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"At Il Gallo d'Oro we don't work for the prize"



Leonel Nunes has been a sommelier at Il Gallo d'Oro since May 2022 and this year he won the Sommelier Award from the Michelin Guide, a distinction he did not expect, but which he saw as a reward for more than 10 years of dedication to wine and gastronomy.
Get to know more about Leonel in this interview



How did your passion for wines come about?


I started getting interested when I was at the Hospitality School, where I took a three-year course, especially in the last year when I had Roberto Luís as a trainer, and that gave me a taste for wine.


But it was when I was working in a restaurant called Uva at The Vine hotel that I got the chance to enter the world of wine and little by little it became a passion. Afterwards it was exponential, the more I learned, the more I enjoyed it. As I often say, the more you learn about wine, the less you know.



Tell us a little about your professional career?



I've been in the hotel industry for a few years now. I took the course at Hospitality School when I was 21, finished when I was 24 and immediately started working in the bar sector here in Madeira. I also spent a year working in Lisbon, at SOFITEL, on the Avenida da Liberdade.


After some time, I returned to Madeira and for a year I was at the Reid's Hotel cocktail bar. Finally, I joined the team at The Vine, where I worked for eight years. After the first year I became responsible for the wines and that is where I have spent most of my professional life. The hotel and restaurant, as the names suggest, were very much about the wine, so it was the ideal place to have wine as my main focus.


I had the chance to meet lots of producers, work closely with distributors in Madeira - even my holidays were planned around visiting the country's wine regions and getting to know everything about them.
Those eight years were very important and thanks to that I got the chance to come to Il Gallo d'Oro. It was an opportunity I couldn't refuse.



You arrived at Il Gallo d'Oro in May 2022. How did this come about?


It is largely due to one person, to whom I am very grateful, Sérgio Marques, former Sommelier at Il Gallo d'Oro, who helped me a lot in my professional life and in the passion I have for wines. At the time I had already taken two wine courses with Sérgio, we had already been to several wine tastings together. When Sérgio left the restaurant I was lucky enough to be recommended to take his place. As I already mentioned, it was an opportunity I couldn't refuse. Working at a place like Il Gallo d'Oro was one of my biggest goals, and I'm still grateful to this day for the opportunity that Sérgio gave me.



How has your journey been at Il Gallo d'Oro?


Amazing! Sérgio Marques was here 14 years ago. We’re talking about a person who is well loved by everyone who works in gastronomy and fine dining in Portugal. He’s considered one of the best sommeliers in Portugal, so it was not very easy to come and take his place.


At first the hardest thing was maybe some regular customers who asked where Sérgio was, and who I was. I had to explain that I had come to take on the job and the customers were a little suspicious at first. But the team accepted me very well! Everyone was great with me from the beginning, both Chef Benoît and Chef André Pinto, to whom I am very grateful. Then, little by little, I gained the affection of my customers and, today, I know their tastes and I can surprise them with wines.


I've only been here for two years, but I already feel at home.

Over the 10 years working there, was there a moment that particularly stands out with a customer?


There are so many that it’s difficult to choose a specific one. One that really made an impression on me was serving the King of Norway, it was incredible.


Something quite recently that I haven't shared yet was what I did during the time the hotel was closed for renovations. As we already knew this in advance we didn’t want to be sitting around with nothing to do, so a request was sent to Georges dos Santos. He is the son of French immigrants and in France, especially in Lyon, he’s considered to have one of the best wine shops in France.


I had the chance to spend fifteen days interning with Georges dos Santos in France, and it was an extraordinary experience. I got to see a completely different side of things, taste wines that I will probably never taste again in my life and I learned a lot. I came back with a huge amount of experience, which I think will bear fruit here for the restaurant.


The funniest thing was that I was in Lyon for fifteen days. I left Lyon on Monday, I arrived back in the Algarve and on Tuesday it was the Michelin Gala where I won the award for best Sommelier. I often say that those two weeks, with everything I learned and everything I experienced, made the prize not weigh so much.



Receiving the Michelin distinction as Sommelier of the Year was certainly a great honour. What did it mean to you?


It was a reward for the investment I’ve made on a professional and personal level over the last ten years, which was when I really entered the world of wine. The reward for the work done, for the nights lost, for the holidays I didn't spend with my family, for the New Year’s Eves I worked, the hours and hours I invested.



After this award, what are your next goals and ambitions?


At Il Gallo d'Oro we don't work for a prize, and that’s something I've learned since I started working here. We don't work thinking that we want to win this or that. We try and do our best every day. We do the best for the customer, to be able to meet the customer's expectations, which are always very high. The prizes appear along the way; they are rewards for the work we do on a daily basis.


This was an award I was not expecting to receive. From the reactions I've seen, it seems like I was the only person who wasn't expecting it. Everyone told me that they were counting on me winning, that they were very happy and proud.


