“This August, I visited Central Otago and it is for sure one of the most beautiful regions I have ever seen. The mountains, lakes, scenery but, also the people, genuine fantastic hospitality.” Michael Engelmann Head Sommelier Rockpool Bar & Grill, Sydney
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.
Michael Engelmann, Originally from France, living in Australia for the past 3 years.
Where do you currently practice your sommelier skills (restaurant, hotel, consulting etc)?
I am the Head Sommelier at the Wine Spectator Grand Award recipient Rockpool Bar & Grill, Sydney. I have a team of 8 sommeliers and a list with 3500+ references.
Where have you dined recently (restaurant) that impressed you?
There is a new pop-up restaurant called Cafe Paci in Sydney, the chef use to be the Head Chef at Marque and he is very talented. Beautifully crafted dishes, creative, unique flavours and very reasonable prices.
Where have you dined (restaurant, wine bar) that you were mightily impressed with the wine list and service?
One of the best wine service experiences I’ve had was with Aldo Sohm at Le Bernardin a few years ago. I had never met him before and he really made me feel comfortable when selling wines, the right amount of presence to the table, short and very precise descriptions of the wines.
Where is the most memorable restaurant meal you have had?
A couple of places come to mind: Eleven Madison Park, for one, was a great and complete experience. Often restaurants offer great food but average service or the other way around. Here everything was flawless, creative and exciting.
Alinea in Chicago is another. It was quite an experience; a celebration dinner after I passed my Advanced Certficate (Level III) from the Court of Master Sommeliers. The creativity was remarkable, there is thought, intention and a reason behind everything. The perfect example is the menu you get at the end, these little bubbles over each dish are not just there to be pretty; each has a meaning. Being positioned more towards the left or the right indicates how sweet or savoury the course was and then big or small depending on the actual size of the dish. Ultimately, years later I can still remember most of the dishes we had and how enjoyable they were. Which, is something quite rare to be honest.
If I can give a third one it would be L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas. It was my first time going to one of his restaurants. Absolute perfection on a plate and an incredible depth of flavours.
Do you have a favourite regular restaurant?
I have too many favourite places. Sydney’s food scene is pretty dynamic at the moment. I really like the Asian food here. Spice I Am (the original in Surry Hills) has terrific Thai food. I lived in San Francisco for a few years and each time I go back I make it a point to go to Zuni Cafe for their roast chicken and bread salad. It is one of the best chickens I’ve ever had and a great, well priced wine list. I also love the Italian food there, Cotogna, to name one, has terrific pastas and pizzas. I don’t make it to Paris very often but when I do Le Comptoir du Relais is an old favourite.
Do you cook at home and is there a dish you have perfected?
I love going to the markets to see what is in season and bringing home what I find to cook. I actually find it relaxing after a busy week at work to do that. I mostly cook French cuisine at home. One of my favourite dishes is steak au poivre. Not overly complicated but delicious when done right. I also really like making a dish from the Southern part of France: oven roasted sea bass flambee with Pastis and served with a beurre blanc; great pairing with a white from the Southern Rhone, Provence. For dessert, I love making tarte tatin, with apples but also quince when they are in season.
Do you have a favourite wine bar?
RN74 and Terroir in San Francisco each are great and each has a different style; Les Marchands in Santa Barbara, the new hot spot on the West Coast of the U.S., also in Sydney 10 William St. and Love Tilly Divine
Do you have a favourite wine merchant?
What wine are you drinking at the moment?
I tend to drink more white wine but it is always very diverse, rarely the same bottle. Some of the latest wines have been Antoine Arena’s vermentino from Corsica, Dauvissat Chablis, Olek Bondonio Barbaresco & Barbera, Clemens Busch Riesling.
Is there a wine that totally moved you – like no other wine – a revelation and motivation for you to pursue your wine obsession?
