The Wisdom of a Cheerful Wine Expert
Hendrik Thoma, I was asked to note, was no ordinary wine expert. He is the only one of two people in Germany to get the coveted Master Sommelier distinction. So I expected a serious man in an elegant suit (and a silk scarf) with a formidable gaze. That gaze I associate with experts, the don’t-mess-with-me because-I-know-everything look. But Thoma turned up in a cheerful red and black rugby shirt and baggy corduroy jacket, full of laughs and a warm, firm handshake.
He spent a morning with us, the fellows of the Culinary Project in Hamburg, making the uber-sophisticated world of wine a lot more accessible to us. I used the opportunity to ask him a few questions.
How did you train to be a sommelier?
I went to sommelier school in Heidelberg for a year. But I wasn’t really satisfied with it, so I decided to study further and did the Master Sommelier programme. Wine school is a mix of theory, practicals and tasting. The theory is a lot of science actually, learning and tannins and oxidation. It’s quite tough, because you can be very good at theory but not so good at the practicals. In the practicals, they want to see your industry knowledge. How much do you know about setting up the table for a wine tasting, for instance. And then, tasting is a whole different game altogether. You might have all the theory and practical knowledge but lack the sensitivity to taste.
There are only 175 Master Sommeliers in the world, so you can see how tough it is.
You worked as a chef first. Does your training as a chef help you as a sommelier?
It does, certainly. It helps identify many flavours in the wine right away because I’ve cooked with those ingredients myself, so I know the essence of it. Many times, though, I think it would have helped more if I were a waiter earlier. It would have taught me about the service dimension. It is not enough as a sommelier to recommend a good wine with your food, you also have to understand your guest at the restaurant. That is what you learn in service.
What do you think about New World Wines against the Old World Wines?
(Wines from the US, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, China among others is referred to as New World Wines because wine is traditionally from Europe. Italy, France and Spain are especially well-known for their vineyards and wine.)
My education in wine began in Napa Valley, California, and I think these wines can be very, very good. In fact, I think California is no longer a New World Wine producer. They know a lot about wine now. Some of the vineyards there are almost 150 years old.
I don’t have this snobbery that many people have against New World Wines. Most of these places are discovering the process of making their own wine, because every region has its own temperature and soil. Some of them are quite good already. China especially is a wine producer to watch out for.
Red or white, which is the more complex wine?
It used to be that red wines were considered more complex, which is why you’ll see that many restaurants use larger goblets for red wine. But now there are plenty of whites that are as complex as red wine. And by the way, there are plenty of simple red wines too. This habit of serving red wine in a larger goblet is the remnant of the traditional notions of wine.
What is the best time to drink wine?
Ten o’ clock in the morning. You have to be fresh and awake to enjoy all the flavours of a wine. And that time of the morning is when our senses are sharpest and we’ve had breakfast, which is very important. You need a full stomach or the wine goes to your head too quickly.
It doesn’t have to be 10 am exactly, it could be 9 or 11, depending on where you are drinking wine. Some places are warmer than others so it could be earlier than ten. But morning is the best time to drink wine. It is well, unfortunate, that most people can only afford to relax and have a drink in the evening. Your senses are not fresh because you’ve probably been working so you’re tired. And besides you’ve eaten many other things by that time.
Food or wine, which is more important?
I can say from the restaurant point of view that it is beverages and liquor that bring in the most money. Far more than the food. Though restaurants are known for their chefs, they are the celebrities, their sommeliers bring in much more money.
But of course, speaking as a diner, it is both the food and drink that constitute a great meal. If you have a wine that complements your dish perfectly, there are few joys that can come close to that experience.TAGS: California, Hendrik Thoma, New World Wines, red wine, Sohini Chattopadhyay, sommelier, white wine