I had an interesting dinner in London last week. I was there on business, as my real life company is based near Oxford, and we were hosting customers from Japan. There were 10 of us, a few of which had some wine drinking experience, but also a few novices.
Our CEO turned to me and asked me to order wine for dinner, letting everyone know, especially the VP from our Japanese customer, that I was a wine expert, even writing about wine. No pressure! I just have to order wine for 10 people that have a variety of tastes, a range of wine experience, and are undoubtedly ordering different meals. Of course, as we’re a very small company, I need also to be conscious of price.
Open the wine list, and start going through it. There are certain expectations and constraints going in. I’m expecting not to find any reasonably priced California wines, so I’m already a little out of my comfort zone. (In my experience, very little California wine is available in England.) I’m also not going to be getting a French Chardonnay (white Burgundy) or Cabernet Sauvignon (Bordeaux), as these wines will not necessarily go with all the meals. So I’m looking for something fresh and crisp in a white wine, and something not too big in a red, but big enough to handle the lamb dish which is the special for the evening, and will probably be ordered by more than a few people at the table, including me.
After giving me a few minutes with the wine list, in steps the sommelier, asking me about what I’m looking for in wines, and he gets the information above from me. I had been looking at Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire region of France; he pointed out the best value on the list, but also recommended a Muscadet from the same area, with a similar flavor profile, and even a few pounds less expensive. I went with his suggestion, and was rewarded with a really nice bottle that everyone liked. (Muscadet has no relation to Muscat grapes typically used for sweet wines. Muscadet owes its name not to the region where it’s grown, or to the grape variety,, but instead seems to come from the slightly musky smell it can have.)
For the red, I had a pretty good idea what I wanted: a nice Rhone (Syrah-based wine). I had spotted one that I thought would do nicely. The somm suggested a different wine, saying that the one I had chosen might be a bit too big of a wine for everyone to enjoy, but his alternative, also from the Rhone (Cotes du Rhone area), was a GSM – Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah – blend and would be more likely to a crowd pleaser. Again, a few pounds less expensive per bottle.
The lamb special was delicious: lamb shoulder roast brought to the table on a cart and carved table-side. The red wine was 2009 Coudoulet de Beaucastel, owned and operated by the same family that owns/operates Chateau de Beaucastel, which is maybe the best, if not the best known, wine from Chateauneuf du Pape in the Southern Rhone. Coudoulet is “right across the street” (according to the sommelier) from Chateau de Beaucastel, and that street is the demarcation line for the Chateauneuf du Pape region. This wine contains Cinsault in addition to the GSM grapes, and similar to the Chateau de Beaucastel has a comparatively high Mourvèdre content.
This is exactly what the good sommelier should do: listen to his customers, understand their needs, and help choose great wines for the specific customer. Whether you know a lot or a little about wine, don’t hesitate to use the somm.