Interview of Aziz Hathout
Head Sommelier of Bistrot Bagatelle

Monsieur Aziz is the Head Sommelier of Bistrot Bagatelle at the Fairmont, Sheikh Zayed Road. Canadian born Aziz, explained to me a few little secrets about the new products on his wine list. Unfortunately for you, readers, I have decided not to share them. All too soon the time will come to feature them, and as soon as they touch down in Dubai I promise to do so.

What always has surprised me about Aziz is his humble personality, someone so passionately driven towards sustainable and biodynamic wine but also macro producers of classic grape varieties. He is is a key influencer in always looking to bring new wines and producers to Dubai.

LG: Are there any particular wines that are eternally popular in Bagatelle?
AZIZ: Bagatelle is a champagne driven venue, 40% of our purchase is Champagne versus 29% of all the other categories. However, I’m able to sell anything, and in particular small appellation wines that people don’t know. I play with the value-quality of those wines and our clients are now coming back and asking for more of these kind of wines. That’s why I’m always in search of new products. I have more than 20 specially imported wines on our list and with the great price structure of those wines, people are encouraged more to try these appellations.
I can definitely say that if you don’t direct your clients with such wine reccomendations, most of them would go more for the typical classic whites. For example, Chablis, Sancerre, Puligny-Montrachet, and classic red from the very well know appellation of Bordeaux like St Emilion, Margaux, St Estephe and Brunello from Italy.

LG: What is your philosophy for building your wine list?
AZIZ: I always follow the same classical structure that is divided into three pillars. The first pillar is the classic wine region from the same location as your restaurant. I now work for a French restaurant so I give space to the main regions like Loire, Burgundy, Rhone, Alsace. If I were in a Spanish restaurant I would follow the same structure, with the Spanish wine regions in premise, using the key region as main reference for your clients. The second pillar is to discover grape varieties from the home country, but which are produced all over the world. In the case of a Spanish restaurant, I would take some Palomino from South Africa as I know there are a few producers that do some outstanding wines from it, also in Australia there are producers working very well with Tempranillo and so on. The third pillar is to list the main classics of other wine regions around the world such as Carmenere from Chile, Malbec from Argentina, Barolo from Italy, Riesling from Germany, Pinot Noir from central Otago. After I have built the wine list with these main pillars I’m confident I have diversity in my wine list so I can please as many clients possible. After that, I can then introduce other wines, maybe from small appellations or wines from a macro producer that is unknown.

LG: Are the sommeliers still distant towards their client’s opinions?
AZIZ: Not anymore, as more bistros and casual dining outlets are taking the place of fine dining restaurants. Probably 15 years ago sommeliers were stiff and some quite arrogant because of the nature of that establishment. Today, they are more humble and their approach is more casual than educational, so clients feel more at ease to ask for information from sommeliers. Before sommeliers were approaching the tables only on clients request, nowadays they tend to approach all the tables. Also, sommeliers are now training waiters and junior staff that can also relay information about the wines.  In the Dubai market what is missing here is great wine bars where their wine program includes special import wines from small producers that are also affordable and can be displayed at around 40 AED per glass. A wine bar where all the staff have good wine knowledge and can recommend wines like in many other parts of the world to their client, is also lacking.

LG: What’s trends do you recognise in the current wine market?
AZIZ: The classic grape varieties or the so-called indigenous grape variety of the old world. The hipster movement born 10-15 years ago is getting more shape. As this movement is getting bigger, even the sommeliers from fine dining establishments or people from other parts of the new world know grapes that were previously unknown like Grillo, Assyrtiko, Alvarinho, Gruner Veltliner, and they are demanding them. Of course, international grape varieties will always exist but there is a tendency to discover old classic of particular wine regions. Generally speaking, the wines are seen more and more with the philosophy of the pairing with the food, so we all looking for more food-driven wines.

LG: What your view on organic, biodynamic and natural wines?
AZIZ: Organic for me means wines that should be made naturally. However, there are substances including sulfur and copper that are naturally produced chemically that are allowed in an organically produced wine. So organic for me is just a fashionable label and that’s why I think biodynamic is a much more relevant. These producers see the vineyards as one element and one ecosystem as our ancestors did when growing wines. Biodynamic production understands that nature works in a very specific way, nature doesn’t like monoculture and when we started mass production we started to go in the wrong direction. Nature loves biodiversity and poly-culture. Biodynamic is a balance between plants, bacteria and animals that live in the vineyards. This balance creates energy in the vineyards completely unique and tries to manage the vineyards more than control it.

Differently, natural wines are wines are made from self-sustainable farming, so very minimal intervention both in the vineyards and in the winery. Of course wine is a product of the grapes and sometimes grapes need to be helped to grow as without human intervention could mean not getting the best out of them, so they would not be very consistent. However, for all the three types of farming, the goal is to produce better and healthier grapes that need no intervention in the winery to produce great quality and healthier wines.