The Point of the Sommelier
Don’t you love Montreal? Had dinner there not too long ago at a little place called Garde Manger in the old part of town. Funky-buzzy atmosphere, attractive servers, excellent food and wine, and a palpable lack of pretence. And despite the 6:30 pm booking, the place was hopping. But, what about the food and wine?
I had the pan-seared duck breast with roasted fingerling potatoes, mixed wild mushrooms, melted Riopelle (a triple cream, hand-crafted cheese from Quebec), and seared foie gras. But what set it off was the sauce. An unctuous red wine and veal stock reduction. Magic. That tongue-lashing alone was worth the trip.
With it, I had a glass of Berretta Maremma Toscana DOC 2008 — a lively blend of 60 per cent Sangiovese and 40 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon from Italy. Earthy-cherried fresh-and-easy. Worked nicely.
My friend had the halibut, pan-seared and served on spinach with mushrooms and a veal stock sauce. With it, she sipped Chateau La Tarciere Muscadet 2009. Superb — unlike the usual bland and boring versions of this Loire style of wine, it was rich with extract and laced with stony minerality. Quite compelling.
Garde Manger doesn’t have a sommelier on staff, but because I’m trained as one, I could navigate the wine list well enough to make satisfying selections for us. Though even then, I would have preferred the adventure of being walked through the selection by someone with an intimate knowledge of the juice on hand.
Herein lies the value of a sommelier. A person, who is essentially a wine expert trained to select and manage a restaurant’s wine stock, knows the wine list well enough to be an expert on every entry. S/he can tell you what’s drinking well now, what offers the best value, and which wines go best with every item on the menu.
Let’s consider the facts: There are more than 6000 wine-producing regions in the world. Each region has hundreds if not thousands of producers. Each producer makes several wine styles each year. Vintage conditions change annually. And every wine ever made continues to evolve in bottle — for better or worse — at varying rates based on storage conditions, grape quality and style. It’s nearly impossible to know it all in detail.
So if presented with a wine list when there’s a sommelier in the building, it’s a no-brainer. Link up. But for the times you find yourself without one, I’ll share some of the things I learned in sommelier school.
You’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times. Gewürztraminer and Asian food are a perfect match. Truth is this aromatic, full-bodied wine would overpower any of the mild cornerstones of Asian cuisine such as dim sum, tempura, or sashimi. It also lacks the palate acidity needed to stand up to the spicier or fattier fare of the region such as chilli-powered pho, green curry chicken, or Peking duck. Better selections for any of these dishes are high-acid whites with restrained fruit such as Chablis, Champagne, Muscadet or Grüner Veltliner.
Vintage charts dictate good and bad wines. Truth is, completely good and bad vintages don’t exist. Wine regions are vast geographic areas where weather varies. So some producers experience great conditions in so-called poor vintages. Also, a highly acclaimed vintage is no guarantee of quality because grape growing and winemaking practices influence the quality of the wine as much as weather does. Use vintage charts as a general guide only, if at all. Better rule is to buy from a reliable producer so the wine is less likely to let you down.
Myth: You only decant red wine. Truth: Many white wines of distinction, such as Sauternes or white Burgundy from better properties, also benefit from decanting because aeration brings out aromas and flavours.
Don’t assume all the wines on a list are ready to drink. This means, if there’s a $100 Barolo from a recent vintage, you might find it’s a glass full of unimpressive hard work because it’s too tannic — a stoic, impervious, unresolved wine that’s completely unwilling to befriend you. Barolos generally don’t provide pleasurable drinking until about 10 years after their vintage date, and they don’t take kindly to impatience. Some more modern Barolo producers are moving toward a style that’s ready to drink upon bottling — another reason to know the producer.
When pairing food and wine, body not colour matters most. Body is the weight of the wine in your mouth and corresponds closely with the alcohol level. Fuller-bodied wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah go well with heavier dishes such as roasted meats, while lighter wines such as Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir go best with lighter fare such as salads and fish.