Now the aim is, first of all, to value the prize. To make people who didn't know me, who have never been to Il Gallo d'Oro, or who never enjoyed the wine service at the restaurant, come and see that the award was deserved. It's about carrying on working, doing what I've been always doing, and then a bit more, always more.



Il Gallo d'Oro has an exclusively Portuguese wine list. Does it become more challenging to work this way?


Definitely! I'm always very pleased when customers come for dinner and tell me that they didn't know anything about Portuguese wines, that they were fascinated and want to know about where they can find this or that wine. For me, one of the things that gives me the most pleasure is the customer leaving Il Gallo d'Oro having tasted a little of almost everything we do in Portugal and leaving with a completely different idea from the one they came in with.

What does it mean to be a sommelier? Tell us a little about the profession and what it entails on a day-to-day basis.


A sommelier is someone who works, in my case in a restaurant, and whose main objective is to serve wine.


The wine service starts with the glasses. We are very proud to have a huge collection of glasses, with 25 different types of glasses, and 6 distinct brands. You need to make sure that the glasses are in perfect condition, polished and in the correct position. You have to ensure that the wines are all in good condition and at the correct temperatures. There is also stock management work, especially because we have a large turnover of wines; you always have to guarantee stocks.


The wine list is also very important, when you have 450 different wines, you can’t afford the luxury of the customer opening the list, choosing a wine and us not having it. It can’t happen. The wine list must always be up to date, whether it’s availability, years, grape varieties, alcohol content. You have to ensure that this information is always correct, especially in Portugal, where a wine changes the alcohol content, varietal, etc. from one year to the next.


Then there’s also the close contact with the kitchen. The kitchen at Il Gallo d'Oro always works with the freshest ingredients. We always have dishes that change depending on the ingredients that the Chef acquires, and this also forces me to make some changes to the wine pairing.


As for the service, the main thing is to help the customer choose the wine they want. My job is not to choose a wine for the customer. It's not for the customer to say they want a white wine and for me to say drink this. The idea is to understand what the customer likes, even if they don't know anything about Portuguese wines. It's trying to understand what the customer normally drinks or the style of wine they are looking for and directing them to the wines we have on our list that are most similar to that, but at the same time that also make sense with the food.



What is the best part of your job?


The best part is when it 7pm comes around, when we open the restaurant doors. The 10/15 minutes before we start serving, where we’re preparing everything, are crazy, we’re all running around, and when 7pm comes there’s a click. Door open, the whole team concentrates, we have a job ahead of us and it's the best part of the day.


Being with the customer is the most natural part, and the best part. In a restaurant like ours, details are very important and the idea is to always have everything very well organised, in its place and clean. When you start working, no day is the same. No customer is the same, we always have to be prepared for any setback or adversity. But that's what makes us want to work.



The restaurant team is fundamental to the customer experience, but to what extent does the room affect the Sommelier's work?


Nobody works alone. I need help from everyone in the room, from the shift managers, our maître d's... there are little moments and conversations that I can't follow, as I'm not at every table, but I have my colleagues who are and who can understand this.


With the service itself, as we do a lot of wine pairings, they help me with ordering glasses and serving water. Here at the restaurant we have a large room service and sometimes when I'm a little worried, I ask them for help so that they can go to the table, talk to the customer and give me some time to organise everything that is needed.


We need to have a harmonious relationship amongst us and very good communication! We have an excellent, young team, eager to learn and know more.



Recommending a wine is more complex than it might seem. What are the main factors that help you choose one wine over another?


When you talk about wine pairing in the restaurant, this is something that is decided between Chef Benoît and me. You choose the wine that you think makes sense, and complements the food. I always have to remember that Chef Benoît is the star of the restaurant and that the food always takes centre stage. The wine is there to complement the dish.


Pairing starts with the dishes and, often, it's not even necessary to taste the dish. I just need to know what it contains, and I can get an idea of the wine that will make the most sense. I choose 2 or 3 different wines that I think will work and then it's a matter of tasting them. The symbiosis between me and the Chef is essential, and that's what makes things work.
Still, when a customer asks for a wine pairing at Il Gallo d'Oro, they have to be aware that they are asking for a pairing recommended by me. It's the wines that I think make sense; but wine is very subjective.


In cases where the customer just wants a glass or a bottle, the choice is more up to the customer. First you need to have an idea of what the person wants. They often ask what I recommend, a white or a red. Typically, white wine makes more sense with our menu, which has many fish and seafood ingredients, and white wines tend to pair better.


But then it depends on what the customer is looking for, whether it’s a younger, fresh, fruity wine, or something more robust, more complex, perhaps already aged. I am just giving the customer a choice, almost showing the way. If you tell me you want something fresher, I’ll ask if you prefer a more tropical fruit or more citrus fruit. Basically, I direct the customer, which helps me narrow down the options until I get to the wine.


