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.
Amit Chavan, India
Where do you currently practice your sommelier skills (restaurant, hotel, consulting etc)?
Hakkasan Doha at The St. Regis Resort, Doha
Where have you dined recently (restaurant) that impressed you?
I’m still quite new to Doha so I’m having a lot of fun explore the city and it’s eateries. So far, my favourite place is The Cellar, a fantastic wine and tapas restaurant. The food is really tasty and good value, plus they have an impressive wine line and the staff a really friendly.
Where have you dined (restaurant, wine bar) that you were mightily impressed with the wine list and service?
Benares, London. A fabulous venue, great atmosphere and detailed food elegantly presented. They also offer a wine pairing set menu which is beautifully crafted and includes some fantastic wines which enhance the delicate balance of flavours.
Where is the most memorable restaurant meal you have had?
Dum Pukht, Jolly Nabobs, ITC Windsor palace, Bangalore. It is a wonderfully grand northern frontier cuisine which offers a blend of Indian cuisine and artistic decor. It is known for its rich, flavourful dishes which are cooked with handpicked spices on a slow flame for hours. One of my favourite dishes is Kakori kebab.
Do you have a favourite regular restaurant?
Do you cook at home and is there a dish you have perfected?
Yes, I cook regularly. I love to cook mild chicken curry and baigan bharta (roasted aubergine with herbs and spices), both of which I learned from my mother. However, I don’t think I will ever perfect it.
Do you have a favourite wine bar?
Cave la reserve, Conrad Dubai. It’s a great place, especially for wine connoisseurs as there are plenty of options to choose from a diversified wine menu and the quality of the food is excellent. The décor and overall ambience helps in the overall experience so one truly enjoy glasses of wines.
Do you have a favourite wine merchant?
I have few favorites but top of the list is Friarwoods as their portfolio lists some true classics and a rare selection from Bordeaux and Burgundy. I also really like Boutinot and am currently working with them for the exclusivity of their boutique wines, several of which we offer at Hakkasan Doha, including as part of our signature wine selection.
What wine are you drinking at the moment?
A boutique wine – 2012 Brookfields Sauvignon Blanc, Hawke’s bay, New Zealand.
It complements food very well, especially acidic food as the wine becomes rounder and more pleasant. On its own it displays a fresh bouquet of tropical fruit especially raw mango and on the palate zesty citrus and bit of herbaceous notes.
Is there a wine that totally moved you – like no other wine – a revelation and motivation for you to pursue you wine obsession?
Discovering new region is my passion as it develops a curiosity from a wine especially from Eastern Europe as it brings new flavours and an extra dimension to the wine list.
2011 Graševina Mitrovac, Krauthaker, Croatia – A dry white made from Graševina / Welschriesling, straw yellow in colour it is intense on the nose with stone fruit notes, while on the palate it is rounded with warmth of flavours. This wine delivers a quality at a very good price.
Sake has also moved me as it is so diverse, especially with Asian cuisine, and sometimes even it exceeds wine when it comes to food and wine/sake pairing. It really challenges the best of the palate. It’s still a mystery to many of our guests but we have developed a strong premium sake list at Hakkasan Doha and are seeing significant interest from guests.
Hakkasan has recently introduced WSET Level 3, which has given the sommelier team an enhanced understanding of what is a complex beverage.
What’s your latest wine discovery – new region, variety or style?
Somontano near Aragon in Northern Spain, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Largely continental climate grapes, vineyards are located on the slopes with indigenous grape varietals such as Parraleta, Moristel and Alcañon enjoying a revival while international grape varieties such as Macabeo and Tempranillo are also thriving.
My favorite is 2012 Enate chardonnay barrique, Somontano.
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)
The diversity of Chilean wines from coastal to altitude, dessert land to glaciers and Phylloxera-free to technological advancement. This tiny region never fails to impress me in the quality it offers and I think the 2008 Altaïr Cachapoal, Chile, is truly a ‘wine bargain’. It showcases a good concentration of dark red fruit with whiff of vanilla and displays a considerable complexity that I find very interesting.
Tell us about an inspirational wine and food pairing that you have experienced recently.
Hakkasan’s wine programme has set a standard for the classification and selection of wines used. The philosophy is simple – each product on our wine list has to be excellent quality and work well with our Cantonese cuisine. To ensure every wine works, sommeliers gather regularly for the ‘Tuesday Tasting’, tasting current and potential wines accompanied by items from the dinner menu to ensure a harmonious tasting experience.
We select the dishes based on mild, savoury, spicy and sweetness from our menu. Our food is a complex balance of flavours and not all wines work well. For example, sometimes it is tough to match wines from Bordeaux, therefore only the finest vintages are considered. Sherry and sake are both quite versatile so are often easier to pairs well.
What is the most enthralling wine region you have been to in terms of dramatic scenery, inspiring vineyards and good eating?
Sayadri Valley in India. It is nestled between the Western Ghats, which is about three hours from Mumbai and one of the oldest mountain ranges and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Grapes are cultivated on the slopes 500+ meters and the location provides a mild micro-climate. It is definitely worth a visit if you are in Pune and Nasik districts. For a special experience, I would recommend attending one of the traditional live concerts that are held in the vineyards.
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.
There are many wines that I wish I could add to this list, however I have chosen following wines, which are all quite versatile and easy to pair with food.
Ken Forrester The FMC Chenin Blanc 2012, Stellenbosh
Domaine Robert et Rémi Niero, les ravies, 2011, Condrieu
Merlot L’ecole no.41 Columbia Valley 2010, Washington
Barberesco La spinetta Valeirano 2007, Piedmont
Yarra Yering Shiraz Dry Red Wine No.2, 2008, Victoria
Klein Constantia Vin de Constance 2008, Constantia