Talking Wine with Head Sommelier of Muse Dining, Stephane Pommier
Growing up in the French Chablis region, Stephane Pommier was learning the techniques of winemaking from a young age. Fascinated with how winemaking differed on the other side of the world, he moved to Australia and rose to Sommelier at the prestigious fine dining establishment Muse, located in the Hunter Valley.
When Stephane is not recommending delectable wines to the guests, he runs SOM Australia, which hosts wine masterclasses to the public and industry professionals alike.
What sparked your interest in winemaking and working in the wine industry?
I grew up in Chablis, the Chardonnay capital of the world, which is situated in the heart of Burgundy. As a young boy, winemakers would come to my family home for meals, where the topic of conversation around the table was often about the vineyards and the wines. I was fascinated by their passion and dedication to making these famous wines.
I was always going into the fields to help my dad’s friends with the pruning and working in their cellars. I had the opportunity to learn the processes of winemaking from start to finish.
I would listen and learn, and over time, I began to comprehend how the different techniques and procedures, unique terroir and weather conditions could be tasted in the final product. Wine became my passion and is why I set out on this fantastic journey.
Why did you leave the French wine world for the Australian one?
In the early ’90s, I was involved in a successful wine company while studying for my viticultural degree in Beaune. The topic of Australian winemaking would often come up in our classes, and at this time, the technologies applied on the other side of the world were different and unique.
It was fascinating to learn about them, and when an opportunity arose to live in Australia, I seized the moment and transitioned across. It wasn’t an easy decision to leave my family, friends and career behind, but I have loved being in Australia and often have opportunities to visit France.
How do the two famous winemaking countries compare?
In terms of terroir, there are some similarities in the geological structures. As an example, you will find Kimmeridgian (the fossil remains indicating ancient soil) in the Hunter Valley, where Chablis’s region in Burgundy is also known for this.
The main differences are with legislation and weather conditions. France has strict legislation and rules established for where the processes involved in the making of wine are strictly monitored and must be adhered.
The European climate is very confronting. During spring, frost can damage the grapes. Fruit maturity can also be hard to reach, as lack of sun and warmth during ripening can disturb the correct balance of acidity and sugar in the grapes, even in summer.
In Australia, what’s equally challenging is drought. The summer season can also bring extended heat waves where the grapes and vines will suffer if adequate measures aren’t employed.
What are some of your most memorable career highlights?
A little earlier in my career, while working at Domaine Azo in Chablis, I was lucky enough to have a surprise visit from American wine critic Allen Meadows who had arrived to look at some of our processes and wines.
To hear his enthusiasm and applause for what great things we had achieved, from someone so highly regarded in the industry was a huge pat on the back for our team and filled me with confidence in what we were creating.
I have also been fortunate enough to be part of incredibly exclusive one-off events here in Australia, where I had the chance to put my lips on a 1911 Chateau Yquem from my homeland and the 1959 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche.
What is the best part of being a Sommelier and working at Muse?
I love working with wine of the Hunter, especially having access to an interesting range of back vintages and being able to show our customers how they are developing over time. Also, we have an abundance of seasonal food sourced from various producers. Part of my role is liaising with the talented chef and owner of Muse, Troy Rhoades-Brown to bring the perfect wine pairing to each menu item. As a team, we can showcase both the local wine and produce to customers from all over Australia and the world.
What sets Muse apart from other fine dining establishments?
Muse Dining is a must-visit destination within the Hunter Valley. As a long term Two Hat restaurant, our reputation precedes us, and as a result, customers arrive with a level of trust that enables us to take them on a journey. We have forged solid relationships with the surrounding wineries who grant us access to exclusive wines that our customers may otherwise not be able to try. We believe that our passion and knowledge as a culinary team sets the bar for dining in the region, and we are always striving to exceed expectations.
You are currently on a mission to improve wine lists in Newcastle and beyond. How do you plan on doing this?
A side project of the last 2 years has been my wine consultancy business, SOM Australia. We provide education, training, and masterclasses to anyone who has an interest in wine.
I think it can be daunting for a lot of restauranteurs to build a unique and exciting wine list that matches the style of the venue but also still allows for a profit margin. Part of my aim with SOM is to empower restaurants to increase their repertoire of wines giving customers a more eclectic offering while remaining approachable. Part of this service is providing comprehensive training to the front of house and kitchen team who can then pass this knowledge on to the customer.
Starting the masterclass was a leap of faith. I didn’t know how it would be received. We were blown away by the positive feedback, which is reflected by the constant demand for more classes. We are offering classes to both industry professionals and the public, creating opportunities not just to learn about wine but also to have access to wines unavailable here in Australia.
A dream of mine was to create and import ‘grape to glass’ wine from Chablis. I worked with the vineyards in France, carefully nurturing the process of the winemaking all the way to the glass. I have just brought my first delivery of Chablis wine under the SOM brand to Australian shores, with the hope of increasing this portfolio to include red Burgundies, Rosé and Champagne down the track.
If you had to pick a favourite Australian wine, which one would it be and why?
I am often drawn to pure varietals rather than blends, however, at the moment one of the wines that excites me is the Lake’s Folly Cabernet. The quantity of each grape that goes in varies each year depending on the season. The wine starts in the vineyard, and Rodney Kempe gives a lot of careful consideration and effort to the vines in the lead up to vintage to ensure the grapes are the best for harvest.
How do you choose what is included on Muse’s wine list?
The wines at Muse largely depend on what pairs with the seasonal menu, but we must keep that list interesting. I feel it is also essential to have some eclectic wines at different price points for the customers who want to try something new.
What’s your favourite thing about working in the wine industry?
Being able to walk into a vineyard, look at the soil and the vines, gain an understanding of the winemaker’s techniques and then to see it all reflected in the bottle. This is part of the spectrum of ‘grape to glass.’ All wines are unique and alive, and I love to see the development and evolution over the years as they become more enriched in their styles.
What’s your number one piece of advice for those entering this industry?
My golden rule is always to treat people the same way I like to be treated. Mutual respect between customers, winemakers, and people learning about wine is of utmost importance. We need to be understanding and accepting of everyone’s opinion with the consideration that every palate is different.
What’s your ultimate wine and food match?
So many to choose from! A ceviche of King Fish, baby capers, avruga and pickled Mexican cucumber paired with a lightly aged Hunter Valley Semillion. There is complexity and harmony between the delicateness of the dish and the elegance of the wine that brings the perfect balance. Secondly, steamed fish, suveed green vegetables, beurre blanc, fresh fennel and a glass or three of 2014 Chablis Premier Cru Montee de Tonnerre.
What is your favourite:
Muse menu item: House made polenta with chicken and puffed corn.
White wine: I could never turn down a Chablis from Domaine Raoul Gautherin and Fils.
Red Wine: If we’re talking Australia, a shiraz from Andrew Thomas in the Hunter Valley. If we’re talking France, you can’t go past an Albert Bichot Chambolle Musigny from Burgundy.
Sparkling: Without a doubt, Moorilla from Tasmania is making one of the country’s best.
Pastime: Drinking all of the above, sourcing new products and working from the vineyard to the glass.
For more information about Som Australia, click here. Alternatively, you can email Stephane via this link.