Unfiltered: Harry Ballmann

The sommelier at Wild Shropshire, founder of wine consultancy Cépage, and wine specialist for Home Bargains, talks to Douglas Blyde about what his problem is with Pinot Noir.

What did you study?

Politics, followed by a Master’s in European Politics and Public Policy. So, importing wine post-Brexit has been a breeze…

What is your “terroir”?

Blighty born and bred; Oxfordshire, specifically.

Who has been your mentor?

Yohann Pinol, whom I met when he was the head sommelier at Wiltons, Jermyn Street. “If you want to taste it, sell it” was his motto. He pushed hard, and the attention to detail he inspired was nothing short of extraordinary.

Where have you worked as a sommelier, and what did you learn?

At Wiltons on Jermyn Street, where the art of discretion is taught with great emphasis. The dark art of the upsell is taught here too of course. Also, how to stir arguably the best martini in London. And most importantly, how to walk. The recently closed Folie (now the glamorous Bebe Bob) where I fully authored the list, taught me that you must think about absolutely everything when opening a restaurant – as well as how to learn from other people’s mistakes. Through my work at high-end caterer, Cellar Society, I learnt how to schmooze, thanks to MD, Bertie de Rougemont. At Wild Shropshire, where I currently work, I learnt about the art of experimentation, and that stepping away from what is usual or expected, especially in rural Shropshire, can be rewarding.

What is your role at Wild Shropshire?

I started off as a simple supplier. I came to eat and loved it. They asked, given my experience, whether I would help out over Christmas. Any excuse to be back on the floor! Of course, at such a small restaurant, everyone does everything, including a little plating from time to time.

Describe the restaurant’s ethos, including the “no menu” approach?

Overall, holistic, from the drinks to the food, and how both are imagined. We start with the land. There’s a farm and a lab to experiment. It’s regenerative and sustainable, with an immense emphasis on LOCAL. The no menu approach puts a gentle pressure on the guest to engage with what they’re tasting. Wild Shropshire, I’d say, is definitely somewhere to push a few boundaries with tastes and senses; we also encourage getting “stuck in”, there are dishes to pick up with your hands, even licking the plate clean.

Describe the list?

Modest, given the size of the restaurant. Each bottle has a purpose, but we definitely have a broad range to cater for every eventuality. We tend to sell far more wine pairings than we do bottles, which leaves limited scope for a proper cellar collection. My colleague, Joe Stark and I are continually bringing bottles from our own cellars along to put on the pairings. At the top end, we have some interesting picks from producers including David Duband, François Cotat, Theo Dancer (the son of the cult Vincent), Charles Dufour, Champagne Chavost, and we are the only restaurant in the north to list Breaky Bottom.

And what style or grape deserves to be put in the spotlight?

Seyval Blanc.

What has been a startling match?

I have to be coy here, given we do not like to divulge the specifics of the menu, though it does change regularly. However, there is a dish containing fermented tomato, nettle oil, black rice and a sweet/sour broth among many, many other ingredients which is ridiculously complex, and insanely fun to pair a variety of wines with. We’ve used a gently skin macerated Slovakian Pinot Noir called Cherry on Tuff (by United Cellars of Tekov), which is a shock to the senses, Dorli Murh’s Carnuntum Blaufränkisch/Syrah blend, aided by the great Dirk Niepoort, and one I particularly enjoyed was Domaine des Forges Coteaux-du-Layon – the sugar here really enlightened the complexity of the dish, but it was certainly Marmite in the team! The pairings change every week.

What are your finest pours available via Coravin?

Everything is available by the glass, which is becoming an increasingly popular way to structure a wine list. Of late, I’ve enjoyed Martin Muthenthaler’s Spitzer Graben Grüner Veltliner, Utopia’s Slovakian Ice Cider Patience and Belargus Rouères Coteaux-du-Layon. I must add, if you choose the wine pairings at WS, you’re invited to enjoy a glass of Ch. d’Yquem at cost price, as everyone should be given the opportunity to taste the great wines of the world. I am very proud to offer this.