Champagne is a wine, not just celebratory tipple. It works marvellously as an aperitif, a first course accompaniment, or both. Bubbly has the refreshing tartness to freshen the palate, making it a good wine to whet the appetite, and its toasty, biscuity flavours make it a lovely match for seafood, truffled eggs or even a plate of French fries. And it’s a classic match for sautéed mushrooms.
Red wine can make fish taste metallic. This happens when the iodine in fish meets tannin in red wine. To minimize the effect, choose low tannin reds such as Beaujolais or Pinot Noir with fish or seafood, or play it safe and go with white or rosé.
Although cheese is usually paired with red wine, don’t discount whites. A milky mozzarella marries beautifully with the herbaceousness of Sauvignon Blanc; the buttered toastiness of white Burgundy is excellent with the pungency of Parmesan Reggiano; and the sweetness of Sauternes absolutely salutes a soft, fresh goat cheese.
When you’re serving an aged wine of good quality and expecting complexity, don’t pair it with fancy food. Choose something simply prepared to ensure the wine isn’t upstaged. If you’re uncorking a mature Bordeaux blend such as Opus One 1999 from Napa, it would go better with a simple roasted prime rib roast, potatoes and steamed green beans than, say, a root vegetable and pear ragout with venison crepes.
When thinking about wine and food pairing, remember to match the strongest flavour in the dish to the wine. This dominant flavour may well be the sauce. A traditional pesto penne works very well with the herb and nut flavours of Spanish Verdejo, for instance.
Tannins and protein are a winning combination. Wine tannins are attracted to proteins so, without getting too technical, a tannic wine may be too chewy on its own but will feel silky and full of fruit when taken with meats and cheeses.
Knowing when to drink a wine depends on your ability to detect fruit concentration, tannin, acidity, and alcohol — and the balance of these four elements. Fruit and tannin diminish as wine ages, while acidity and alcohol remain constant. So, a wine with more fruit and tannin than acidity and alcohol can improve with age.
Although red wines generally age better than whites because tannin is a preservative, some whites can improve with time in bottle. Riesling, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay can age quite gracefully if they’ve been made well and have sufficient concentrations of fruit. And top cuvées of Champagne can age for decades.
Wines in magnum age about one and a half times as long as the same wine in a normal-sized bottle. And wines in half bottles age more quickly than regular bottles of the same wine — in about two-thirds the time.
Wine meant to be consumed young can start to lose its fresh, fruity appeal within about a year or so of bottling, so opt for recent vintages when buying relatively inexpensive wines and consume them quickly. This is a particularly good rule to follow when buying white and rosé wines because they deteriorate faster than reds.
The colour of wine where it meets the glass, which is called the rim, is the best clue to a wine’s maturity. As white wine matures, the rim turns from watery white to golden. And as red wine matures, the rim moves through a range of colours starting with purple, moving to ruby, russet, brick and finally brown.
Chilling wine is a good way to improve the taste of a lesser quality wine. Chilling masks imperfections such as searing sourness, lack of complexity, or too little fruit. Conversely, over-chilling very good wine hides the subtle nuances of flavour that make it interesting and pleasurable.
Different decanter styles exist for different wines. To open up, a young wine needs more oxygen than an old wine, so a broad-bottomed decanter is best, giving the wine a larger surface area to be in contact with the air. On the other hand, an older wine is more fragile, so taller, slimmer decanters are best, exposing less wine to the air yet still offering means to separate the wine from the sediment.
Once you’ve chosen a wine on a menu, it should be brought to you unopened to view the label. Check the name of the wine and vintage to confirm they match what you ordered. Once you give the nod, the waiter will open it and pour you a tasting measure. The idea here is not for you to taste it to see if you like it, but to approve the quality of the wine — in other words, make sure it’s not flawed. So check to make sure the wine is clear rather than hazy, smells fresh and like wine instead of musty or otherwise nasty, and tastes equally clean. Once these things are confirmed, give the nod again and the waiter should fill the other diners’ glasses, then yours.
If you’re going to a restaurant without a sommelier and it’s a special night, consider bringing your own bottle. Many restaurants now offer you the privilege to do so for a corkage fee. Call first.