The Sommelier’s Palate - Samuel Davies, Regional Sommelier for zuma Hong Kong, Bangkok and ROKA Hong Kong
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.
Samuel Davies, Australia
Where do you currently practice your sommelier skills (restaurant, hotel, consulting etc)?
I am based in Hong Kong, and have a regional role for the zuma group in Asia. I manage and oversee wine and sake operations for 3 restaurants and 1 bar & lounge in Asia: zuma restaurant and zuma bar Hong Kong, zuma Bangkok and ROKA Hong Kong.
Where have you dined recently (restaurant) that impressed you?
I was in Fukui prefecture recently on a sake tour with colleagues, we were set to visit Kokuryu Brewery early Tuesday 14th Jan. The night before we met with Kokuryu’s Owner “Kura-moto” and 7th generation brewer Mizuno-san, and we were taken to his favourite restaurant in Fukui city that served seasonal snow crabs or Echizen-kani (Japanese). We tasted the crab cooked in 2 different ways, served with 2 different sauces, the first crab (and these crabs are monsters) was steamed, and the sauce that came with was a mixture of the brains and guts mixed with warm local junmai-shu and ponzu sauce. The second crab was flame-grilled and served with a local rice vinegar and chilli radish. The crabs were paired with Mizuno-sans sake, mostly his rare and small production sake, the fave was his “hachi ju hachi go” paired with the steamed crab, and I was lucky enough to secure small allocations for the restaurants in Asia. The name of the restaurant was En.
Where have you dined (restaurant, wine bar) that you were mightily impressed with the wine list and service?
I was recently in Japan, and on my way back through Tokyo I stayed at the Okura Hotel (est.1962). I was impressed mostly by just how popular all of the hotel outlets still are, more importantly how impressive their wine program was. They have a Hotel Chief Sommelier, 15 x Hotel Sommeliers (all fluent in Japanese/French/English) plus another 10 x Junior Sommeliers!! The hotel runs training programs daily for both general customers and that of their own wine school, the hotel also has its own private brand wines including: Champagne, Pouilly Fume, Bordeaux rouge plus every year they buy a barrel of Echezeaux from Mongeard-Mugneret (awesome!!). When I was there, they had a pouring special of Salon ’99, I went a little overboard!
Where is the most memorable restaurant meal you have had?
San Sebastien, in May 2009, I flew down from London to meet a few friends who had been travelling Spain. We were looking for a restaurant in the Kursaal development, and instead stumbled across this modern restaurant across the street of Kursaal, called Viento-Sur. We all took the seasonal menu; filled with exotic crustaceans, seasonal fresh fish, squid inks, foams and jelly, and as we ate our way through the menu we did the same for wine. The wine team was incredibly helpful, as we started with Grower Champagne, then exotic local whites ranging from Hondarrabi Zuri blends to fine Albarino blends, finishing with plenty of fine Riojan red. We started lunch at 12:30, and went to get fresh air at around 16:45. We were all so young at the time, the lunch, the day and the walk back to the hotel along the beach bring back memories of one of the best days of my life.
Do you have a favourite regular restaurant?
Chachawan on Hollywood Road in Sheung Wan. A relatively new Thai Isaan restaurant, run/owned by a young Australian chef Adam Cliff. The food is excellent, traditional, spicy and the restaurant is kitsch and hip. A consistent Sunday favourite.
Do you cook at home and is there a dish you have perfected?
I don’t have any space to cook at my flat in Hong Kong! However, when I’m back in Australia I get to cook a lot of simple fresh fish dishes (my family are big foodies!). Baked Snapper stuffed with baby potatoes, fennel, orange and lemon is a favourite and I always forage in the garden at my folks place for fresh salad greens and courgettes to make a seasonal salad to go with. And we always have a bottle of fresh, bright, mineral Semillon/Semillon blend open (Cullen/Cherubino/Latour-Martillac…).
Do you have a favourite wine bar?
I have 2: Vinoteca London (UK Wine Bar of the year 2004/05/09) and because Brett Woonton and Charlie Young are possibly the 2 coolest guys to run a wine bar, also because I used to work there. And, Neighbourhood Wine in Melbourne, only because two great friends are owner/managers, and I think they deserve a plug.
