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Drinking Out Loud

Pouring Stars

A Burgundian sommelier puts down deep roots in Spain
Matt Kramer finds a French sommelier in love with the wines of Spain.
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer finds a French sommelier in love with the wines of Spain.

Matt Kramer
Posted: April 17, 2018

GETARIA, Spain—Even for the food-obsessed in Spain’s Basque Country, where two- and three-star restaurants are only the brightest lights in a veritable Milky Way of star-studded restaurants, one of the most revered is a “mere” one-star: Restaurante Elkano.

Talk to anyone who frequents these sorts of places and you are guaranteed to hear a sigh of satisfaction and a gush of admiration for this modest-appearing family restaurant in the center of this small town. And it’s hardly without competition, as Getaria, with a population of just 2,815 people according to the 2017 census estimate, boasts yet other famously fine restaurants, such as Restaurante Kaia Kaipe.

Getaria has long been, and still is, a fishing village. You can see the trawlers lined up in the town harbor. You can also see some of the fishermen themselves on the sidewalk outside of Elkano, chatting with the cook working at Elkano’s outdoor asador, or wood-fired grill.

Before entering the restaurant we stopped to gaze at the grill, and one of my guests, an inquisitive sort, wandered over to more closely inspect the grill, which had two massive fresh turbot being carefully cooked over the coals. He asked permission to roam yet further and a slender young man, casually dressed, replied in easy English, “Sure. Feel free.”

While our friend sniffed around, we talked with this affable fellow who had no idea that we were guests of the restaurant. For all he knew we were just some Americans walking past. Clearly, it didn’t matter to him.

“Those two guys over there,“ he said, nodding at two burly men grinning and laughing with the cook, “are local fishermen. They supply us with some of our fish. We have a relationship with them. In fact, they are the second generation of that relationship. Elkano bought from their fathers before them. Fish are not just fish here.”

He then strolled off into the restaurant and the next we saw him, he was offering us the wine list after we were seated in Elkano’s simply yet comfortably furnished interior. He gave us a warm greeting and explained that he was the sommelier, Nicolas Boise.

Further inquiry revealed that Mr. Boise (pronounced bwahz) is a transplant from Burgundy—with a five-year stopover in England, which explains the fluent English—who now makes the Basque Country in Spain his permanent home.

The wine list, for its part, is of a piece with the restaurant’s style and its food: superbly selected, reasonably, even modestly, priced and without any pretension. It proffers mostly Spanish wines with a smattering of choice French wines, especially Burgundies. Oddly, for a temple consecrated to the freshest imaginable fish cooked simply yet exquisitely, the wine list has about as many red wines as it does the more expected whites.

I arranged to chat later with Mr. Boise, as I was intrigued by the wine list he created as well as by his guaranteed-to-be-unusual personal story. After all, sommeliers from Burgundy are hardly commonplace in Basque Country restaurants, never mind that the French border is just a 45-minute drive from Getaria (and you can knock 15 minutes from that if you’re in San Sebastián, which is closer yet to the French border).

“I was born and raised near Chablis,” he began. “And I had no predisposition for wine. My father was involved with agriculture, but not wine. Anyway,“ he continued, “I was a very, very bad student. So I went to Auxerre to study in a four-year program where you were trained to be either a chef or a headwaiter. I wasn’t sure which I would be. All I knew was that I wanted something that would always keep me going. Since I found myself much more comfortable with sommeliers, it turned out to be wine.”

That Mr. Boise, now 33, has a gift is apparent from his substantial résumé, never mind his relative youth. “I have something like 17 stars to my name,” he notes, referring to the various Michelin-starred restaurants where he’s worked.

“Anyway, after doing more coursework in winemaking and wine-tasting, I first went to work as a sommelier in Monaco. But I didn’t like it. It’s Monaco, you know. There was no interest for who was behind the wine, behind the label.

“So I went to the U.K., thanks to a connection with a French colleague. This was incredible when you think about it,” he comments. Why was that? “Because I didn’t speak any English! Not a word,” he adds, shaking his head at his youthful swagger. “I spent a year at the Hotel du Vin in Bristol, which was part of a chain created by Gerard Basset, the famous sommelier. Actually, I was surrounded by Frenchmen. But I learned English anyway,” he laughs.

