In this interview we chat to top Dutch sommelier, Koen van der Plas, better known as the head sommelier of Inter Scaldes, a two star Michelin restaurant in the Netherlands. In this article, Koen shares his passion for travelling, South African wines, exceptional food and wine pairings and his plans for the future with us.
Koen, thank you for visiting our home, De Toren, during your recent trip to South Africa. We loved sharing our wines with you and also what we do on a daily basis here on the farm. It is great for us to get to know you a bit better – thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule.
Tell us a bit more about yourself and your life in the Netherlands?
My name is Koen van der Plas and I’m the Head Sommelier of Restaurant Inter Scaldes in the Netherlands. We are a fine dining restaurant, awarded with two Michelin stars, and are located in the south of our country, close to Antwerp. As sommelier of one of the finest restaurants in our country, I think I can say that I’m always working… The hunt for new wines goes on and on – it never stops.
In my private time you will find me mostly in a restaurant, among colleagues or at wine tastings. It is very interesting to know what other colleagues do, how they build up their wine lists, which choices they make regarding wine, compared to my decisions. So I think I can say I really turned my hobby into a profession.
A few years back, you were awarded the honorary title of ‘Talented Sommelier Gault Millau 2014’. This is an astounding achievement – what did this mean to you and for your career?
It was great winning that award, especially because I was only 22 at the time! The Gault Millau Guide is a counterpart to the Michelin Guide. It is mostly read by people working in gastronomy, so it meant a lot to me. Even if somebody doubted my capability at the time, that award changed those opinions, as suddenly the telephone was ringing. Everybody wanted to sell some bottles to our restaurant and today they still do. It helped a lot, as my name was suddenly known in the industry.
BUT, in my opinion you should look at winning awards such as this one, as a bonus. It’s just proof that you are doing a good job in the restaurant. For me there’s nothing better than to see how guests enjoy their food and wine, and the combination – that’s the true reward.
Tell us a bit more about your journey into the world of wine and how that crossed paths with the wine industry?
It actually all started when I was 15 years old; my father wanted me to get a job. The options were either working in a supermarket or to do some dishwashing in a restaurant. Guess what I chose! The owners of that restaurant had a lot of experience with wine and that’s where I got dragged into it. I remember the first wine I tasted! At that time the legal drinking age was 16(!), luckily they changed it to 18 nowadays.
Following this, I started studying at a Hotel Management School, where they quickly found out that I had huge interest in wine. They gave me some more space to focus on this subject. At school we had to assist at big wine fairs, where I got the opportunity to meet a lot of interesting people from the wine industry. I had a good connection with some of them and they took me along on their great journeys in the wine industry.
At this wine fair, I was sitting at a private table behind the scenes with wine writers. They allowed me to taste many different vintages of Château Mouton-Rothschild before their tasting even started. I couldn’t believe my luck. They gave me one piece of advice whilst tasting – “don’t say anything, just shut your mouth and taste”. This moment I knew I wanted to have a career in the wine business.
You travel quite regularly and must see the most remarkable places. Which country is on your list to visit again in the near future?
My girlfriend Sofie and I travel as much as we can, last year we went to Spain, Dubai and Hong Kong for example. January we did a long trip through South Africa and I look forward to see where the coming months will take us. We are young, so now is the time to feel free!
My first visit to South Africa was in 2009 and I really loved it! I had such warm feeling towards the country from my very first visit, so I simply had to show Sofie! Usually a second time to a country isn’t as good and special as the first time, but South Africa is the exception! She loved it and I loved it all over again! After this trip we both said, if we could work in South Africa one day, we would do it, without a doubt!
When you dine out, what do you look for on a wine list of a restaurant?
That will have to be diversity… A good focus in the classical world as well as in the new world. My wine list at the restaurant for example, is largely Burgundy’s whites and reds, but there is enough to find outside of that… The reason for the skew towards Burgundy is the preference of our restaurant’s clientele. After that comes Spain and third will be South Africa!
How did you come to know of De Toren’s wines?
As I love South Africa and its wines, and our restaurant only demands the best, it was actually an easy match. The wines of De Toren show a lot of character without being too much of a New World style. With experience I can say, a lot of classic Bordeaux drinkers are very surprised by the De Toren wines.
I first tasted the wines in our restaurant, even though I have been at Inter Scaldes for 5 years now, the De Toren wines were there before I even started working there. I also had the opportunity to taste the entire range and different vintages of it, at a wine fair in Holland.
What is your favourite De Toren wine and why?
When I visited De Toren in January, I again tasted the whole range of De Toren wines. A positive fact in my opinion is that De Toren focuses just on a few different wines and not like twenty different ones. I think it’s a good way to keep on track and remain focussed on what you are best at.
During this tasting, I also tasted Fusion V 2001 vintage, which was quite an experience. I haven’t had the opportunity before to taste a De Toren Fusion V that was that evolved yet. And what a condition it had! Also considering the winery have not produced as many vintages yet compared to nowadays. The 2001 had a ripe nose with a lot of earthy notes and very noticeable evolution. It was very soft in taste, with tones of dried plums and blackberries and also bay leaf and juniper berry. The earthiness, vegetation and ripe spices set the tone – a beautifully developed wine. I only wish there were many more bottles left!
What are your thoughts on South African wines, having visited South Africa quite recently?
I am a big fan of South African wines myself. I love the diversity within grape varieties and the styles of winemaking. It actually is a very diverse country with light and fresh wines as well as heavy and severe wines meant for ageing. It’s a wine country on its own and we should look at it like that more often. In my opinion we, wine connoisseurs, always want to compare every region with another region. Why is this necessary? Can’t we look at a region being an individual with individual wines?
In your opinion, what are the things that one should consider when selecting a South African wine?
Like in every wine region in the world, there are a lot of custom made wines and also commercially made wines. Sometimes the line between them is very thin. Look for originality and purity in every wine you select. A key feature in a wine for me is the acidity, whether it’s light and crisp or thick and heavy – acidity brings life and tension in wine. Without it I will never be able to enjoy a wine.
You are currently working on completing the Master Sommelier diploma, the ultimate qualification in this profession – where to next from here?
I force myself to finish something once I have started it. So that also counts for the Master Sommelier diploma. Today there are 236 people who mastered the exam in 40 years’ time. I still need some more years to get there, but number 250 in the world sounds like a good number to me!
It seems you are a man with a vision and big dreams, what does the future hold for a top sommelier like yourself?
As we already discussed, the world isn’t that big anymore. You hop on an airplane and within 24 hours you are on the other side of the world. So where I will be in ten years? I actually don’t know yet, to be honest. What I do know is that wine is running through my veins and as long as I am able to keep working in that niche market, I will be happy.
We are honoured that you work with the De Toren wines on a very regular basis and we look forward to visiting you at the restaurant again in the near future, Koen.