Yvonne Cheung of Café Gray Deluxe is one of Hong Kong’s few female sommeliers, though it’s her impeccable wine intuition and dedication to sourcing and promoting unique labels and biodynamic wines that has earned her a reputation. In the first of our Ask a Sommelier series, we quizzed Cheung on her top tips for wine novices: how to order wines, how to spot great bottles on a wine list, and how to tell if a wine is corked.
What would your ideal wine list look like?
My ideal wine list is something small, but packs a punch! I believe a thoughtful 30 to 50 bottle selection would be great – a small list is challenging to create as there are so many fantastic wines out there, but the rewards are wonderful. If put together well, it will show energy, creativity, knowledge, and a definite statement of taste and style. In a perfect world, I would want every wine to be available by the glass!
What kind of useful information should be on a fantastic wine list?
The most important information to include are appellations, producers, and vintage. For some exceptional wines that may not be well-known, a few words would be beneficial.
Can you explain, to novices, what they should look for when scanning a wine list? How might they start choosing a wine for themselves?
To someone less familiar with wine, I suggest thinking about the types of food they enjoy eating first. Do you have a sweet tooth? Do you like burgers or foie gras, sashimi or pho? Your preferences in food often reflects the style of wine you will likely enjoy. Wines will always falls into these categories: finessed versus rustic; sweet versus dry, rich versus restrained, powerful versus soft. Don’t be shy – ask the sommelier for a taste of something if it is available, or what his or her opinion may be on your dilemma.
What are some good tips for novices to navigate a long wine list without the help of a sommelier, for example in restaurants where the staff know little about the wine list?
YC: In a situation where you have to rely on your own wits, go with what you know and push the envelope a bit. For example: you have tasted and enjoyed XYZ’s sauvignon blanc in the past. You see on the list that the same producer makes a pinot noir – it might be worth a try! Another suggestion would be to enjoy wines by the glass for the evening – if you really can’t decide and don’t want to commit to a bottle, this is always a good fallback.
Is price always equal to quality? Are people safe if they choose a bottle that sits comfortably between the cheapest and the most expensive?
It is fair to say that price will correlate to quality much of the time, but certainly not all of the time. If you’re comfortable spending a bit more, I suggest going for something mid- to high-priced as these mark-ups are usually not as severe. Some great gems often hide in this price range as well.
For someone who has no idea if a wine is corked, what are the most obvious indicators they can look for?
If you’re not sure, taste the wine. If it is acrid and unpleasant, it may not be showing properly. If you’re still not sure, put your nose into another glass of wine you know is healthy, and smell the questionable one again. If it smells like mouldy cardboard and dirty newspapers for more than five minutes, it’s very possible your wine is corked.
You have quite a few biodynamic wines and interesting boutique producers on your wine list. Can you tell us about why you decided to highlight these?
I enjoy most wines that say something about their own history. We are putting into our bodies something that was grown in the ground, and this perspective leads me to believe that wines should be honest and unique, reflecting the hardships and rewards of that growing season. I am not a blind follower of wines that market their organic or biodynamic status, but it is often these philosophies in winegrowing and winemaking that show integrity not only in quality, but also in preserving the land for the future. I also consciously look for smaller producers because the balance between passion and business often favours the people who are primarily striving for excellence from the ground to the bottle.
What are some great vintages on your current wine list should we be drinking now? Which ones offer exceptional value?
Here are some great wines available now at Café Gray Deluxe – great in terms of both in quality and value:
Domaine Huet “Clos du Bourg” Demi-Sec, Vouvray 2001
Marcel Deiss “Altenberg de Bergheim,” Grand Cru, Alsace 2005
Morlet Family “Coteaux Nobles,” Sonoma Coast 2006
Armand Rousseau “Clos de Bèze,” Grand Cru, Gevrey-Chambertin 1983
Domaine Peyre Rose “Clos des Cistes,” Coteaux du Languedoc 2002
Giuseppe Quintarelli “Alzero,” Veneto 1998
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