I know nothing about wine, except that it is made from grapes and there are the red and white versions. Recently I had a chance to interview David Stephan, the French sommelier from Wine Talk and I posed 12 questions to him. I tried to keep my questions as simple as possible (from a wine newbie’s point of view) so that even non-wine drinkers could relate to them when reading.
Personally I find David’s answers very honest and informative, the kind that I like. And if you buy and drink wine regularly, there is a discount voucher at the end of the interview which you could use to redeem RM100 worth of free wines from Wine Talk with your first order, all delivered to your home.
- Please briefly introduce yourself and tell me your overall impression of Malaysia.
My name is David, and I am the Sommelier for Wine Talk; I am born & raised in France where I studied hospitality & Sommelerie. I then decided to travel around with my work, working in Paris & Lyon in France, then moving to a small Island in the Caribbean where I spent 4 winter seasons, before making a big step in 2003 by moving to Shanghai. I had originally planned to stay 1 year but I ended up 8 years there (good number!). I moved with my family to Malaysia in 2011. We 1st came here during the holidays in 2005 (1 month backpacking) and a few times after then but immediately fell in love with the country.
We are now extremely happy to call Malaysia ‘home’; some say that after China, you can live anywhere, but Malaysia was our No. 1 destination when we decided to leave Shanghai. It is such a beautiful country with such a diversity of culture & landscapes, and very easy to live and adapt to.
- Ignoring the price factor, why choose wine over beer?
I also love to drink beer! It is a great thirst-quencher, especially in such a warm-country. Meanwhile, I will usually have 1 beer to fight up the heat, and then move to wines when I am at home or outside having dinner. First, wine is better with most of the food you can order – you will enjoy your food more with wines than with beer.
Second, wine is better for you, with proven scientific studies stating that wine – in moderate quantity of course, 1-2 glasses a day – is good for your health. Red wines contain a high level of resveratrol, an antioxidant which can prevent heart disease, and help lower your cholesterol level. Finally, in an extension to that matter, wine is much less ‘fattening’ than beer!
- What do you think of the wine culture in Malaysia, and how does it compare to the other countries? What are the main differences?
After being in China for 8 years, I realized that it was a totally different ‘Wine Culture’ in Malaysia. I have seen some tremendous changes in less than a decade I was there, all because it is a fairly ‘new’ wine market, with the 1st proper imports there starting only in the 90’s.
Malaysia has a much longer wine history, and I think that people are more used to wines. China was very ‘label-oriented’, selling anything with the Chateau pictures on it. Malaysian wine drinkers have more knowledge of what wine tastes like and what they like. Meanwhile, focusing too much on something you like isn’t very good, as you may miss some great discoveries.
- Is there a palatable difference of flavor between Screwcaps and natural cork version of the same wine? Can you tell if the wine is poured from a Screwcap or cork bottle?
There is some difference between screwcap & natural cork, but not always in the sense that some may think: Screwcaps are actually much better for young wines, especially the whites, which interests come with their freshness and great fruitiness. Screwcap guarantee the sealing of the wines, and lower the chance of oxidation, much more than a lower quality cork.
I have never really tried, but I think that it will be mostly impossible to find, in a blind tasting, if a wine comes from a screwcap or a corked bottle. More expensive wines, which spent a fair amount of time in oak barrels may benefit from bottling with good quality cork (it will help the wine to age), but many Australian wineries bottle their top cuvees with screw cap, too, so it is not reserved only for the entry-level wines.
The only ‘bad side’ of a screwcap bottle I see is the end of bottle opening ‘Ritual’ in a restaurant – but it is maybe because I am a hopeless European Romantic…
- Do expensive wines = better tasting wines?
I have many tastings with that theme – High vs. Low prices – where we taste, side by side & blind, 2 wines coming from the same region & grape varieties, and at different prices (RM60 vs RM150 a btl for example). Blind tasting can be tricky, but it is a good way to not be influenced with the label or the price. Most of the time, the favorite wines were the lower price ones; much friendlier, fruitier & more accessible.
