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.
Oscar Jozef Malek, United Kingdom
Where do you currently practice your sommelier skills (restaurant, hotel, consulting etc)?
I currently work as Head Sommelier and Wine Buyer at Chewton Glen Hotel & Spa in Hampshire, South of England (www.chewtonglen.com), a five red Star hotel with a 1,100 bin wine list – we list over 130 different dessert wines and are the largest stockists of English wines in the United Kingdom, with over 60 individual lines.
Where have you dined recently (restaurant) that impressed you?
I was particularly impressed with the décor, service and concept at Tom Aikens in Chelsea, London, as I was with the tasting menu at Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley which have been two of my most recent dining experiences.
Where have you dined (restaurant, wine bar) that you were mightily impressed with the wine list and service?
The Greenhouse in Mayfair, London is still at the top of my list for the sheer quality of the wine selection; not only is their wine menu the largest in the U.K. but the staff are extremely approachable along with it. I partook in the tasting menu with wines at lunchtime earlier this year and was deeply enthused by the quality of the cuisine and the eclectic wine choices.
Where is the most memorable restaurant meal you have had?
Most probably the Square in Mayfair, London, as it was my first 2 Michelin Star dining experience and the highest level of cuisine I had experienced at that time… at that time it was also the dearest restaurant bill I had ever paid!
Do you have a favourite regular restaurant?
I tend not to dine anywhere more than two or three times, as I still have a huge number of restaurants, bars and hotels in the United Kingdom – and indeed the world – to visit and to draw inspiration from. If I were to choose a restaurant within my local vicinity that I would love to frequent more often should I have the time to do so, then it would be Hotel Terravina in the New Forest which is the iconic brainchild of Gerard Basset MW MS, the worlds most revered Sommelier.
Do you cook at home and is there a dish you have perfected?
I am not the most proficient of cooks, but I do love my seafood so have no qualms in buying a bag full of mussels and langoustines and throwing together a risotto or paella.
Do you have a favourite wine bar?
Wine bars are not really my thing, and are not all that popular here in the UK. I prefer to visit a cocktail bar before dinner, a destination restaurant for my evening meal and subsequently another cocktail bar for a nightcap before crawling back to my hotel. My most frequented cocktail bars are Milk & Honey and The Player in Soho, to which I am a member.
Do you have a favourite wine merchant?
This is a very difficult question to answer, as I use over thirty individual purveyors to stock the Hotels cellar. I love using the likes of Gerrard Seel for Burgundy and Bordeaux, Enotria and Liberty for their eclectic selection of New World and Italian wines, O.W. Loeb for their German portfolio, Waddesdon Manor for all-things-Rothschild related and some smaller local suppliers such as Whirly Wines for some slightly more exclusive products that no-one else stocks in their portfolio.
What wine are you drinking at the moment?
I am currently sat in a hotel bar in Nantes in the Loire Valley sipping my way through a half bottle of 2011 Chinon.
Is there a wine that totally moved you – like no other wine – a revelation and motivation for you to pursue you wine obsession?
If I remember correctly the 1998 vintage of Chateau Musar was the first wine that I found truly mind blowing – although Inniskillin’s 2004 Vidal Gold Ice Wine is to this day still one of the finest dessert wines I have ever sampled, and I am a sticky wine fanatic to say the very least.
What’s your latest wine discovery – new region, variety or style?
I have recently been introduced to the red wines of Tursan in the South West of France; we serve one cuvée by the glass which is produced using an interesting blend of Cabernet Franc and Malbec.
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)
One of my all-time favourite wines for the money is the Silver Label Monastrell by Bodegas Juan Gil, a winery based in Jumilla in the South Eastern corner of Spain. At approximately £10 a bottle from their UK importer it is a real steal and over performs on every level.
Tell us about an inspirational wine and food pairing that has you have experienced recently.
Two of our most regular guests at the hotel had been staying with us for around a fortnight and asked that the Chef cook them up a bespoke chicken stir-fry, with which we paired the dry Gewürztraminer by Amity Vineyards from Oregon, which was quite simply a marriage made in heaven.
What is the most enthralling wine region you have been to in terms of dramatic scenery, inspiring vineyards and good eating?
My recent visit to Vienna, Burgenland and Styria in Austria was quite possibly the most worthwhile wine related experience I have ever had – everything from the food, hospitality, company, scenery and of course the wines were of a truly superb nature and I cannot wait to go back. www.austrianwine.com
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.
Agusti Torello Cava Gran Reserva Kripta, Cataluña, Spain 2005
Yamanashi Wine Company Koshu, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan 2010
Chateau St. Michelle & Doctor Ernst Loosen Riesling Eroica, Washinton State, USA 2008
Velenosi Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, Marche, Italy 2011
Château des Jacques Moulin a Vent Champ de Cour, Cru Beaujolais, France 2000
Peller Estate Cabernet Franc Ice Wine, Niagara, Canada 2006