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Drinking on the Job

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille,the antihero of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: Story of a Murderer,is the most famous perfumer in fiction.

Written by Shantanu David |
August 24, 2012 10:01:11 pm

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille,the antihero of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: Story of a Murderer,is the most famous perfumer in fiction,and a “nose” par excellence. He could identify every element that makes up an item,merely by its smell. Though Grenouille’s olfactory prowess was exaggerated,high-end restaurants swear by the power of the “nose” — an expert called a sommelier who specialises in the smell and flavour of wine. It is the sommelier who decides which wine pairs best with the fare on offer,to heighten the dining experience.

Among Delhi’s best-known “noses” are Stephanie Jan and Marketa: the former is a restaurant manager and sommelier of the soon-to-be-opened Riviera at the Pullman Hotel in Gurgaon,and the latter is the Head Sommelier at Delhi’s Taj Mahal hotel. For both,the day starts at 10 am with a glass of wine. “The palate is the most sensitive between 10 am to 12 pm,so that is the optimum time for tastings,” says Jan.

Though most well-heeled and well-travelled Indians know their Chardonnay from their Beaujolais,their knowledge of the experimental,new wines from countries such as Iceland and even India often need to be updated. That’s where the sommelier steps in,guiding guests through the “vast universe of old and new wines”,says Jan.

A love for the reds and whites is the chief prerequisite of the job,but there are other requirements too. Jan,for instance,has trained with several sommeliers in France,and topped this with a course in the celebrated wine district of Bordeaux. Marketa,too,wove her way through the vineyards of France,attending the prestigious French University of Wine,Suze La Rousse,working with various wine companies as well as helping set up wine festivals across Europe.

One of the most important weapons in a sommelier’s arsenal is the palate. Hence,sommeliers stay away from rich and heavy food before a tasting,as well as coffee,tea and cigarettes. “Sommeliers also have to stay detached to a particular type of wine. Taste is subjective and there’s no guarantee that guests’ preferences will match my own. I have to figure out the kind of flavours and textures that my guests like in their food and then choose a wine that will complement their meal,” says Marketa.

Nonetheless,serving the perfect wine-food combination is as easy as speaking a hundred languages. Fastidious guests who need the right wine to match their mood and food are the most challenging,as is the experimental diner. Guests often turn down the sommelier’s combination. The convention of pairing white wine with fish and red wine with beef or lamb,for instance,no longer holds true. Similarly,rosé is the new favourite,especially with dessert lovers. “We offer guests small glasses of wines to taste with their food. We can go through 10 such wine samples before a guest finds the wine of his choice,” says Jan.

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