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Getting to know Ferran Centelles, one of Spain’s top sommeliers

02/02/2022 Interviews

In 1999 he began working at Ferran Adrià’s prestigious El Bulli restaurant as an intern and ever since then his thirst for knowledge has grown and grown. This intrepid sommelier, writer, educator and wine judge can’t resist an interesting project. So wherever you see the name Ferran Centelles, it’s worth paying attention. You will not be disappointed. With a desire to make the fascinating world of wine known in a wholesome and exciting way, his courses, conferences and books are like spells. Must be Centelles’ word...

- Wine is an exciting world full of sensations that leaves behind lots of memories. Do you remember your first experience with wine?
I have quite a few memories, but perhaps the one I think about most is the porrón filled with wine that they drank in my grandparents’ village. The porrón was a regular feature on my grandparents’ table and the wine was treated just like part of the meal. A traditional and popular way of sharing fresh and bright wines.

- Considering that your father was a teacher, we assume you weren’t born with a passion for wine. When and how did it win you over?
My upbringing wasn’t at all linked to wine. At the most, my grandfather had a few vineyards in the village of Torre d'En Domènec (País Valenciano) and sold his grapes to the cooperative. I was introduced to this world when my parents and I decided to study cooking and of everything they taught, the parts relating to service and customer care really caught my attention. That’s how I ended up leaving the kitchen and focussing fully on the catering service.

- At the age of 17 you left catering school and started working in one of the best restaurants in the world. How has your time at El Bulli influenced your professional career?
In 1999 it was one of the world’s leading restaurants and I remember it as a time of significant personal growth. It was a crazy time because of how intense it was and how much effort and creativity it demanded. I grew hugely. And since the restaurant was only open for half the year, it meant I could do other things the other six months of the year, like travel, study or help with the grape harvest... Very lucrative experiences that helped me both in my professional and personal growth.

- You work at the elBulliFoundation, creating the great wine encyclopedia, and represent one of the most influential wine critics in the world in Spain. What did you take away from working with two great figures like Ferran Adrià and Jancis Robinson? Did you see a trait they shared that could be the secret of their success?
I have learned a lot from Ferran Adrià and his partner Juli Soler. But most importantly, I saw a demanding and perfect service model with its own personality. The good thing about El Bulli is that, if you did the job well, it allowed you to bring your personal touch to the offering by sharing something of yourself. So, when you served a dish the right way, you could also add your own personal touch that made the dish more appealing and appetising. If there is one trait that defines Ferran, it is his passion, the enthusiasm he brings to everything, which is what has brought him to where he is.

On the other hand, working with Jancis Robinson also requires a lot of focus. Being one of the most prominent figures in the world of wine, I would say the number 1, the level of demand is very high. I take it very seriously and try to be as objective as I can when it comes to rating the wines I am given to taste on a scale 1 to 10. One defining characteristic is that Jancis is a perfectionist and it shows in everything she does. Everything I do for her is examined with a magnifying glass and analysed down to the last detail to make sure it’s perfect.

- Throughout your life, you have had the good fortune of meeting prominent figures who have contributed to your way of seeing wine. However, our greatest mentors are often not famous. Who would you say has had the most influence on your career and on your life in general? What have they taught you and how do you apply it in your everyday life?
I have had the honour of meeting very prominent people in the world of wine, but I have also had the great fortune of being surrounded by great friends who are always there when I need them. My last book “La botella 18. Tasting a unique wine on the shoulders of giants” is dedicated to Albert, one of my great friends and confidants who always helps me by giving advice or just being there when things are hard.

- The world of wine is full of technicalities that intimidate people. When it comes to choosing a wine, many people are reluctant to say that they do not understand the subject. Books you’ve written like “Which wine with this duck?”, “The 100.75 questions you always wanted to ask about wine”, “The 18 bottle. Tasting a unique wine on the shoulders of giants” are useful tools that bring wine closer to both the professional and the everyday reader. Do you think we need to work on using a more accessible vocabulary?
We must make an effort to reach everyone. More appealing ways of understanding that connect with the emotional side of the audience. Instead of prioritising technical words, we should talk in cultural, historical and emotional terms that catch people’s attention. Technicalities should take a back seat.

