Developing a love for wine
Wine is something I grew up with. It became of interest to me when I was about 8 years old and my father purchased a wacky old liquor cabinet. My father is an architect and has all these suave terms for everything; this cabinet, made of oak with beautiful engravings, was declared "premo" pre modern. It had just one flaw, a lack of security; for us an opportunity. My older brother, very provocative in his youth, taught me the subtle art of consuming our fathers scotch and replacing it with water and food colouring. Father, who has a great palate for all things, noticed this sooner than my brother and I would have liked, which ultimately led to a clipping around the ear. He chuckled when I countered that the classic "salt and smoke" Islay whiskey aromas made the clipping worthwhile, and decided, at my mothers dismay, to let me sample whatever he and his friends were consuming on a given evening. From that day forward my father obviously had a huge influence over my developing love of wine.
Within the professional world of food and wine however, Sophie Otton, was my first 'mentor'. Sophie taught me the most important lesson I've ever learnt, and I guess the best way for me to convey it is through a ‘short’ story. At this point Sophie was the wine buyer for Melbourne Supper Club (during its heyday), City Wine Shop and The European. I was working at The European when Sophie came down to check the wines before service and talk me through the new Cotes du Rhone being offered by the glass, a grenache, shiraz and mouvedere. This was the first I had heard of blending grapes, so I asked her how many varieties were grown in Southern Rhone? She replied, "I don't know”. For the top Sommelier in Melbourne, and one of most influential in Australia, to say "I don't know"… best lesson I ever learnt.
Along my wine journey another key influence was the unflappable Raul "The Dude" Moreno - by far the hardest working Somm I ever met. He taught me how to remove "myself" when designing a list, as too many Sommeliers list wines they like, rather than considering the customer demographic and restaurant philosophy.
Paul Hobson of Carlton Wine Room sculpted my style more than any other. His empathy and passion is inspiring. I remember one night at The European Paul was off sick and a regular customer actually stomped up and down like a 7 year old after losing her Barbie doll due to his absence. People just loved Paul’s charismatic style.
Working with Joe and Scott at Saint Crispin was an experience. No one can make me laugh like Scott can! He can correct a chef in front of the whole restaurant without coming across all Gordon Ramsay. Scott taught me the "the show"- to make sure every time a customer walks into a bottle shop they think “what was that bottle of wine from Saint Crispin called?”. He used to tell me his motto was "our best marketing is our customers, so don't #$^& it up”. I try not to!
Thoughts on combining food and wine
First, get rid of that myth that the best match with steak is a big powerful Australian Shiraz, if you want to cover your steak in chocolate and Blackcurrants then go for it. Wine is a dressing so pay attention to the fundamentals. If you're are having a steak and you want horseradish or mustard reach for a high acid white wine with savoury flavour compounds, Champagne, Chablis or Alsace Riesling.
Keep an eye on over doing flavours and textures already on the dish. Again if there is already an acidic dressing then serving high acid wine can compromise the whole dish. If there is no present fruit flavours try to utilize savoury wines from Europe over the fruit forward wines from Australia and New Zealand. Spicy food needs sugar and hates alcohol and tannin, so go straight to Mosel Riesling or Alsace Gewurz.
Second, remember weight with weight. If a dish is sweet try to utilize sugar otherwise the wine will look tart. Ultimately balance is key.
Third, champagne goes with EVERYTHING!
If you are dining at a restaurant or out purchasing a bottle, my tip, which may sound strange, is to have confidence in your own palate. Too often the person next to them, confidently criticizing a wine because they don’t like it, influences an “inexperienced drinker”. The best tasting notes are from novices, because they are more honest. The best way to truly learn wine is experience it, if you taste a wine of interest, look the wine up later on. It also doesn't hurt to get your purchase right from the get go I.e. don't buy wine from Costco. Reliable independent bottle shops stock solid wines and good advice.
My favourite wines
(That I can afford). Either Louis Roderer NV or a Fourcharmes 1er cru Chablis. Yes I’ll admit I am a ponce.
However, three bottles of wine that I would recommend to the ‘everyday drinkers’ at affordable prices are: 1. Esparao pe Branco 2. Hoddles Creek Chardonnay 3. Ata Rangi Crimson Pinot Noir
Three that are a little more luxurious are: 1. ‘96 Krug clos de Mesnil – I’ll drink it in 80 years on my deathbed. 2. ‘05 Fredric Mugnier Musigny 3. '45 La Romanee Conti - evidence that god made wine.
An exciting part of my job is experiencing and discovering new things. A recent discovery of mine is Croatian malvasia, this is ironically one of the oldest wine styles in the world, pre dating France and Italy. It’s like crossing vintage Vouvray with Puligny Montrachet - savoury, floral harmony and power. I am excited with my new adventure at Circa (Prince of Wales, St Kilda) and one thing that I want every customer to take away from their experience here is that Ash's food is the definition of finesse and balance.
Circa’s wine list
On the wine side of things, Circa’s wine list has been curated by some amazing buyers starting with Phillip Rich. The back vintage availability is off the charts; you just can't buy Krug clos de Ambonnay and '96 Krug clos de Mesnil, both of these wines are incredibly rare. The ambonnay has a production of 3000 bottles and a list of over 150,000 people in line for a bottle, making it arguably the most sought after wine on the planet. Circa’s list has a very proud history and is incredibly impressive for its depth of classic regions.
Christian Burge Sommelier