Hot-Button Questions for Top Sommeliers
In the world of wine, an emerging region, surprising vintage, or of-the-moment winemaking style makes headlines every year, changing minds and driving up people’s passion for wine. Here, seven of North America’s best sommeliers sound off on the latest hot topics in wine circles.
BY JACKIE BRYANT — Winter 2019
1. What was your favorite bottle, grape, producer, or region in the last year?
“1990 Nikolaihof, Neuburger, Burggarten, Wachau, Austria. Talk about a wine that’s so esoteric and complex that I had absolutely zero point of reference for it — I couldn’t have predicted what it would have tasted like! It really blew my mind with how fresh it was for a wine with 28 years of age to it. It’s unlike any wine I’ve tasted before.” — Ryan Bailey, wine director, NoMad, LA
“Definitely the Maison Leroy Premier Cru Les Perrières 1973 from Meursault in Burgundy. I tasted this wine five times in the last year and it never disappointed. Considering its age, there was plenty of opportunity for the wine to fall apart, oxidize, or ‘turn.’ If served blind, you might guess it was from the mid-’90s, but there wasn’t a single sign that the wine was anything but in its prime. It showed tremendous richness without being heavy. It had all of the developed notes in perfect harmony with mouthwatering acidity. Not many wines can do that after 45 years.” — Rafael Sanchez, director of wine and beverage, Addison, Del Mar, Calif.
“I had my favorite bottle, grape, producer, and region of this last year all at the same time when dining at Coi [in San Francisco] for my birthday. I ordered a bottle of 2011 Domaine de Roches Neuves ‘L’Insolite’ Saumur Blanc from the Loire Valley, and it was one of the more beautiful chenin blancs I have tasted, plus it paired with every dish — and when enjoying an extended tasting menu, that’s saying something.
“Thierry Germain manages to produce an evocative, slightly reductive, beautifully textured chenin that expresses itself eloquently with all styles of dishes — and this chimeralike quality is, in a nutshell, why I love chenin blanc. Not only is it the ultimate pairing wine, but it can be produced in so many different styles — sparkling, dry and reductive, bright and lemony, skin contact, sweet — and from a vast number of regions.” — Kim Stone, wine director and manager, Aster, San Francisco
2. If money were no object, what would be your dream bottle and why?
“A magnum of 1962 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti La Tache — it’s still one of the best on the planet.” — Mark Bright, partner and wine director, Saison, San Francisco
“1978 Henri Jayer Richebourg — in magnum format, of course. I was lucky enough to share a bottle of this with some friends a few years ago. It’s my birth year and was an absolutely stunning bottle that I would love to drink again.” — Harley Carbery, wine director, Delano and Mandalay Bay resorts, Las Vegas
“Leflaive, Roulot, and Krug Clos du Mesnil 1996.” — Jennifer Wagoner, wine director, Proxi and Sepia, Chicago
3. More people are taking certification classes and joining the industry as sommeliers. How is your role changing and what do you do to stay current and on top of it?
“We’re certainly seeing a more informed and savvy consumer base in the beverage world. The accessibility and popularity of certifications contributes to this, which means that people are now more informed about interesting varieties and lesser-known regions, as well as smaller producers. To me this is exciting, because I can bring on wines that aren’t the big names and that have a quirky edge to them, and my guests will appreciate them.” — Stone
4. Do you have a collection of your own and, if so, what is the star and why?
“I do have a personal collection and the standout would probably have to be the few bottles of colares I brought back from Portugal after harvest this summer. They date back to the 1930s.” — Bailey
“I personally have a small but growing collection, and like many private collectors, the star of my cellar is, though not a chablis, a bottle I picked up when living in Australia at the beginning of my wine journey — a 2005 Rockford Basket Press Shiraz from Barossa Valley. It’s the star not only because it’s a cult-status and delicious wine that’s very difficult to find outside of Australia, but also for the memories it evokes of my time there. To me, that’s what a private collection is ultimately about.” — Stone
“I have a personal collection at home, but I chose these bottles because all of them are stars for me. The dominant regions represented are Northern Rhône, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Barolo, and Champagne. I’m letting them age at the moment. I’m very patient!” — Carl Villeneuve Lepage, head sommelier, Toqué!, Montreal
5. How do you utilize technology (or eschew it) in your role?
“I am a huge fan of SevenFifty. It’s an online database that helps connect buyers with the distributor in their area that handles a certain wine they might be interested in. It was a godsend last year when I moved across the country and was slightly unfamiliar with what books carried which wines.” — Bailey
“Technology has made the role of wine director infinitely easier in terms of discovering and tracking wines that my peers may be drinking, as well as wines that I find myself. Wine apps allow me to keep track of my personal cellar and interesting bottles that I run across when I’m not carrying my tasting notebook. Websites such as SevenFifty are great if industry professionals are trying to figure out who distributes certain producers or source certain wines. And Instagram, oh Instagram — I can follow other wine aficionados on their beverage adventures … and sometimes am compelled to join the adventure myself.” — Stone
6. What do you think about the current trends of accepting certain wine faults — for example, volatile acidity, reduction, and the presence of brettanomyces — as positive qualities?
