In Medieval Provençal times they were saumaliers, animal pack drivers who evolved during Middle French kingdom to become court officials charged with transportation of supplies. So what does a modern day Sommelier actually do? Well, Wikipedia outlines as such, “A sommelier or wine steward is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, normally working in fine restaurants who specializes in all aspects of wine service as well as wine and food matching. The most important work of a sommelier is in the areas of wine procurement, wine storage, wine cellar rotation, and expert service to wine consumers.”
A reasonably accurate job description although perhaps a little parched as our new-age sommelier has evolved to a higher learning with a wine Jedi cognizance and a seventh sense that can psychoanalyse a diner, marry the person, the dish and the wine in seconds. They are now the gateway to wine discovery equipped with clairvoyance in food and wine trends, inspiring thirst around the world.
Feared by winemakers, loathed by wine distributors as the arbiters’ of wine lists, the restaurant patron should embrace their knowledge, skills and talent as they are hopelessly and passionately obsessed with wine and will take you on journey of gastronomic enlightenment. And our new-age sommelier is no longer confined to fine dining and can be found in casual eateries, wine bars, gastro-pubs, winery restaurants, wine stores and you’ll even bump into an air-sommelier at 30,000ft these days. Some have hung up their waiters-friend and metamorphosed to the wine trade as brand ambassadors, distributors or consultants, but once a sommelier, always a sommelier.
This column explores the gustatory and olfactory manifestations of sommeliers all over this planet. We take a cross section of the sommelier’s stomach and intestines to reveal what and where they eat. And we dissect their taste buds and dopamine receptors as they relent to the Wandering Palate narcosynthesis and confess to their personal vinous pleasures and closely-held secrets – this is The Sommelier’s Palate.
Chek Wong, Singapore
Where do you currently practice your sommelier skills (restaurant, hotel, consulting etc)?
I am a freelance wine writer for several wine magazines and websites in Singapore. I also maintain my own wine blog at http://eclaircissage.blogspot.sg/
Where have you dined recently (restaurant) that impressed you?
Senso Ristorante at Club Street. Their shellfish bisque was rich and flavourful. www.senso.sg
Where have you dined (restaurant, wine bar) that you were mightily impressed with the wine list and service?
Steinheuer in Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, Germany, is a place where you can have a relaxed, unhurried meal with a choice of wines from the region. The staff decant the wines with such care and precision that it makes for captivating viewing. www.steinheuers.de
Where is the most memorable restaurant meal you have had?
The Kitchin in Edinburgh, Scotland. Chef Tom Kitchin specialises in seasonal menus, so all the ingredients are fresh and at their peak of flavour. The service is fantastic – warm and cordial with zero stuffiness. www.thekitchin.com
Do you have a favourite regular restaurant?
I prefer to try out new restaurants rather than stick to one. Having said that, some of my favourite restaurants in Singapore and their respective cuisines are Keystone Restaurant (modern European), Majestic Restaurant (modern Cantonese) and Cocotte (rustic French).
Do you cook at home and is there a dish you have perfected?
I can boil water without burning it too badly but otherwise my kitchen skills are pretty dismal. In Singapore I’m saved from starvation by my cousin, a culinary whiz who can make even brussel sprouts appetising.
Do you have a favourite wine bar?
I often visit The Sampler in London. It’s a retail shop and wine bar rolled into one. They have a large range of wines by the glass using Enomatic machines. When I go there I pick up one of the wine books lying around and seclude myself in a corner just reading and tasting. In Singapore, Caveau Wines & Bar has just opened – a coffee place, bar and retail shop rolled into one. Their wine selection is a combination of familiar names and smaller producers with quality consistent throughout. www.thesampler.co.uk
Do you have a favourite wine merchant?
In Singapore it’s got to be Wein & Vin. They have done a great job in helping consumers understand German wine and promoting awareness of German wine regions. I think wine merchants have an important role to play in making wine accessible besides selling wines. www.weinvin.com
What wine are you drinking at the moment?
Recently I’ve been drinking wines that hail from the southern appellations of France such as Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Pic Saint Loup. They tend to be higher in alcohol and Grenache or Syrah based. A month back I was comparing sparkling wines from around Europe. One of the most interesting aspects of my job is exploring the different styles of wine available.
Is there a wine that totally moved you – like no other wine – a revelation and motivation for you to pursue you wine obsession?
Every glass has been a kind of revelation, even poorly made wines. I’m still looking for the wine that will leave me speechless while a chorus of angels sing in the background.
What’s your latest wine discovery – new region, variety or style?
In recent months I’ve been dipping my toe into the world of spirits. Tequila, vodka, brandy, gin and the various types of whisky. It’s an interesting diversion because while wine is drunk on its own, spirits can be drunk neat, with ice, or as a cocktail. It’s a whole new frontier.
Tell us what is your ultimate wine bargain discovery in terms of price/quality rapport? (i.e. does not have to be cheap but over-delivers in quality for the price)
Sweet wines, such as sherry and madeiras, have fallen out of favour with mainstream consumers. As a result the wines of reliable producers such as González Byass and Henriques & Henriques represent great value for the quality and hedonistic flavours they deliver.
Tell us about an inspirational wine and food pairing that has you have experienced recently.
A coconut panna cotta with roasted pineapple and sticky black rice ice cream, matched with a Vasse Felix Cane Cut Semillon 2008. Absolutely sublime, they were like two jigsaw pieces that fit perfectly.
What is the most enthralling wine region you have been to in terms of dramatic scenery, inspiring vineyards and good eating?
I totally enjoyed my trip to Priorat in 2009. It’s a mountainous area in eastern Spain with steeply terraced vineyards and layers of red slate soil. It was a windy, overcast day when I visited, but the view of sunbeams piercing through the clouds and illuminating the vineyards is one I will never forget.
Select a six pack of wines that you think are absolutely outstanding and inspirational, and that will set people on a journey of vinous discovery and enlightenment.
Veuve Clicquot Vintage Brut 2002 – Champagne is the ultimate branded product, the only appellation in France that is so famous it does not need to include the words Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée on the label. This wine is a masterpiece of bottle design and functional packaging, proving that what is outside a bottle can be just as important as its contents. www.veuve-clicquot.com
Shaw and Smith Sauvignon Blanc 2011 – Michael Hill-Smith MW AM is an Australian legend and a tireless advocate of his country’s wines. This wine showcases one way of thinking about wine, in terms of wine personalities. www.shawandsmith.com
Dr. Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese 2009 – An explosion of pure, bright fruit flavours that will have you seeing stars. An ever versatile varietal, Riesling can be made into dry, sweet and sparkling styles, a fascinating exploration of a grape’s characteristics. www.drloosen.com
Joseph Drouhin Charmes-Chambertin Grand Cru 2002 – Delicate, perfumed and bedazzling in its complexity of flavours, this is a wine closely tied to the notion of how terroir (the combination of soil and climate in a particular vineyard) can deliver great wines. www.drouhin.com
Torres “Salmos” 2006 – Like a Thai massage, this wine will leave you pummelled and lightheaded yet feeling surprisingly relaxed. From the region of Priorat, an area that jumped from obscurity to international acclaim in the 1990s thanks to the efforts of several entrepreneurial winemakers and wine critics. Wine is as subject to trends as any other product. www.torres.es
Gran Barquero Pedro Ximenez – Liquid ambrosia. This treacly drink will have you reassessing your view on sweet wines. It is an example of a wine that is based on the style of a region, in this case the Montilla-Moriles zone in southern Spain which is famous for its fortified wines. www.perezbarquero.com