What I usually say to the customer is “This is the wine I think you will like, but I'll bring the wine, you taste it. If you don’t like it, we’ll try something else.”


Usually, given that I try to explain as much as possible about the characteristics of the wines, when the customer tastes it, they does not feel “cheated”, in the sense that they’re not tasting something totally different from what was explained to them.

And for those who want to try pairing wines at home, what advice would you give?



There is that logic of white with fish, and red with meat. It's something that still applies, it's easier and in principle it will never go very wrong.


Often it's not so much about whether it's meat or fish, there are other things that end up being more important, like how the protein is prepared. It's one thing to cook fish, another to grill fish, one thing to cook meat in the oven, another to cook meat on the barbecue. This part is very important, just as what goes with it. Sauces are fundamental.


What I recommend is that you look at what you are cooking, the ingredients you are using and try to find a similar wine. For example, if you are using lemon, choose a wine that has those notes. Often with lemon you associate it with freshness, which you get from two places, or you have altitude or the influence of the ocean. White wines from Madeira, white wines from the Vinho Verde region too, even some from Lisbon that are very good and have this ocean influence and are wines that we think of: fish, sea. Where do we have the sea? On the coast, so let's see the wines we have in these regions.


If you are cooking meat with a lot of pepper, you go for a red wine, where the colour itself reflects the colour of the meat. If you are using red meat, you go for a slightly more concentrated red.


Another thing that also helps is the typical dishes of an area, such as suckling pig, which is from Bairrada. Bairrada wines, whether white or red, will always make sense. Why? Because if it’s a typical dish of the area, over the years people have eaten that dish, and if wine has always been produced in that area, the two have always been together and the people themselves have almost adapted the wine to the food.


It's not very easy, but with trial and error and experience it gets better!



For you, what is the best Portuguese wine?


Madeira wine. I know that may sound suspect because I'm from Madeira, but I don't think it would be just me saying this. Madeira wine was a little “forgotten” for a few years, but with the increase in the number of Sommeliers and the profession becoming better known, the customers themselves also know more. As a result, Madeira wine ended up gaining a higher profile in terms of restaurants.


It is actually a very versatile wine. It can be adapted depending on the style of sweetness, from an aperitif, with pâtés and consommés to desserts, or even drunk on its own The possibility of keeping the bottle open for one, two, three months without ever losing quality makes it, for us sommeliers, an incredible wine. You don't have to worry about opening a bottle and thinking that if you don't sell it all within the next few days, the wine is spoiled.


It's incredible that on such a small island, we produce something so good. I will never forget, about 6 years ago, being at the FIL exhibition centre in Lisbon, at an event organised by Grandes Escolhas magazine where Dirceu Vianna, Master of Wine from Brazil, was present. We were having an incredible tasting, with great wines from all over Portugal and at one point someone asked him what wine he would take to a deserted island, to which he replied Madeira wine, as he could drink a glass or half a glass every day and be left with a bottle for a year.


And a white wine, which one would you choose?


At the moment I'm enjoying a lot of old, aged white wines. One of the whites that surprised me the most was an Anselmo Mendes Parcela Única, from the Vinho Verde region from 2013. It is a wine that is already 11 years old, but still with lots of fruit, still with freshness and body. It's a great, great white.



And red?


I prefer reds more with some age on them, but it's always very difficult, it's like asking a father who his favourite child is. Right now, if I had to choose one, it would be O Fugitivo by Casa da Passarella made from the bastardo grape. This is a grape variety that normally makes very light, very elegant wines, with lots of fruit and some spice, but very fresh. It's a red that goes very well with some fish dishes, as well as pork. It's one of those reds that you can't get enough of.



After the two weeks you spent in Lyon, what was the best wine you tried?


The best wine I tasted and which even brought tears to my eyes was during the dinner organised by Georges dos Santos with the Portuguese guests, at the L' Institut restaurant. At the end of the dinner he did almost a blind tasting and showed what he had served, which was a Château d'Yquem, which is a producer from Sauternes, a region in Bordeaux that makes late harvest wines and is considered the best producer in the region. The point is, it was a 1911 Château d'Yquem and it was extraordinary. The wine had a huge complexity of quince, honey, but then it also had evolved some waxy overtones, it was an incredible wine that really made an impression on me.



Do you have any advice you can share with your professional colleagues?


To be a good sommelier, before anything else you have to have passion and taste, not only for wine but also for food!


You can never stop studying and tasting. You never know everything. The greatest pleasure you can get from working as a sommelier is always thinking about the customer's happiness.


Nothing gives me more pleasure than giving a customer a taste of a wine and their reaction is Wow! - and they’re happy and they’ve had their eyes opened.

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