Wine is a complex beverage. It wouldn’t be doing it justice to focus on one particular quality of a wine, if it’s in balance. Plenty of ‘fault’-free wines are out of balance, with too-high alcohol, grainy tannins, no acidity, for example, and some would consider those faults. When any of the three examples of faults you mentioned are dominant, most would consider that an overall fault. Again, it’s all about balance. Barolo is notorious for volatile acidity, but when in balance it provides beautiful lift to the aromas. Reduction in white Burgundy, when in balance, is what dreams are made of. Smell a bottle of older Roulot or Lafon and try to keep your neck hairs from rising. We currently offer a 2015 Château Le Puy Emilien from Bordeaux that has a whiff of brettanomyces, and it’s absolutely delicious. Especially with our calotte de boeuf with escargot. The spicy, earthy notes balance the ripe fruit in the wine. “” — Sanchez
“Faults, like those mentioned in the question, have always and will always be in wine. Several studies have shown that ‘bretty’ wines with high concentration were showing less related aromas than other wines with minor concentration. Also, people have different tolerance thresholds or different preferences. Volatile acidity is classic for some regions, whereas reduction will be attractive if it doesn’t end up smelling like rotten eggs. Ultimately, I have always thought that wine is similar to people: There will always be qualities and faults in both, and our appreciation of them will depend on the balance between the two.” — Villeneuve Lepage
7. Have you faced any difficulties in wine allocations from certain importers or producers?
“I would always take more Jacques Selosse Champagne than I am offered!” — Wagoner
8. Do you have an unorthodox food and wine pairing that you commonly refer to?
“Krug Grande Cuvee and salt and vinegar potato chips! I discovered the combination randomly one day when celebrating with a bottle of Krug. I had a bag of chips open on the counter and voila! It has been a favorite ever since. The rich, decadent bubbles and the salty, sour chips are an unexpected combination that plays together beautifully.” — Carbery
“My first mentor showed me the magic of duck-fat-popped popcorn with Parmesan and truffle oil accompanied with a Grand Cru Blanc de Blanc Champagne. It doesn’t get better than that!” — Sanchez
9. Is the market opening up to high-quality sparkling wine beyond Champagne?
“I absolutely think that sparkling regions beyond Champagne are becoming more appreciated by the general public. For one, many regions utilize the same production standards as Champagne, but only charge a fraction of the price. While Champagne will forever be the benchmark and will arguably never be fully dethroned, there’s certainly a greater surge of quality than we’ve seen before in Cavas (Raventós i Blanc), German sekt (Solter), and even wines from Tasmania (Heemskerk) and California (Iron Horse).” — Stone
“Absolutely. Right now, we’re pouring Camille Braun Cremant d’Alsace Brut NV and Stony Brook Vineyards Lyle Cap Classique by the glass and both do very well. The value that can be found in regions other than Champagne that are producing wine is quite high — we have 22 sparkling wines offered at Sepia that are less than $100 per bottle, with the majority of those being between $65 and $85. They come from Greece, Hungary, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, Tasmania, Spain, and the U.S., to name a few.” — Wagoner
10. Do you think full-bodied red wines will come back into vogue, assuming they ever really left?
“They never left. Full-bodied reds are one of the most popular styles among our guests, especially cabernet sauvignon from Napa or wines from Bordeaux.” — Carbery
“I don’t believe the taste for full-bodied wines ever fully left, but the key is finding a well-balanced, full-bodied wine that has enough acid and elevated notes to keep the fruit from tasting too cloying. It’s also important that the oak treatment doesn’t overpower the rest of the components in the wine. At Aster, our food tends to be light and fresh, so it’s important to find the right full-bodied wines for the list, so we’re not offering bottles that will overpower the food. Wines from Northern Rhône and Bordeaux tend to be more balanced options than Napa cabs. But if I’m carrying a Napa cab, I prefer wines from higher elevation, such as Spring Mountain, with modest oak usage in order to preserve the liveliness and freshness in the bottle.” — Stone
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