More expensive wines usually come from older vines, which produce lower volumes; aged in oak-barrels, the wines will become very concentrated, which mean it will need some ageing for the wine to ‘mellow down’. Drunk too young, those wines would be very sharp & oaky, and not fully enjoyable. I like to offer wines to our members who are ready to drink & enjoy, not some where you have to store for 5 years before enjoying! This is why Wine Talk’s Wine Club selection offers an amazing range of great wines at an average cost of RM65 a bottle.
- Is it possible for someone who does not enjoy beer to enjoy wine?
Yes, it is a totally different experience! Most of the beers (except specific smaller craft brands) have all similar flavours & characteristics: bubbly, yeasty, sometimes bitter… Wines have so much varieties & styles that anyone can find something they like; beginners will like light, off-dry wines like Moscato or some Rieslings, the sparkling wines can be very attractive, too, both dry or semi-sweet; whites run from fresh & aromatic Sauvignon Blanc to something much drier & bold like a Chardonnay. Reds run from delicate, charming Pinot Noir to bold & juicy Shiraz. I have been working with wines for almost 20 years and I still discover new taste & flavors every month. You don’t get that with regular lager beers!
- Table wine is usually served in Chinese weddings but many couples do not know how to choose it. Can you recommend a few that are:
i. Between RM50 and RM100
ii. Below RM50
In order to choose your perfect wine for a Chinese Wedding, it is better to go along with more known & recognized grape variety or region of origin:, Bordeaux reds, Australian Shiraz, etc. The important is to ensure that the wines are of a fresh vintage (the older ain’t always better), and be careful of some special deals: you don’t want to be given a stock at very good prices, but which are too old or which the storage conditions had serious issue.
Between RM50 & RM100, we have a massive range of wines which will fit perfectly for a wedding. No need to go higher, as many wines over that price may be too young, and many people won’t appreciate it. If you prefer European wines, I will recommend you to go with our Chablis ‘La Pierrelée’ (RM75 a btl – from Burgundy, France) which is a stunning & addictive unwooded Chardonnay for the white, and for the reds, definitely go for Bordeaux, and we have a great selection starting at RM68 a btl (Chateau Peyruchet). If you prefer new world wines, go with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc (Hole in the Water – RM62), a nice Aussie Shiraz (Peter Lehmann ‘Portrait’ Barossa Shiraz – RM91), or an Argentinean Malbec (Aberdeen Angus ‘Centenario’ Malbec – RM66.2).
For below RM50:
You can find some quality wines below RM50, but there you have to be extra careful about the points I noted above, especially the vintages; wines below RM50 wouldn’t have been aged in oak barrels, so choose the youngest possible (1-2 years max for whites, 1-3 years for reds). French wines below that price are rarely interesting; if you prefer to have European wines, go for Spanish, as they sometime offer great values (we have a very good Tempranillo from La Mancha at RM45). Otherwise, go for Chilean which offer very nice wines at fair price (Mancura Cabernet Sauvignon – RM40), or some nice Aussie (McGuigan Private Bin – RM49.9 a btl).
- What are the important things to note on the labels when one purchases wine?
Labels can give you a lot of information if you can read them a little. New world wines are much easier to read, as they most likely contain the grape variety/blend of the wine and the origin. European labels are more difficult, as very often they do not include the grapes used; it is not that the wineries do not want to indicate it, but the regulations are so strict in some regions that, in order to get the better ‘classification’, they are not allowed to note it on the front! Now, some will indicate it on the back labels, so you can check those. There are a few things to spot to be sure if it’s a good choice:
- – Vintage: as I said before, vintage is important; 80% of the wine production is made to be drunk between 1 to 3 years after bottling, so do not look always for the oldest, especially for prices under RM50-60.
- – Alcohol level: If you like wines which are a bit sweet (Moscato, some Rieslings…), look at the alcohol level, it should be lower (between 8-10% alc.). Sweet wines with 12% alcohol are most likely to be very sweet, but lower alcohol usually indicates a touch of sugar wines that are very easy to drink. On the other side, wines with high alcohol (14, 15%, the highest I have tried was 16.5% alc) will be bold, rich and very full-body – good indication to stay away if you are looking for a light & easy drinking wine.
- – Producer: This is a clue for French labels: Indications like “Mise en bouteille au Chateau/domaine” mean that the wine comes from a single estate and have been produced & bottled in the property. Some other labels may have the term “Embouteillé par XXX”, which could mean that the grapes or even already-made wines can come from direct part of the appellation, and bottled under the same labels after blending.
