Home News > April 2024 > Q&A: Emma Denney, head sommelier at Claridge’s Restaurant, London

Q&A:  Emma Denney, head sommelier at Claridge’s Restaurant, London

One of London's rising stars, Emma Denney is a former competitive dancer who cut her wine teeth working in New Zealand retail. Yet, although her country of birth offered Martinborough Pinot Noir on tap, Denney decided to relocate to the UK to pursue a career in hospitality.  With a CV that includes Roka, LPM Mayfair, and Davies & Brook at Claridge’s, the intrepid sommelier is well-qualified to comment on gender diversity in the sector, the rise of sparkling alternatives, and grower Champagne. James Lawrence reports.

What inspired you to become a sommelier?

I have always worked in hospitality, ever since I started as a dishwasher at 14 years old. I have always loved the diverse and fast-paced aspects of the industry, but I knew that I wanted to be in a specialised area and being a restaurant GM didn't seem like a job I really wanted. I fell into the world of wine when I got a job at a wine bar at the age of 19 and they started to put me through their in-house training, but it wasn't until I watched the documentary Somm that I realised this was an actual career I could pursue. There are hardly any 'sommelier' jobs in New Zealand, and I had no idea that you could work in only the wine side of hospitality, because it wasn't something I was exposed to. That documentary changed the trajectory of my life.

What’s the best and most challenging thing about the job?

The best – getting to share the stories of places where the wines come from, and the people and families behind them. Wine is such a magical vessel that you feel like you can be transported throughout time and all over the world with just a single glass. There's nothing I love more than spending my time travelling to wine regions, meeting with the winemakers. Then, upon return to London, being able to use my experiences to guide me when choosing wine for my guests, and of course sharing the stories if they want to listen.

The most challenging – all the work that has to go on behind the scenes for that small interaction you have with the guest: all the hours researching, studying and organising cellars. Being a good sommelier is definitely not a job for the lazy.

So you're obviously not afraid of hard work?

[Laughs] Indeed, I have worked in many different facets of the hospitality industry. I have been a dishwasher, a host, a bartender, a waitress, a manager. I've done pretty much everything FOH that there is to do. Being a sommelier and working in wine is most definitely where I feel the most at home though.

This used to be a very male-dominated profession. Do you think the world of wine has become more inclusive of late?

Absolutely. There are undeniably more women in the trade compared to when I first came to London seven years ago. At Claridge's, the two head sommeliers (myself and Michela Di Fazio) are both women, and my team is three-quarters women. With more women taking over more senior wine roles, the industry is forced to be more inclusive.

What are the key differences between consumer behaviour in the UK and New Zealand when it comes to wine?

In New Zealand, people generally tend to drink very local wines, either being from New Zealand or from Australia. There isn't the same market or demand for the variety of wines that we are lucky to have here in London, so wine lists tend to be very similar from place to place and I have found guests aren't as adventurous as they are in London.

Sparkling is one of the few growth categories in western markets. How large is the selection of sparkling wine (including Champagne) at Claridge’s Restaurant?

We have over 200 sparkling wines on the list at Claridge's Restaurant, a mix of both some of the most iconic Champagne houses and their top cuvées, and also small grower producers. The selection has grown since we opened as we have started to include the wider sparkling and Champagne collection that is in the cellars at Claridge's. One of the amazing benefits of working at such a large hotel is that we have an incredible selection to draw from and we will be adding more Champagnes to the wider hotel list as the year goes on.

Have you also seen a growing demand for alternatives like English fizz and crémant for example?

The guests at Claridge's are still very classic in their drinking style, so Champagne outperforms any other sparkling. I am a big fan of a few English wineries such as Hundred Hills and Rathfinny, and we occasionally have guests interested in them, which is always fun for the sommelier team. We pour Hundred Hills by the glass and although we don't sell as much as I would like, I love having it as a suggestion of something a little bit different, but still an incredibly high-quality sparkling.

Finally, what are your passions outside of wine?

For the first 24 years of my life all my spare time was taken up with dancing, so anything theatre or music based is a big love of mine. Nowadays keeping fit with running and yoga takes up any spare time that is not being used with studying.