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Nuno Oliveira e Silva: ‘The guests are good teachers and good critics, we learn a lot about different tastes in general and our own in particular.' (Photo: Paulo Barata)

Nuno Oliveira e Silva

Beauty in the Making

Nominated for the Revista Wine: A Essência do Vinho Sommelier of the Year Award, Nuno Oliveira e Silva is part of the team working alongside José Avillez at Lisbon’s Belcanto restaurant.

WORDS: Anna McNay|PHOTO: Paulo Barata| 27 February 2015

Beauty in the Making

‘The daily smile and direct recognition in the field is what we search for.’

HIS INTRODUCTION on Belcanto’s website reads: ‘Sommelier with an excellent nose and palate. Sophisticated taster. Enjoys a good conversation about wine, writing and painting,’ and, indeed, Nuno Oliveira e Silva, sommelier at chef José Avillez’s flagship Lisbon establishment, went first to art school before entering the world of wine and hospitality. In fact, his first restaurant job – as a dish washer, although he was promoted to front-of-house after just two weeks – was something he took on merely to subsidise his studies. It wasn’t until 11 or 12 years later that he tasted three wines – a Magnum of Batard Montrachet Girardin 2002 from Vincent Girardin, a Château Haut Brion 2002 and a Saint Aubin red (for which, to this day, he cannot remember the house) – which he describes as ‘beauty in the making’. These wines were the big eye opener that set Oliveira on the route to becoming the successful and knowledgeable sommelier he is today.

Officially Oliveira trained at Lisbon’s Hotel School, but, after two years at Belcanto, Avillez asked him if he would like to join Master Sommelier João Pires and his team for  one month’s training at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. ‘This was the best experience I ever had in terms of wine service and team work,’ says Oliveira gratefully. ‘I cannot thank Chef José Avillez and Master Sommelier João Pires and his team enough for the opportunity. My aim now is to continuing studying. I need to read and learn more, do more things.'

In fact, Oliveira also considers the restaurant a very good place to learn. ‘The guests are good teachers and good critics, we learn a lot about different tastes in general and our own in particular. And most importantly they give us the tools and knowledge to carry on. We all learn from them every day.’

Oliveira has worked at a number of top restaurants in his time, including 100 Maneiras, alongside Ljubumir Stanisic, where he had his eye opening tastings; at Boi Cavalo, where he learnt a lot about the aromas and scents of wine and ‘the intellectual part of this world as well’ from Hugo Brito and Pedro Duarte; and at Tavares, where he worked with the very classical Maître D' Arlindo Madeira, who taught him about classical wine and service. Ultimately, however, he credits his twin sister Joana with teaching him about teamwork.

One important aspect of teamwork in Oliveira’s work is collaborating with his colleagues to ensure that the wines on offer match the menus. Belcanto has a main wine list, on which 90% of the wines are Portuguese, with the other 10% coming from around the world, but mainly from France. The wine menus are assembled after wine tastings involving all the front-of-house staff together with Avillez. Typically, traditional Portuguese courses are paired with traditional Portuguese wines and there is also the sommelier’s suggestion, which advises guests on a bottle that will go particularly well with specific courses. ‘In the end, however, it’s all about personal taste,’ concedes Oliveira. ‘We usually say that we can have all the world of wine in Portugal. It’s a big statement but it is true to some extent. We just need to know the profile of the wine the guest loves and we’ll try to find it in Portugal. It’s easy to surprise, because people from abroad don’t know Portuguese wines.’

Asked what he considers the best features of Portuguese wines, Oliveira responds: ‘The 14 beautiful different regions, the vast variety of native grapes, the different profiles of wine, the different microclimates, the different terroirs, the quality of the wines and their value for money.’

With dreams, nevertheless, of one day working in Denmark, New Zealand or the Americas, Oliveira was recently nominated for the second time for the Revista Wine: A Essência do Vinho Sommelier of the Year Award – won, this year, by TASTE PORTUGAL’s sommelier, Antonio Lopes. Was he disappointed to lose out? ‘No, I wasn’t,’ he replies, philosophically. ‘At Belcanto, we are very grateful for all the awards and recognitions we receive, but that’s not the goal. We work really hard because we want people to feel good and, if possible, to excel at something new. If this happens, we feel complete. It’s stressful and sometimes overwhelming but I suppose the daily smile and direct recognition in the field is what we search for.’

The establishment as a whole did not go unrewarded, anyhow, since Avillez picked up Chef of the Year Award. ‘Working with Chef Avillez and our team is something to be proud of,’ says Oliveira. ‘It´s a very young team, we still have a lot to learn. The Chef is a true leader and a creative soul, you can feel that when you speak with him. We all learn a lot from him, personally and professionally. And, as Chef Avillez says: “It´s all about the team”.’ Clearly Avillez and Oliveira’s sister are of one mind on that.