Do you have a favourite wine merchant?
I have 2: Goedhuis in London. Because we have just put together a few fine wine orders for shipping, and the service I have received has been exceptional. Links Concept Hong Kong: The team at Links have provided our restaurants with such great support, both Patricio de la Fuente MD and Pierre Legrondais GM have become great friends of mine, their tasting events are a riot, and they truly are the heart and soul of Hong Kong’s wine scene.
What wine are you drinking at the moment?
I’m actually taking the month (February 2014) off drinking, giving myself a rest. However, Krug are launching their new vintage into the market at Pier 9 tomorrow night, I think I’ll attend.
Is there a wine that totally moved you – like no other wine – a revelation and motivation for you to pursue you wine obsession?
There were 2x wines that really excited me about the industry, they were both Spanish, I tasted them both back in 2006, they were Bodegas Muga “Prado Eneas” Gran Reserva, and Marques de Riscal “Baron de Chirel” Gran Reserva, both from Rioja; Muga a little higher in elevation in Rioja-Alta, and Marques from Elciego. Looking back, it must have been the raw site expression and strong varietal character of the wines, they also both had grit, structure and prominence, both very different, yet shared symbolic similarities. It was these wines that pushed me to visit Spain. Since then, it’s all about red burgundy, and Hubert Lignier’s “Clos de la Roche” is as exciting as it gets!
What’s your latest wine discovery – new region, variety or style?
It changes week in-week out for me, however: The Great Lakes district in Virginia has been producing excellent Cabernet Franc for many years; I am now re-discovering. Also, there have been a few boutique Southern Rhone tastings in HK recently, there has been this huge movement for accessible wines from Frances SW and Southern Rhone; It’s incredible how the quality of the fruit and dynamic wine making is proving fun for us as Sommelier’s to discuss, taste, list and pour.
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)
Pattes-Loup Chablis: Thomas Pico is the winemaker, young and energetic, his wines have always over delivered. I think he produces Chablis for Sommeliers to drink, and his website is only in French. You can pick up a bottle in Hong Kong, retail for under HK$200 (GBP£14).
Tell us about an inspirational wine and food pairing that has you have experienced recently.
I just got back to Hong Kong from an amazing educational trip to Japan. I was up in Iwate, spending time with Nanbubijin Brewery, (located in a small village called Ninohe), after the day full of meetings and tastings, we went to dinner at a local restaurant specialising in local beef. As the beef was on the flame, we were privy to taste a dish that the brewery had designed with the leftover by-product post ferment from sake brewing “lees” (English) or “sake kasu” Japanese. The sake kasu was mixed with a light local cheese, and served on the side for texture was rice crackers, (the rice crackers were produced from the Breweries “shiro nuka” fine white rice powder left over from milling), this dish was paired with warm aged koji only sake that the brewery produces only in small quantities. The pairing was life changing.
What is the most enthralling wine region you have been to in terms of dramatic scenery, inspiring vineyards and good eating?
There is this tiny village in the Rioja-Alta called Haro, it sits high in North West of Rioja, and home to the best Tempranillo, Graciano and Manzuelo in Spain. As you walk up the hill to the town church in Haro, you get the chance to look back to the East, back along the valley and back up to the Sierra Cantabrian Mountains. This is the only view that really opens your eyes to the enormity of the valley, and the micro climate barriers that divide the region. Plus the local cuisine in the North of Spain is life changing.
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.
Billecart-Salmon, NV Brut Rose, Mareuil-sur-Ay France
Pattes-Loup, 2010 Chablis ‘Vaillons’ 1er Cru, Burgundy France
Mas la Mola, 2005 ‘La Vinyetta Vella’, Priorat Spain
Shafer-Frohlic, 2008 Schlossbockelheimer Felsenberg Trocken, Nahe Germany
Cullen, 2009 ‘Kevin John’ Chardonnay, Margaret River Australia
Pierro, 2011 Chardonnay, Margaret River Australia