A drink with Aldo Sohm / The internationally acclaimed sommelier on the truth about pairing, his new wine bar, and why now is the time to stock up on Northern Rhône
Aldo Sohm, wine director at New York’s Le Bernardin, won the ‘Best Sommelier In The World’ competition in 2008, but his lofty reputation is based more on his years working the floor of the restaurant, gently guiding diners through thousands of bottles to pair with chef Eric Ripert’s uncommonly delicate cuisine. Last fall, he and Ripert opened Aldo Sohm Wine Bar next door, offering rustic cuisine in a casual living-room environment without sacrificing luxuriousness.
The Austrian sommelier recently made forays into winemaking himself, launching a line of Single Vineyard and Old Vine Grüner Veltliners in his homeland with famed winemaker Gerhard Kracher. Head of Christie’s Wine Department Per Holmberg chatted with Aldo at the wine bar before lunch, finding that, for a man whose name graces one of New York’s finest wine establishments, his charm and modesty are well intact: ‘Ego is your worst enemy,’ Aldo says. ‘The moment you think you are the best, you are already on the decline.’
Per Holmberg: Wine pairing is a big part of the experience at Le Bernardin, and you’re known for your inventive pairings with the tasting menu — sake with caviar, vin jaune with bleu cheese. What do you think are some misconceptions about wine and food pairing?
Aldo Sohm: If someone likes to drink big Bordeaux with their oysters, that’s great. If you’re happy, we’re happy. But just talking about pairing wines successfully, it’s not about whether the other person likes the wine, it’s whether the combination works. Wine can make a dish look good, and it can make a dish look bad. The other [misconception] is one I face every day: white wine with fish and chicken, and red with dark meat. That’s nonsense. If you go to Italy, you get a chicken breast with tomato sauce, served with red wine. In Austria, you get a classic tafelspitz [boiled beef with vegetables], it’s served with white wine and it’s delicious. It’s more often about the sauce.
Any tips for navigating wine lists or finding interesting bottles?
Talk to the sommelier — the sommelier will know the wine list. If there’s no sommelier, ask the server which wine he likes. It’s very simple: The server will always give you the wine he gets the best responses from. I don’t know everything – the wine world is too complex for that – so I have to listen. Give me something interesting. It’s not always successful but so what?
For our parents’ generation, wine wasn’t the focus of the meal; they might have a glass if wine was on the table, but they were martini drinkers. Now you have a generation getting interested in wine as part of the overall food culture. Do you see that here and at Le Bernardin?
It’s true, every day we see younger people who are very curious. They might not buy the big Burgundies or Bordeaux, but they might buy a Chablis because it’s more accessible, or a Bourgogne blanc. We all know that it’s a question of evolving; our tastes change as we try more. Most people start with Australian Shiraz because it’s softer. And people may raise their eyebrows at those wines, but they are very, very important, because then you have much more complex versions of Australian Shiraz, and you go from there. It’s a ladder you keep climbing. You start with Bourgogne blanc, then you move into village level, then to premier cru, then, if you’re fortunate enough, you move into grand crus, then you get into age. As human beings we always want more — especially New Yorkers!
Of course I love Grüner Veltliner, and 2013 is a phenomenal year in Austria. The development of Blaufränkisch is very promising. I like Northern Rhônes. I like old California — ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s. Inglenook of course, but even take Beaulieu Vineyards: until ’85 they’re fantastic, and not crazy expensive for that age. For the summer, nothing is more undervalued than Muscadet. And they can age — they can taste like medium Meursaults. Great wine doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive.
What would you recommend for someone buying wine for cellaring? What are you buying?
Buy Northern Rhône. A lot. It’s coming. And you don’t have to go to Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie; I think there are huge developments in St. Joseph. I still buy Jamet, a lot — I think that’s going to get higher and higher. And I buy grower Champagnes, even though I would never dismiss the [major Champagne] houses — [the latter are] very strong.
What are your five desert island wines?
Is it a cold environment or a warm environment? Of course Champagne. I love Champagne from Chartogne Taillet. I like old Dom Perignon — it’s a large house but very consistent, ‘73, ‘75, ’69. I also like Roederer a lot. Definitely Burgundy, white and red. 82 Leflaive Montrachet; ‘78 is fine too. Seventy-one La Tache without a doubt, is one of the greatest red Burgundies ever made. Egon Muller ‘71 Riesling kabinett. A trockenbeerenauslese would be cool too. And of course my wine! Is that more than five?