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A drink with… Isa Bal MS

Master Sommelier Isa Bal is winner of the Michelin Guide Great Britain & Ireland’s Sommelier Award 2022. He tells Chris Losh about his career and matching Madeira with mock turtle soup.

Born and raised in Turkey, Isa Bal MS began his career in hospitality as a commis sommelier at The Vineyard at Stockcross in Newbury. He won the title of Best Sommelier of Europe in 2008 and became a Master Sommelier in 2009. He was head sommelier for The Fat Duck Group for over 12 years and now co-owns Michelin-starred restaurant Trivet with fellow Fat Duck alumnus, chef Jonny Lake. 

‘I was not born into wine. I can’t claim to have a grandfather who made wine – in fact I didn’t drink any wine until I was about 19, I think. I always had a keen interest in nature – how things happen, when, and why – especially seasonal produce and grapes were always a favourite. I did have some other drinks like beer and raki, but wine came much later.’

‘It was at The Vineyard at Stockcross where I got really interested in wine. Edoardo Amadi, then the F&B manager, gave me my first wine job and I have never looked back since.’

‘I am really enjoying a variety of different wines and regions at the moment. I love Cabernet Franc. For me, Chardonnay is the white grape variety par excellence. Other than that I like to see Portugal do better in terms of recognition of its wines. I think it is a fabulous wine country. I am watching Eastern Mediterranean and Caucasian countries with keen interest.’

‘I think there was, and is, a great deal of misunderstanding when it came to the food of The Fat Duck. It always had very precise flavours, clean and not muddled up. So generally speaking, matching that food with a drink was easy.’

‘The one dish that challenged me the most was the Mock Turtle Soup. It was a hard dish to find a match. I finally paired it with a vintage Verdelho Madeira that worked very well. The problem was that it was fortified, and when served with the flight of tasting wines it got many people quite intoxicated. But a wonderful match!’

‘I think UK customers are some of the most open-minded in the world when it comes to wine. We have zero resistance from our customers who visit Trivet to trying wines from countries like Georgia, Armenia and Turkey.’

‘I believe the wine industry in the UK is choosing the easier way of focusing on tried-and-tested [wines], as they are less time consuming to sell. I see that is changing slowly and Caucasian wines will have a place in most wine lists and shelves going forward.’

‘If I had £30 to spend on a bottle of wine I would buy Artemis Karamolegos Santorini White Blend – and with the money left over I would buy a couple of oysters to eat with it.’

‘I think it is very important and encouraging that a guide like Michelin is starting to look into different aspects of dining other than the food and chefs, which will always be the main focus. It is important to recognise different professions that complete and complement the dining experience. I am just grateful to be selected as the recipient, and there are many worthy individuals out there.’

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