What drinks does chef-patron James Sherwin best enjoy?

James loves things with skin-contact. If he were talking about reds, he’d want them “slutty”. His word, ha!

What is your favourite table in the house?

If you like a natter, the table for two at the pass from which you have a great view of James at work. For the atmosphere, choose table three on the booking notes, as you can view the entire restaurant and soak up the intimate dining experience.

What wine style could you happily live without?

Pinot Noir has never turned me on in its still red form. That might face some backlash. It’s just quite unexciting. Of course, you can’t knock the usual DRC etc, but only a few bottles have raised true eyebrows: a 1998 Jim Clarendon number, 2002 Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Français though that’s sparkling, and Thierry Pillot’s Volnay is very good too. Overall, PN leaves me feeling underwhelmed, and poor! I’m open to having my mind changed, of course.

Which wine region would you like to visit?

I’ve never visited Burgundy, perhaps it would help me to understand Pinot Noir a little better.

And what was a recent sommelier trip which you found interesting?

I went to Champagne in the summer, followed by Bordeaux in late September. Observing the contrasting opinions of the vignerons from the respective regions was actually fascinating, and quite humorous; whilst the Champenois were eager to break away from the clutches and influence of the Grand Marques, the Bordelaise stop at nothing to associate themselves with the Grand Vin estates.

What ingredients do you love, and abhor?

Exceptional quality olive oil – I’m trying to hunt down some of Tenuta San Guido’s. I love to BBQ everything from wild bass to whole rotisserie chickens, so olive oil is an absolute staple. I struggle with low acid dishes generally, and through one too many oysters during my time at Wiltons, I often abstain, much to people’s dismay!

What is “Cépage”?

I created Cépage (cepage.uk), motto of which is “fine wine, but fun” following a harvest at Langham, circa October 2020. is fine wine, but fun. I’m your “wine guy”, so to speak. You come to us with your budget for x number of bottles, a little about your preferences, and we’ll fulfil. A number of clients have my personal number and frequently ask for advice, whether choosing at a restaurant or simply what to devour next. Cépage has stocked everything from cupboards under the stairs to super yachts, working with high profile chefs along the way. We do a little bit of wholesale in conjunction with importer, McCarthy Mitchell, looking after the northwest and a few fine spots in London. Our portfolio includes the likes of Champagnes Doyard, Manon Boutillez-Guer, Chavost and La Borderie, and a few Burgundian and Italian producers.

How do you select clients?

If they like to drink, they can become a client. I don’t offer wine investment services as a matter of principle. It’s just numbers, and anybody can do that; the beauty is ensuring the client has the perfect wine for their palate and occasion.

And what work do you do with Home Bargains?

In a bizarre turn of events, I’m their wine specialist. We’re slowly altering their selection on the shelves, from an early 2000s convenience store lookalike to delicious bottles for everyone; a particular favourite is Ravasqueria’s Coutada de Velha Blanco, for a mere £6.49. We also have an online offering too, with free click and collect to 300 stores currently, rolling out nationwide. “Big Brands, Bottom Prices” remains very much the slogan, with extremely smart deals. £39.99 for Bollinger Special Cuvée might potentially be the best on the market, at present, plus a few other hidden surprises. (thegoodwineco.co.uk)

Do you also enjoy writing?

I do, and I wish there was more time in the day to sit down and actually do it! A book is in the works…

Where do you enjoy dining and drinking?

Generally, my food tastes are classic, think Andrew Edmunds, The Harwood Arms, Parsons, and a little place called Bistro de Tournelles in Paris when I’m there for Vinexpo, though places like Kiln in Soho and Erst in Ancoats excite me greatly. There’s an annual pilgrimage to Cornwall’s Little Palais for their waxed Negroni, a pint of Guinness just about anywhere will do (the Gurnard’s Head, if we’re keeping it Cornish). To drink wine, Ropes and Twines in Liverpool, whose owner, Tian Tso, has a great palate, and Climat in Manchester is a rather lovely setting boasting stunning sunsets over the Manchester skyline.