- Do I really need a proper wine cellar to store my wines? Do you have any tips in keeping the wine fresh in Malaysia’s hot and humid climate?
The best would be to have a storage unit, especially with Malaysia’s climate, but I understand that need & space can be difficult. You can store your wines without a proper fridge as long as you store them in a cooler room and keep them away from direct sunlight (e.g. a store room or under stairs); kitchen isn’t really recommended, as the cooking heat (from stoves or oven) can change the environment, which ain’t good for the bottles. That is ok as long as you don’t keep them for too long, a few months shall be fine, but they may start suffering if it goes longer. It would be good idea for you to invest in a wine fridge if you plan to stock up on good bottles of wine for longer periods of time.
A little tip for the serving temperature: store your white in a regular fridge a few days before you plan to open them, but the reds at ‘room temperature’ may be too hot. If you plan to open them for dinner, just put the red wine bottles in the fridge 2 hours before you plan to open them. They may be a bit cold at 1st, but will get warmer very quickly and reach perfect serving temperature (16-18 degrees).
- Have you found any local Malaysian food that could pair well with wine? If yes, please elaborate. If no, please explain why.
I love Malaysian food with its diversity of flavors & origins, but many dishes Malay/Indian/Chinese have one common enemy to wines: CHILLIES!! Anything too spicy is just too overwhelming with any wine; some wines, off-dry or sweet (Rieslings, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, or Sauternes for example) can actually stand-up to a little heat, but too much just ‘kills’ the aromas. I am still working my way around Malaysian cuisine, but I noted that fruitier wines (Shiraz, Merlot) go a bit better than drier wines (Chardonnay for whites, Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec for reds) with the generous local foods.
Anyway, my philosophy with the food & wines pairing is a bit different than the average idea: food & wine is important, but I prefer to pair the wine with the person, than with the food; it is not because Sauvignon Blanc is best with prawns that you have to drink Sauvignon Blanc, even if you don’t like it. There is always a balance to find for everyone to enjoy both the food & wine, together or separately.
- Do experienced wine drinkers look down on people who drink cheap wines? What about you? (do you snob cheap wines)
I do not make any difference between experienced wine drinkers and more ‘casual’ drinkers. Some people love wines but cannot make the difference between a RM50 and a RM200 bottle, so why spend the money? I think that the importance is not how much it cost, but how you drink it, and with who. Wine is better shared, and is a great vector of entertainment & friendship.
I am very happy when someone comes to my place so I can open a bottle of wine (regardless of the price) which won’t be as enjoyable if I was drinking it alone. Of course, you have to know your friends well because if you do open that RM200 bottle of wines which have been on your wine cellar for over a month and you see someone put some ice-cube on it (I have seen it, and he was European), that hurts! Hehe
- Please share an interesting story in your career as a Sommelier.
In the early 2000, I was working as an Assistant Manager & Sommelier in a cool & fancy restaurant in the island of St Barts, in the Caribbean, called L’esprit Salines. We were one of the most hype places to go, situated next to the beach with an amazing garden for decoration. We were mostly a night-time restaurant, doing around 200 seats per evening, but were open for lunch as we were there anyway for preparation & setup, but were doing about 20 seats a lunch, so very casual. Night time dress code was smart casual, with my team wearing nice jeans & designer shirts, but lunch time were very casual, as the team were going to the beach before or after lunch during the break.
So one day, I was wearing a board-short, a Tee-Shirt & Havaianas when a customer came in with 2 friends, ordered lunch, and a bottle of Château Petrus 1988 – a Bordeaux 1er Grand Cru Classé worth US$3,500 (around RM11,000). I wasn’t feeling the most comfortable for myself but also for our customer, yet he didn’t seem to care, and loved his wine (he left me a glass to enjoy too!) and his lunch so much, that he became a regular. That was the Caribbean life!
Office Suite 211, Level 2 – Block B, Phileo Damansara II
No 15, Jalan 16/11 – Off Jalan Damansara
46350 Petaling Jaya – Malaysia
T: 03 7954 5142 (ext 2026)
F: 03 7954 0482