From there came a stint at the Vineyard at Stockcross, a Michelin two-star owned by Sir Peter Michael, who is better known by wine-loving Americans for his namesake Sonoma County winery (his 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Au Paradis was Wine Spectator's 2015 Wine of the Year.) After that were jobs at two French three-stars and, finally, two years at the famous English three-star restaurant the Fat Duck, in Bray, just west of London.

“I loved it there,” recalls Mr. Boise. “We could taste anything. It was there that I learned about Italian wines, which really changed my palate. It was a great experience.”

But, to modify the old saying, as good sommeliers go, he went. “They wanted me to stay at the Fat Duck but I felt that it was time to leave the U.K. So with their blessing and recommendation I was hired as the head sommelier at Mugaritz in 2010.”

Mugaritz is a Michelin two-star, a country restaurant that’s a 20-minute drive southeast of San Sebastián. Famed for its adventurous molecular gastronomy, its 47-year-old chef-owner Andoni Luis Aduriz previously worked at the legendary, now-closed El Bulli and is considered by some to be the heir to El Bulli’s Ferran Adrià for his creativity. (“It’s a place where we sometimes even serve meals,“ quips Mr. Aduriz on his restaurant’s website.)

“I was only 25 years old when I went to Mugaritz,” says Mr. Boise. And did he speak Spanish at the time? “Not a word! It’s incredible yet again, I know. I didn’t even know where San Sebastián was. Or the Basque Country. It’s amazing that they took such a chance on me.”

And what, for that matter, did he know about Spanish wines? “Nothing, really. What little I knew I learned in the U.K. And that meant just Rioja—and only the big brands, at that. I was blinded by Italian wines at the time. I felt lost when I arrived in Spain.”

Today, of course, it’s a different story. By the time Mr. Boise took on the job of sommelier at Restaurante Elkano in 2016, he had not only learned Spanish, but married a Basque woman and now has two children, ages 1 and 3. (His Basque, he admits, is still rudimentary, although his wife is a native speaker; she, for her part, works at the Michelin one-star, Kokotxa, in San Sebastián.)

Now, Spain calls to him passionately. “What I discovered was the smaller wineries and all these various winemaker projects that are going on,” he says. “What I now see in Spain is that they’ve decided to go further into their past. The latest generation is inspired by what went on a long, long time ago, before it was big brands and big wineries.

“For example, there’s the movement to no chemicals. Natural wines. I don’t always agree with everything I taste with natural wines, but I appreciate what they want and why they want it.”

Mr. Boise’s interest in such wines is discreetly signaled on Restaurante Elkano’s 700-wine list by the notation “low SO2” next to such natural-style wines. “We actually have about 1,200 different wines in the cellar, but we’re holding some back because we want to give some wines additional age,” he explains.

“What’s most important to me and for Elkano is that everyone has to find his or her happiness on the list. The biggest problem I have with some sommeliers is that they sell what they want to sell, not what people like. Myself, I first want to know what they like. And if, say, they like Chardonnay—who doesn’t?—I might suggest a Godello, which is rounder and has a nice texture. Or a white Garnacha from Catalunya. I’m also really excited by the wines, white and red, from the Canary Islands.

“We want to be fair in price as well. Some people tell me that I’m crazy to price our wines so modestly. But wine is meant to be drunk. A restaurant is not a museum, after all.”

And what about all those red wines on the list? Even though Elkano does offer meat dishes, surely most of the guests order fish?

“They do,” confirms Mr. Boise. “But before I arrived there were more red wines on the list than white. It’s amazing. People didn’t care. They were locals. And for them, Txakoli notwithstanding, wine is red. Their wine culture was for red, especially Rioja, more than for white. But that’s changing rapidly,” he adds.

“The thing to remember about Spanish wines, my biggest lesson and discovery,” says Mr. Boise, “is that in Spain you have to look at the people rather than the places.

“This is because they are recovering from their past, from what they’ve done previously. They need to break from the ‘brand thing.’ That’s why in Spain the people are more important than the place.”

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