Who is an interesting fellow sommelier?

I follow Honey Spencer with great interest. We’ve crossed paths, though never met. I have enjoyed reading every wine list she’s produced. I need to make a visit to Sune, with haste! For the laughs, it must be Ciaran Bagchus of Piéd a Terre. Not only does he have a brilliant palate, but we’ve also shared some hilarious times this past year, and opened some special bottles. And fellow Wild Shropshire colleague, Joe Stark, whose soft drinks concoctions and creations are out of this world.

Do you prefer an aperitif or digestif?

Usually both, though I gravitate towards a Cognac as a nightcap. Specifically, the single vineyard “Dovecote” by Philbert.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

I’d like an Inspector Gadget type operation so I’m never without a corkscrew. It would make light work of service, too.

Tell us something surprising about yourself?

Despite the highfalutin lifestyle that owning a private client wine business presents, my favourite past-time is cutting grass on a tractor.

Who, from history, would you like to sit down to lunch with, and what would you drink?

I’m actually a big football fan (Manchester United, for my sins) and like Sir Alex Ferguson, I heard Sir Bobby Charlton enjoyed plenty of fine wine in his later life. We’d sip a ‘99 Salon, commemorating the treble winning team.

Wild Shropshire – 25 Green End, Whitchurch, SY13 1AD; wildshropshire.net

This article originally appeared on the drinks business.

Leave your reply

Most Recent Stories

WLC Eats: Jin Sha at Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake

Douglas Blyde takes a trip to the Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou, China. During his visit, head sommelier Olive Gao guides him through a list covering everything from lard-washed rice wine to tea.

The airline with an organic-only wine list

French boutique airline La Compagnie's exclusively-organic onboard wine list is designed to correspond with its "disruptive image", according to the company.

Kent vineyard battles opposition to wine tastings near graveyard

Nine Oaks Vineyard in Kent is seeking to allay concerns of local residents after facing opposition to its new licence to hold wine tastings, with villagers arguing that nearby mourners could be disturbed. WLC finds out more.

Analysis: a closer look at Majestic's acquisition of Vagabond Wine

Majestic's acquisition of Vagabond Wines, which was confirmed last week, is an interesting expansion for the well-known specialist retailer, particularly given the growth of its B2B business in recent years. WLC looks at what the deal may mean.

Michel Roux Jr to open new restaurant

Just a few months after he shut the doors of legendary Mayfair institution Le Gavroche, Michel Roux Jr will open a new restaurant at The Langham hotel this summer, with the menu taking inspiration from his childhood in Kent.

Most Recent Stories

WLC Eats: Jin Sha at Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou at West Lake

Douglas Blyde takes a trip to the Four Seasons Hotel Hangzhou, China. During his visit, head sommelier Olive Gao guides him through a list covering everything from lard-washed rice wine to tea.

The airline with an organic-only wine list

French boutique airline La Compagnie's exclusively-organic onboard wine list is designed to correspond with its "disruptive image", according to the company.

Kent vineyard battles opposition to wine tastings near graveyard

Nine Oaks Vineyard in Kent is seeking to allay concerns of local residents after facing opposition to its new licence to hold wine tastings, with villagers arguing that nearby mourners could be disturbed. WLC finds out more.

Analysis: a closer look at Majestic's acquisition of Vagabond Wine

Majestic's acquisition of Vagabond Wines, which was confirmed last week, is an interesting expansion for the well-known specialist retailer, particularly given the growth of its B2B business in recent years. WLC looks at what the deal may mean.

Michel Roux Jr to open new restaurant

Just a few months after he shut the doors of legendary Mayfair institution Le Gavroche, Michel Roux Jr will open a new restaurant at The Langham hotel this summer, with the menu taking inspiration from his childhood in Kent.