in. All our wines are from small producers with strong sustainability credentials. Wines taste better when there is a gentle human touch involved, you can only make great wines when you have quality healthy fruit in the vineyard. The list is constantly evolving as I discover new things and that makes it really exciting for me, and hopefully our customers too. I hope it’s a wine list that encourages people to try new things and one of the most important things I try and foster in our staff is a sense of excitement in the wines we list so they can share their enthusiasm with customers, the best part of my job is seeing our staff engage with guests and making everyone that arrives feel comfortable to talk about wine and ask questions.

Over the course of your career, have you had any wine-related disasters?

When I was first starting out I took the wrong wine out of an ice bucket and topped up a customer’s glass of Domaine Louis Michel Chablis 1er Cru with a bottle of Soave, I realised only after I had poured it and had to explain. It still makes me shudder to think about it.  

Name your top three restaurant wine lists

10 Cases because you are always able to find a new treasure to try and staff are genuinely passionate, Ma Cuisine in Beaune for making me feel like a child in a sweetshop each time I go and Terroirs, even though its now a cross London trek to Dulwich. They encapsulate what a great wine venue should be for me, no pretention, just well curated and interesting wines and simple food to accompany it.

Who do you most respect in the wine world? 

Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew have been so instrumental in breaking down the idea of what a restaurant wine list should be and have allowed a whole amazing wave of younger sommeliers to offer wine lists with a sense of fun and free of expectations. I also hugely admire Sandia Chang, she has been a huge inspiration to bring women into the industry and her enthusiasm for champagne is infectious.

What’s the most interesting wine you’ve ever come across? 
Joh Jos Prum Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese, it just enthrals me how a wine can give so much and continue to evolve even after decades and each time I try a different vintage or revisit this wine there is something different that appears.

What are the three most overused tasting notes? 

'Serious', fruit-driven and mineral. I am definitely guilty of using some of these but I think too often they don’t really mean anything of use about a wine.

What’s the best value wine on your list at the moment

I have most of the range from Bodegas Frontonio in Valdejalon (in north east Spain), their Botijo Rojo Garnacha is insanely good value for a wine that just delivers on everything you would want from a Garnacha and is made with so much care, it’s a firm staff favourite in all the sites.

What is your ultimate food and drink match? 

Champagne and fish and chips (on the beach if at all possible). 

Old World or New World? 

Old World, there are so many exciting New World wines but if I had to list my favourite ever bottles most would be from the Old World. 

What is your pet hate when it comes to wine service in other restaurants? 

Any kind of snobbery towards customers. I believe it’s our role to find something which our customers will love, no matter what their tastes are. 

Who is your favourite producer at the moment and why?

At the moment I have a rekindled love for Domaine Marcel Lapierre (a producer in Beaujolais), the Morgon in particular is a wine that seems to surprise me each time I revisit by just how good it is. 

As a head of wine, what question do you most get asked by customers?

‘How do you get that job?’. I have to admit I feel very lucky, but also assure people it’s not all as fun as it sounds and there are a good amount of spreadsheets involved. 

Which wine producing region or country is currently underrated at the moment and why?

Spain, I know that sounds crazy as its one of the most popular wine producing countries but I think most consumers are really unaware of the incredible regional differences across the country. You can drink every style and profile imaginable but I think very few of our customers would know where to start outside of Rioja. I am desperate to get back to the north around Galicia when I can as there is so much there I am excited to explore more of. 

It’s your last meal and you can have a bottle of any wine in the world. What is it and why?

Puligny Montrachet Les Pucelles Leflaive 2002. This wine completely stopped me in my tracks when I tasted it and if it was my last meal I would like to go out in total awe and wonder of how fermented grapes can create something this extraordinary.

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