A question of taste

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Australian wine, as we know, dominates the high street, yet along with the rest of the New World, it has so far failed to storm the last bastion of French wine, the restaurant.

Australian wine, as we know, dominates the high street, yet along with the rest of the New World, it has so far failed to storm the last bastion of French wine, the restaurant. Is it because French wines are inherently better matches for food? Or part of a conspiracy by the sommelier to retain for the restaurant a part of the market that is forever France? Support for the latter view comes from Troy Sutton, the Australian sommelier at London's top Thai restaurant, Nahm: "Without doubt the vast majority of French sommeliers I encounter prefer French wine and I think they still look down their noses at New World offerings."

Gérard Basset, the award-wining French sommelier who was involved in creating the Hotel du Vin concept, agrees that "you get a few who are stuck with a very French mentality", but he thinks the era when the sniffy sommelier wielded the tastevin like some latter-day medallion man is coming to an end. French sommeliers such as Eric Artières at The Ritz, Joëlle Marti at the Great Eastern and Matthieu Longuère at La Trompette belong to a new French breed of worldly-wise sommelier that likes to surprise customers with New World wines.

I suspect that there's still a widespread feeling that the sommelier's job is to intimidate and make us pay through the nose, but today's sommelier is as likely to be from Australia or England as from France. Jason McAuliffe at Chez Bruce, Ronan Sayburn at the Connaught and Hakkasan's Christine Parkinson are all creative British sommeliers who've spruced up their wine lists with eclectic selections aimed at reflecting what they think are the best wines to match the restaurant's food.

Part of the problem is that customers themselves need to be steered away from the automatic assumption that choosing bordeaux or burgundy is the sophisticated and safe option; 70 per cent of the wine list at The Ritz is French mainly because Eric Artières feels he needs to satisfy customers' expectations. "Few customers come in with an idea of what they want to drink, so tend to focus on brands," he says. Gérard Basset, too, admits that "for people who are going to spend a lot on wine, eight out of 10 will go for French wines like white burgundy and champagne, because restaurants tend to be more conservative." But he thinks things are changing now that New World wines are becoming more restrained: "For me, there's no difference between Giaconda [one of Australia's top chardonnays] and a top white burgundy. New World wines even go better with some dishes."

The traditional food and wine cultures of Europe have been putting wine and food together for so long that the process has become second nature. Now it's the New World's turn to adapt its developing gastronomy to the style of wine. "Many New World producers seem to be significantly changing their approach with the intention of making wines that are more 'European' in style," says Christine Parkinson. "I'm finding it really easy to list Australian wines that are elegant and not big or oaky." So much so that even sommeliers steeped in traditional French culture agree that it's not just possible, but a necessary feature of the new wine list to find suitable New World wine matches for food. As Artières says, "A good sommelier will look only at the quality of the wines he has to comment on in front of his guest, whether they are from New World or Europe."

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