I don’t know if it was a particular wine but more a succession of wines, people and events to be honest. I have been quite fortunate to taste some great bottles in my career, some pretty expensive also many inexpensive that made me realize how lucky I am to have a passion that is also realized in my career.
What’s your latest wine discovery – new region, variety or style?
I went to Spain last year and I was blown away by Ribeira Sacra in North-Western Spain. The wines, history and some of the most incredible vineyards I’ve seen. These vineyards are so steep and have been there for a long time but people rarely talk about them. I love the purity and the minerality that these wines can have.
Otherwise for discoveries, I want to say the riesling from Clemens Busch in the Mosel. Great example of what the region is all about, purity, delicacy with intensity.
I’m currently pouring the 2001 Courabyra ’805′ sparkling wine from Tumbarumba in New South Wales, Southwest of Canberra to be more precise. It has to be one of the best sparkling wines I have tasted outside of champagne; 12 years old and still going strong, fresh, nice drive and for a very reasonable price!
It is not wine but there is a very good sake importer based in Sydney (Black Markets Sake) and they have some seriously great products. I am particularly into the 1978 Omi Shuzo Omiju Kijoshu. It is a little bit if an Oloroso sherry meets a Madeira but with Sake’s texture and lower acidity; grilled nuts, caramel, toffee, figs, shitake broth, duck consome…. absolutely a crazy and fun experience.
Itvan Szepsy dry wines from Hungary. He is well known for making some of the best dessert wines in the world and he was one of the pioneers of dry Tokaji – stunning wines.
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)
Lately and as mentioned above, 2001 Courabyra ’805′ from Tumbarumba; terrific Australian sparkling wine, and great value.
Bodega Noemia ‘A Lisa’ an Argentinian malbec from Patagonia, much lighter and fresher than the one from Mendoza, just a delicious drink. Otherwise, I think that regions like the Loire Valley, Galicia in Spain and some appellations in the Rhone valley offer terrific values.
Tell us about an inspirational wine and food pairing that has you have experienced recently.
Sake and chocolate works very well, the lactic nature of sake goes well with chocolate. After of course it depends on the sake and the type of chocolate, but anything from milk chocolate to dark chocolate generally works.
What is the most enthralling wine region you have been to in terms of dramatic scenery, inspiring vineyards and good eating?
This August, I visited Central Otago and it is for sure one of the most beautiful regions I have ever seen. The mountains, lakes, scenery but, also the people, genuine fantastic hospitality.
I was extremely impressed by the Douro, I drove from highest vineyards all the way down to Porto, just mind blowing.
The underrated region of Ribeira Sacra I visited last year. People always talk about the Mosel or the Northern Rhone, but there the slopes are just as impressive.
In terms of eating I am going to go back to my roots, and enjoy some traditional Alsatian food, very good but also very rich. I lived in San Francisco for a few years and the food scene in Napa Valley has exploded, from great sandwiches to biscuit shops to casual bistrot or Italian restaurants down to 3 Michelin star restaurants like Meadowood and The French Laundry. There is a bit of something for every budget.
One can’t forget Piedmont’s pasta, white truffles when it is the season. Happy times.
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.
Gonon Saint-Joseph Rouge: what Northern Rhone syrah is all about, pure, complex, drinkable and a reasonnable price point.
Clos St Hune riesling: not only one of the greatest rieslings, but one of the greatest wines in the world. This wine is all about ‘terroir’. It needs time and patience in the cellar and in the glass but every time it is a wonderful experience.
Egon Muller Riesling: Incredible wines; I love the purity, the drive and the ageing potential that these wines have.
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier: one of the greatest Australian wines year after year. I love Syrah and this is a wonderful example. Classic Syrah aromas but also a wonderful expression of a site. The 2001 is exceptional.
Giacomo Conterno ‘Monfortino’: it is rare and not cheap but probably my favourite wine in Piedmont. I’ve tasted a few vintages and it is always magical.
Domaine Comte Georges de Vogüé Musigny: sensual, delicate – inspirational