Top French sommelier says keep wine and food pairings simple

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 September, 2014, 11:14am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 September, 2014, 11:14am

One of life's mysteries is why so many associate the French with arrogance. A study of leading wine expert and hotelier Gerard Basset, recently here as a judge at the Decanter Asia Wine Awards, won't help much.

A wine industry insider says that although Basset could be the most arrogant man in the world, and indeed has plenty to brag about, he certainly isn't. The mainland wine lovers who treat him with rock-star-like adulation seem to feel he has paid his dues.

What gives Basset the "bragging rights" then? There can't be many Frenchmen who have been made members of the Order of the British Empire, in his case for services to the hospitality industry.

Aside from training as a chef, he's not just a master sommelier (and Best Sommelier in the World 2010); he's also a master of wine and has an MBA in the wine industry.

Not one to rest on his laurels, he's currently studying for an MSc in wine management. Not to mention the title "Industry Legend" from Imbibe magazine or plenty of other media awards.

Basset has visited Hong Kong several times and is excited to be here because he finds the wine market vibrant. But it still has some catching up to do.

"It's a very exciting market where you can find something from all around the world, but in England there is more choice," he says.

Later he adds, "It's not like France, where 95 per cent of the wine is French."

Basset moved to England in the 1980s after following his soccer team Saint-Etienne to an away match at Liverpool. While his team lost, he found that he really liked the country and moved there, much to his own and his friends' surprise.

People who stop learning and just do their job miss out on new technology and new ideas
gerard basset

He stopped working in kitchens because he didn't like the atmosphere of constant shouting, where anyone who made the smallest error was made to feel like a criminal, and good work went unrewarded.

Basset says that his drive for education is partly down to having left school at 16, but mostly lies in wanting to maintain his specialist knowledge. "People who stop learning and just do their job miss out on new technology and new ideas," he says.

Basset also finds the judging process educational, as he has to discuss wine with other informed tasters.

He finds wine tasting needs constant practice, and judges at four or five big shows a year. The judges for the Decanter competition have to try 2,500 wines blind in three days, which means tasting 100 to 150 wines each per day. Basset compares the task to competing in a sporting event, and says that the judges need to prepare like athletes, getting enough sleep and eating well beforehand to ensure stamina.

"It's very difficult. You can't do that every day," he says.

The results are not due out until October 22, but early indications suggest some surprising successes for India and Indonesia.

When not judging, Basset is busy with his boutique Hotel Terravina, which has a California-themed restaurant, with a matching wine list, of course. Previously, he started the small chain of boutique Hotels du Vin, which he sold in 2004 for £66 million (HK$838 million), making him a tasty profit of £2.5 million.

If there's one area that can be over-thought, Basset says, it's pairing wine with food. His advice is to keep it simple. If you're choosing the wine first, go for food that won't overpower a delicate bottle. If you're choosing the food first, don't order an overpowering wine, as a "quaffer" will do. Basset finds most wine pairing advice too specific, as it matches dishes to bottles without explaining the reasons behind the choice.

A fan of wines from Burgundy, Madeira and the Napa Valley, Basset says his personal cellar is relatively small, at around 700 bottles.

The problem is that all those wines are expensive, special occasion wines, so he rarely has something simple in the house to share with friends on a Sunday night.