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Published:  23 July, 2008

Richard Weiss, Wine consultant, Blue Elephant, London Interview: Josie Butchart

Blue Elephant 3-6 Fulham Broadway, London SW6 1AA Tel: 020 7385 6595 Restaurant manager: Sebastien Chaniac

Blue Elephant, which will celebrate its 25th birthday next year, is part of the Blue Elephant Group, which owns 12 Thai restaurants around the world (the newest opened recently in Bahrain). Wine consultant Richard Weiss has worked as a sommelier in France, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland and moved to London five years ago. He has worked for many of London's top restaurants, including 1837 at Brown's Hotel and The Greenhouse, and has consulted for The Cinnamon Club. For the past three months he has worked full-time for the Blue Elephant group. The wine buyer for the Blue Elephant Group, Luc Menier, is based in Paris.

What are the main challenges when creating a wine list for a Thai restaurant? Matching wine to Thai food is very difficult, because the food has such delicate flavours and most of the dishes also contain a generous handful of chilli, which makes it even harder! Around 65-75% of the wine we sell is white, and the best partnership that I have found so far is, fairly predictably, Gewrztraminer. But Viognier and Semillon also work very well.

What about red wines? Red wines are a big dilemma for me because the grapes that work best - Syrah, Mourvdre, Carmenre, Grenache - tend to produce very heavy, strong wines. You need wines that are fruity and low in tannin, otherwise you just get an unpleasant clash between the tannins and chilli. With white wines you don't have the tannin problem, but I have discovered that the temperature of the wine is very important. When you drink something very cold, it produces a thermic shock, which intensifies the fiery sensation from the chillis. The wine cools down the mouth but, once it is swallowed, the fiery sensation returns - but it is even more intense. A white wine between 12C and 15C doesn't produce this thermic shock, and so it expresses its flavours better.

Which regions provide the best matches? I am still pretending that Gewrztraminer from Alsace is best, because I come from that region, but to be honest a lot of Australian Semillons are also very interesting. New World wines have a major role to play in this game.

Have you made many major changes to the wine list? The wines are now organised by flavour, rather than by country, because the type of food we serve means that people find it easier to find the right wine that way.

What's your favourite wine on the list? It has to be the Cuve Royal Thai from Josmeyer, our house white. First of all because he is one of my favourite winemakers and we are very close friends, but also because we made this cuve together. It is also very good value.

Have you discovered any surprisingly good wine matches at Blue Elephant? I had a very interesting comment from a customer, a Champagne enthusiast, not so long ago. He made a very interesting suggestion: that we should have some Louis Roederer Rich on the list because it is demi-sec and a more opulent style of Champagne that would suit the food very well. It is on the list now and I have been tasting different dishes with it to find good matches. Along the same lines we have our own Blue Elephant Champagne from Jacquart, and we ask them to make it a bit richer than their usual blend.

Why do you have own-label wines? It makes us a bit different from anyone else, and it also helps us develop a special relationship with the producers. Josmeyer is really doing something special for us with Cuve Royal Thai, because he doesn't usually create specially blended own-label wines. We are working on creating a larger range of Blue Elephant wines and have already approached Michele Chiarlo in Piedmont to see if we can do something together. We would also like to do a sweet wine with Willi Opitz. In the autumn, at our sister restaurant La Porte des Indes, we will be holding a big food and wine pairing event with Ernest & Julio Gallo, concentrating on Zinfandel.

Why did you choose Zinfandel? It is a variety that goes very well with many Indian dishes, because it has low tannins and a very fruity side. We have already done some food and wine pairing experiments that have been very successful. In the meantime, we are also looking at launching an own-label wine with Gallo. At the moment we are still at the stage of looking at different geographical locations, because Gallo produces an enormous quantity of wine and we want to make sure we find the most suitable spot.

What do you think of Thai wines? We have been working with the Siam winery for a couple of years and we have its white, red and ros on our list. It's a very nice touch, and the wines are really improving in quality. We are also working with Siam to create an own-label wine. Strangely, we actually sell more of the red wine than the white, contrary to our usual experience. It is the exception that proves the rule.

Are there any areas of your list you would like to expand? I'd like to have a few more wines from Australia and South Africa. Tasmania is a nice spot with some beautiful wines; New Zealand as well. I'm doing some tastings looking at those regions, and in September we will be adding some new wines to the list.

What is your most popular wine, apart from the house wines? One thing that really surprised me is that I am selling a lot of Barolo from Michele Chiarlo. At around 70 on the list, it is quite an expensive wine.