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Talking about wine

Food blogger Karen Burns-Booth meets Lorena Merlini, Head Sommelier at Viking Cruises

I love a drop of wine, and having lived in the Bordeaux region for over 17 years, I think I’m fairly good at matching and pairing wines with food. However, I am always willing and open to new ideas and I do not consider myself a wine expert, I just know what I like! On my recent Viking cruise around South East Asia, I had the pleasure of meeting Lorena Merlini, Head Sommelier at Viking Cruises, who talked me and my colleagues through several wine pairings, both in the Italian restaurant Manfredi’s and in The Chef’s Table. I am always pleased to see female chefs and sommeliers doing so well in the hospitality industry, so it’s with great pleasure that I share some of her thoughts from a short interview I had with her and after imbibing in a wonderful  wine tasting event with Lorena too.

What is your advice to people wanting to choose wines to pair with meals?

I always tell them to imagine where they would love to be, as in a story; so, you are eating steak, where did you last have a fabulous steak and what wine did you drink with it? Close your eyes and imagine that feeling again, and you will be surprised at how instinctive you become at choosing a wine. But, don’t forget the sommeliers are there to guide and help you too. A good sommelier will be able to finish a personal story and advise you on what wines (or beers and spirits) will be best with certain foods. People tend to be too clinical sometimes when it comes to choosing wine, you need to choose (and enjoy) wine with passion and happy memories too.

Do you think your Italian heritage plays a part in being a sommelier?

As you know I am from near Milan in Italy and I grew up around local vineyards, with my family enjoying the local wines with their daily meals. When you are exposed to this at an early age it is inevitable that you soak up an interest which may (or may not) emerge until later on in life. I studied languages, PR and marketing at university and it wasn’t until after graduating and working as a bar tender, that I realised my love and interest in wine, not just the pairing and taste of wines, but the science and terroir behind viticulture too.

You say you studied languages at university, how many languages do you speak?

English is my most fluent foreign language – I used to be an English language teacher, and I worked in London for a while too, where I first worked in the drinks industry. I also speak Italian, obviously, as it’s my mother tongue, but also Spanish, French, German and Portuguese, all of which help me in my job as a sommelier on-board a cruise ship.

Is it hard being a female sommelier in what is still seen as a man’s world?

It is true that there is still some prejudice against woman in the world of wine. But so many women are involved in this industry and at the highest level that is slowly getting better. In France, there are two Cognac tasters and blenders for two large Cognac producers, and it is now generally accepted that women have a very sophisticated palate when it comes to blending wines and spirits, as well as differentiating the grape variety and where wines originate from. I have studied long and hard to get where I am, which isn’t unusual when it comes to female sommeliers. As well as training and taking exams with the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, (3rd level wine and spirits pass with Merit) I am also a member of AIS, the Associazione Italiana Sommelier. I have to say that all of my male colleagues on Viking are very respectful and supportive of me however.

Is being a sommelier on a cruise ship at sea different to being on land?

Not really, the only difference is the ordering and stocking of wines and spirits, you obviously have to know what your most popular wines (and spirits) are well in advance, in order to make sure you have enough on-board as replenishing them in foreign ports may be difficult. Certain cruises in different regions have favourites, such as Prosecco on the Mediterranean and European cruises and heavy tannin-rich reds when sailing around North America and Australasia. But, don’t take that as read, as trends and tastes change and a good sommelier can lead customer’s to making a choice they might not normally have picked if their first choice is not available, which is rare but can happen on long cruises.

Private wine tasting events can be booked on all Viking ocean cruises.

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