- As the National Chair for Spain at the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) and president of the sommelier jury at the Taste Institute (ITQI), what advice would you give to a person who has little knowledge of wine but wants to be able to confidently choose a wine?
When it comes to choosing a wine, you should ask for a recommendation. But for a recommendation to work, you must let the person get to know you. Each person has their own particular sensoriality. The more you explain your tastes normally: type of wine, sensations, memories... the better the expert will be able to recommend.

- You are not short of awards either... National Gastronomy Award in 2011, Award for the best Sommelier in Spain in 2006 from Ruinart, Award from the Catalan Academy of Gastronomy to the best Sommelier in 2013... With so many awards, your advice carries significant weight. What, if any, are the keys to achieving the perfect pairing?
A piece of advice that never fails when pairing a wine is to remember that “the minutes you spend cooking a dish should be directly related to the alcohol content of the wine”. For example, if we eat a cod carpaccio, which is raw, we will drink a light wine of between 11 and 12%. On the other hand, if we make a cod stew that has been cooking for at least 20 minutes, the best wine will have more body and a minimum alcohol content of 13 or 14%.

- When we talk about pairing, we always think of drinks and dishes, however our brain is trained to pair things that are not always tangible. The idea of combining music with wine, for example, is fascinating and has even been scientifically proven. Could you pair a type of music with a wine?
Recent studies talk about the sound of wine. When we drink a wine, a world of sounds opens up before us: the uncorking, the bubbles of a sparkling wine bursting in the glass, the bones in the mouth cavity... All of these are factors that help us to take on a perception of the wine. Moreover, in the sensory world everything is connected: light, atmosphere, company... and, of course, sound. On this basis, we could say that when the music is sharp, fresher and lighter wines are better. On the other hand, when the notes of the song are more serious, the wine could be more forceful and with a higher alcohol content. For example, if we talk about Carmina Burana, a musical creation involving choirs, solo voices, orchestra, we could pair it with a robust, intense, complex and high alcohol Priorat.

- In your book “Bottle 18. Tasting a unique wine on the shoulders of giants” you tell 18 different wine adventures. Can the same wine have different interpretations? Is it being at the right temperature as important as your state of mind when you take a sip?
This project emerged after 5 years of work and the truth is that I have loved doing it. It came from the desire to work with people I admire (inside and outside the world of wine) and, above all, with the intention of offering a broader vision with opinions that have nothing to do with the industry.

- To walk into the world of wine is like opening an infinite universe where we will never stop discovering new things. With an ancient tradition like wine production, the planet is full of regions to discover. Can you tell us about a denomination that is currently doing some exciting things?
Because I work as a Jancis Robinson’s taster for Spain, I have had the opportunity to discover many wines. We are in a season of great activity and many D.O.’s are emerging. Many of which are by no means new, but thanks to small, great winegrowers, they are revolutionising their region. Places like Rioja, Pla del Bages, Ribeiro, Alicante, Calatayud or the Garnachas from Navarra are starting to make a lot of noise. Outside Spain, France, Austria and the New World are also making some incredible wines and, thanks to the global world we live in, luckily we can have them at our fingertips at the click of a button.

- Knowing so much about wine, have you ever been tempted to go over to the dark side (the winery) and create your own wine to your own taste and likeness? If so, where would you start?
I did try that but it was for my own enjoyment. What I did realise is that once you manage to make a wine with the characteristics you have set in your head, you become very attached to the wine. It is like having another child.

- Between books, reviews and bottles, you’re not short of work, but if you have any free time left, what do you spend it doing? Any hobbies that are linked to wine?
I love food and the trips I plan are mainly influenced by that. I also like to play sports, specifically basketball, a team game that I enjoy and that makes me feel good.

- Finally, we know from your work that you never stop discovering new wines. So there’s no one better to reveal a wine that has recently excited you. What is it and what would you pair it with?
I have discovered a wine that I have fallen in love with. “La Garnacha Prometida” from Bodegas Aradón. No more than 3,000 bottles of this wine are made in eastern Rioja and in it, you can really feel the old vines.

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