In 1996, when I first came to Australia, I remember seeing this label for Chablis wine and thinking 'Holy smoke! What is this?', and, I mean . . . opening the bottle, it was like, 'You've got to be kidding me?! That's not Chablis!'. You know, it's sweet, half of it is alcohol . . . I mean, lick the table and you will have more satisfaction," Stephane Pommier exclaims, recounting the first time he tasted an Australian chardonnay, circa 1996.
You see, Stephane Pommier is French. Moreover, he grew up surrounded by the great white wine grape vines of Burgundy, in the famous wine region of Chablis.
"My parents say I was born in a barrel of chardonnay," Pommier says.
Unlike the chablis wines of France, which are fresh, flinty, and austere, Australian chardonnays of the mid-1990s were intensely fruity, rich, buttery, and super oaky. In fact, it was these traits that endeared many wine lovers to want to drink Aussie-made chardonnay in the first place. Not Pommier. He knew how a chablis should taste.
"It shocked me, of course, because it wasn't something that I was used to," Pommier says. "But, it was also a chance for me to learn."
"Wine is an open conversation," he says, "That's the beauty of it. It's what I like most about it . . . When we taste, you will see things in the wine that I don't, and I will see things that you don't. We learn more deeply about it by sharing our experience with each other, and talking about it."
Pommier has been the sommelier at Muse Restaurant in Pokolbin for seven years; matching all manner of wonderful wines with chef Troy Rhoades-Brown's outstanding food. While he has no plans to leave his post, Pommier has started a side project called SOM Australia, so that he can have an open conversation about wine with the other restaurants, cafés, and bars.
"People come to dine at Muse, and they'll say to me, 'why is it only places like this that we can find a decent wine list?'," Pommier says. "And, I think, mostly it's a lack of knowledge and a lack of time. It's a technique to know how to write a list that is interesting and delicious and all those things. The idea behind my business, SOM, is to educate people to think more about the wine that they are serving in their establishments."
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: with the rare exception, Newcastle's dining scene lacks good wine. The wine lists that accompany brilliant food seem to me to be not much more than an afterthought, deferred and demoted by the owners to a simple, one-size-fits-all portfolio containing bush league wine, mostly, from outside the Hunter.
"Wine doesn't have to be confusing or complicated, it's just an exchange," says Pommier. "Wine is an experience, just like food. And, I'm sorry, but if you're doing your best to serve good food to people, then you should want to compliment it with a wine that is just as good...
"And if you don't know how to do that, that's fine, but I can help" he continues. "I don't know everything about wine, but I know enough to teach people what I know to make things better. That's the beauty of wine; it's so compelling and infinite."
There's a distinct sense of joy in Pommier's voice, whenever he talks about the god's greatest gift. It's infectious. It makes you want to discover wine more deeply; to see, smell and taste further, to explore more. Indeed, his enthusiasm for wine drives you to drink, in the best possible way.
"Wine is a living pleasure that I want to share with people, so that they can share it with others," Pommier says.
With Pommier's help, I expect to see the wine lists of Newcastle improve significantly over the next few years... In the meantime, you can attend a special wine masterclass, hosted by him this Easter long weekend, at Hungerford Hill, in the Hunter Valley.
Details: hungerfordhill.com.au / somaustralia.com.au