Ever feel intimidated by the restaurant Sommelier? You’re not alone. Wikus Human, Head Sommelier of Marble and Saint restaurants explains why you shouldn’t be, and how to make the best use of their knowledge, and palate.
I’ve had a long-standing love affair with wine. In defining my career as a sommelier, there are two moments that led me to believe that this was where my future lay. The first was disgorging a bottle of Le Lude MCC with Paul Gerber, one of the country’s leading Cape Classique makers; and the second driving Kevin from Ataraxia’s bakkie through his vineyards and being greeted as a winemaker (by mistake…). I am now privileged to work for The Marble group at two of South Africa’s top restaurants – Marble and Saint. It’s here I get to engage, and share my love of wine, with almost 800 guests a day.
The concept of a sommelier is a new one to most South Africans. Traditionally they’ve always been present at high-end fine-dining restaurants, predominantly in the winelands. These days, they are regular features in a number of more accessible establishments across the country.
My goal, along with other sommeliers who love wine and have made it their career, is to share my passion and knowledge, and to enhance our guests’ overall dining experience. Alongside curating the restaurants’ wine list, I love being able to challenge people’s palates and debunk wine myths. My first piece of advice is to just enjoy what’s in your glass and what’s on your plate – don’t overthink it.
Firstly, when you visit a restaurant, please don’t think the role of the sommelier is to get you to buy the most expensive, limited-edition vintage bottle of wine we have. No – we want to make sure that what you order from the menu and from the wine list, gives you the best meal and the best experience.
For the longest time, the only advice people were given for wine pairing was that you drink white wine with fish, and red wine when you’re eating meat. I’m here to tell you – that is a major misconception. What does pair well, is flavour – what spices does your dish have, how much salt, the fattiness of the protein, and even the sides you’ve ordered all count. It’s not just about the main component.
My first point of contact with a table of guests is to always ask – what wine do people at the table enjoy, and what are they thinking of eating. This brings me to the first challenge – people usually share wine but order their own food. So, I have to think on my feet about what style of wine will pair well with everyone’s dishes – also, taking into consideration that someone on the table might not like a certain grape varietal or would prefer a certain style of wine.
Beyond red and white, if you’re having something spicy, we’ll recommend a wine that is lighter in alcohol, or if you have something saltier on your plate then a high acid wine will work better. Red meats that are leaner or have no fat, can pair well with lighter red wines – as can fish, while Champagne pairs well with fatty or high protein dishes. There are endless combinations and even the most obscure ones could work best.
The two most important things to look at when pairing food and wine are, firstly what dish you have and secondly what wine you have.
Get to know the sommelier at your favourite restaurant and ask lots of questions. It’s knowledge you can take home with you for your next Sunday lunch or dinner party. Once you have saved a selection of wines for special occasions, matching the food to the specific wine is going to be much easier than matching the wine to a certain dish.
At home, you also have the advantage of time. Sommeliers often only have about two minutes to select a wine from the wine cellar that will be suitable to the customers’ wallet, food choice and wine preferences – not always easy!
But if you already have something cooking in the oven and you realise you’ve forgotten about the wine selection here are a few simple tricks:
High acid food prefers high acid wines
Spicy food prefers sweeter, low alcohol wines
Fatty Proteins / Meats prefer wine with high tannins
Oily fish prefers high acid white wines
Sweet food prefers sweet wines
It’s not just about the science behind pairings, it’s about the conversations behind the bottle. Expanding the knowledge and interest of a novice wine drinker or having an in-depth debate on the benefits of bottle maturation with an experienced oenophile. So next time you visit, whether Marble or Saint, or somewhere else; have a conversation with your sommelier, it might lead to a great take-away and that’s not intimidating at all.