Six ways to get the best from your sommelier

Australia's best sommeliers share their tips for getting the most out of a restaurant wine experience.
Australia's best sommeliers share their tips for getting the most out of a restaurant wine experience. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

The restaurant folk who curate, recommend and pour your drinks can make or break a dining experience – so when the sommelier arrives at your table, what can you say and do to help them turn your night into an all-round win? This year's Good Food Guide Sommelier of the Year finalists share their top tips.

Tell us what you like

"Don't be afraid to tell us about what you really love drinking – and what you feel like drinking," says Hannah Green, of Etta in Brunswick East. "It gives us a gauge of what styles might be suitable and helps us recommend something to suit the mood."

Name names, suggests Jane Lopes of Melbourne's Attica. "Having producers or specific wines in mind that you love helps communicate your favoured profile to us. If your go-to is Tom Shobbrook or if it's Torbreck, let us know that; that information will help us loads in finding you a wine you like."

If you're choosing from Forbes Appleby's list at Franklin in Hobart and your favourite cabernet sauvignon isn't there, explain what you enjoy about that wine. He might then steer you to an Italian varietal that may be unfamiliar but demonstrates the qualities you like in the cabernet sauvignon.

What about wines you don't like?

"Please speak up," Appleby says. "Everyone's palate is different ... The last thing we want is for you to 'chew through' a bottle of a macerated white if you are really after something clean and clear. The experience is key, and we would rather find something appropriate than have you leave dissatisfied."

"Honesty is the best policy," says Shanteh Wong of Sydney's Quay. "Be open about your likes, dislikes, comfort levels and parameters. Professional sommeliers are invested in getting to know who their guests are and ultimately what they'd like to get out of the whole experience. The more information you can give them, the more tools they have."

Ask questions. A sommelier's role is to help you in making great choices.
Ask questions. A sommelier's role is to help you in making great choices. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Give us a price range

Sommeliers have few customers for whom price is no object. They are used to working within a nominated price range – if you tell them what that range is. When you're willing to be direct, you're less likely to find yourself steered to a wine whose price makes you wince, or worse.

"Don't be scared to talk money," Green says. "That can be one of the most daunting things about a wine list and the great sommeliers make you feel comfortable about what you're spending regardless of the price."

Liam O'Brien of Fitzroy's Cutler & Co's agrees. "If you feel comfortable doing so, give them a ballpark figure to work with – it'll save both yourself and the somm a lot of time."

Advertisement

"Tell us a price point, and we'll hit it," Lopes says. "If you're in company and you don't want to talk about the price range you'd like, just point to a few selections around the price point you're looking for. We'll get the hint."

Don't sweat over jargon

Worried you don't have the right wine words? Don't be. "Be confident in your own ability to describe wine," O'Brien says. "You don't need to be a wine nerd to describe it accurately, and any somm worth talking to should be able to understand what you mean."

But if you want to lift your knowledge of the lingo, seize the moment. "If you love a wine, ask your sommelier how they'd describe it," Lopes says. "It helps to start building a vocabulary of how to describe the wines you like for your future restaurant and wine shop experiences."

Ask us anything

"No question is too elementary. Ask away," Wong says. "A sommelier's role is to assist you in making great choices. They are not there to judge or educate."

"Don't be scared to be interested or say you don't know what a wine is," Green says. "There are so many grape varietals out there that it is hard to know sometimes what something is."

Asking questions can help you avoid ordering a wine that's not what you expected. "Not everything is as it appears at face value," Appleby says. "A nebbiolo from the mountainous regions of northern Italy can vary quite dramatically from one originating from the Adelaide Hills."

When it comes to by-the-glass wines, ask if you can have a trial taste. "There's no reason a restaurant shouldn't be pouring you a taste first of a wine served by the glass," Lopes says. "One of the benefits of buying wine by the glass is that you get to taste for preference. We want you to have a glass you'll love."

"Don't limit questions to wine," Wong says. "Think sake, beer, spirits, and non-alcoholic drinks."

Let us know if food pairing is – or isn't – your thing

"Sommeliers have an intimate understanding of their venue and the menu," Wong says. When somms know what you're going to eat, they can suggest appropriate drinks or provide "suitable suggestions for larger groups with varied palates".

They can also help you dodge epic palate clashes, such as the tannic red that's going to make your sashimi taste metallic. But if that particular red is truly what you want, it's your call; popular though it is, food pairing is far from compulsory. O'Brien recommends letting your sommelier know "if you are interested in wine that matches your food, or if you just want to choose a wine on its own merits".

Take a chance on us

Up for an adventure? "Ask the sommelier what are they liking at the moment," Green says. "We have access to the best wines from every corner of the globe so asking us what we're loving currently is bound to start a great conversation about what is best for the table. I had the best experience recently from Ashley Boburka at Rockpool in Melbourne – one of my favourite sommeliers, who recommended a bottle of Meursault that I wouldn't normally choose – and alongside the mullet, it was one of the best matches I've had in ages."

"Assuming you want their unfiltered opinion," O'Brien says, "your silver bullet question is: 'what would you drink?'"

Appleby asks diners to "have some faith" but acknowledges sommeliers "can't be all things to all people".

"Please don't be offended when we don't have the exact wine/producer you are familiar with. Please leave your preconceptions at the door and embrace what we have to offer – what we are about."

Meet the Good Food Guide 2020 Sommelier of the Year finalists

Forbes Appleby

Franklin, Hobart, Tasmania

Appleby's love of small producers and minimal-intervention winemaking bloomed at Hobart's Garagistes. Since opening Franklin in 2014 he has continued championing unsung heroes and unexpected wines. He gets hands-on with grapes at Tasmania's Green Island vineyards and Victoria's Momento Mori, where he has begun making his own wines.

Hannah Green

Etta, Brunswick East, Victoria

Green opened neighbourhood bistro Etta in 2017. She wears her considerable wine knowledge lightly, coupling skills honed during her years working for some of Australia's biggest restaurant names – Reymond, O'Connell, Shewry and Perry – with a reputation for exceptional hospitality.

Jane Lopes

Attica, Ripponlea, Victoria

Attica's wine director arrived in Ripponlea via some of America's most celebrated restaurants, including Eleven Madison Park. The author of a new book, Vignette: Stories of Life and Wine in 100 Bottles, she is the only woman in Australia to have passed the international Master Sommelier exam.

Liam O'Brien

Cutler & Co, Fitzroy, Victoria

O'Brien worked with Melbourne restaurateur Andrew McConnell for six years at Circa and has been head sommelier at Cutler & Co since 2010. He also oversees the list at Cutler's next-door bar, Marion, and co-owns his own winemaking enterprise based in the Macedon region, Athletes of Wine.

Shanteh Wong

Quay, Sydney, NSW

A seven-year stalwart of the Quay wine team, Wong stepped into the formidable shoes of long-time head sommelier Amanda Yallop in 2018. With her encyclopaedic knowledge of Quay's star-studded cellar, Wong has made the role her own with aplomb and a keen appreciation of all things fortified, brewed, distilled and fermented.

The Good Food Guide's third annual national edition, with hats awarded across Australia, will be launched on September 30 with our presenting partners Vittoria Coffee and Citi. The Good Food Guide 2020 will be on sale from October 1 in newsagencies and bookstores, and is also available to pre-order at thestore.com.au/gfg20, $29.99 with free shipping.