Eager to find out a bit more about the wine program of one of our favorite partner restaurants here in Hong Kong, that Two Michelin Masterpiece of Chef Richard Ekkebus named Amber, I met with John Chan, Head Sommelier of The Landmark Mandarin Oriental. John explained to me the composition as well as the physical arrangement of his wine list. He described the steps taken by Chef Ekkebus to make sure his cuisine stays “wine-friendly,” and let me in on why white Burgundies seem to pair best with a wide array of Amber’s signature dishes. We discussed some of the changes (and the reasons behind these changes) in wine preference, which John has noticed in recent years, such as a shift in interest from Bordeaux to Burgundy and the comeback of Chardonnay. He shared his opinion on Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay and explained why he thinks of Pinot Noir as “a charming lady in a silk dress.” He also revealed what he considers to be one of the trendiest up-and-coming wine regions in the Old World, one that will surely be a big hit in the near future.
When asked to recommend his favorite signature dishes at Amber, he chose the Steamed and Char-Grilled Foie Gras with Cherry Reduction and Hibiscus, pairing it with the 2008 Leth Gigama, from the Weingut Leth Gigama Reserve area of Southern Austria, and the Line Caught Red Amadai with the 2002 Maison Leroy Meursault 1er Cru “Blagny”.
Our interview follows:
My name is John Chan and I am the Head Sommelier at Amber in The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong. I am lucky enough to be in charge of the beverage program of the hotel, with a particularly strong focus on the wine program.
Tell me a bit about the composition of the Amber wine list. Is it made up of mostly New or Old World wines? Is there one region that is given the most preference on the list? Why is it given preference?
At the moment, the wine list is orientated predominantly towards Old World wines from European and Middle Eastern regions. (I would consider the Middle Eastern wine regions, such as Lebanon and Greece, as Old World as well). The list is made up of 75% Old World wines and 25% New World wines. Among the New World wines, a combined 80% are from Australia and the U.S. and the rest miscellaneous. Around 66% of the Old World wines are from France, so I would say France is given the highest preference on the wine list. Around 4-5 years ago, before the dropping of the import tax on wines in Hong Kong, French wines used to be in third place in terms of sales with Australian and Chilean wines being in the first and second place, respectively. Now French wines are Number One.
And within the French wines, how would you say the list is divided between Bordeaux and Burgundy?
I would say that 60% of the French wines are red and 40% are white, including champagne and dessert wines. This is fairly well balanced, especially when you consider that around 5-10 years ago Hong Kong was almost purely a red wine market. Nowadays people are much more eager to find out about white wines, especially when it comes to food and wine pairing. Bordeaux wines make up around 40% of the total French wines on the list. The Bordeaux region does not produce very many red wines, so around 9 out of 10 of those are reds. Another 40% of the total French wines is made up of Burgundy wines, within which there is a fairly even split between whites and reds. The rest of the French wines, the other 20%, are from the Rhône Valley, Provence and other regions.
You’ve been quoted saying that Amber wine pairings work because “Chef Ekkebus possesses a deep and insightful understanding of how food and wine lift up one another when matched harmoniously.” Please tell me more about this. How does the wine list complement the cuisine?
In the culinary world, there are thousands of ingredients for a chef to choose from. Chef Richard is a wine lover himself and has been for a long time; he is geared towards wine in his cooking. He understands how wine and cuisine work together. He also understand that although some ingredients are very flavorful and exciting by themselves, they are enemies of wine when paired with it. So, in his cuisine he tries to avoid a lot of ingredients which are not suitable with wine pairing.
For example, the overuse of shallots and garlic and tomato is detrimental in wine pairing. Using too much tomato in a dish kills the overall flavor in a pairing, because the tomato carries with it an intense acidity and sweetness, so it tends to overpower whatever wine you pair with it, when it is used in excess. Vinegar is another example. It is an ingredient that is usually used in significant amounts in the preparation of sauces. However, Chef Ekkebus tends to minimize his use of vinegar, as it is not too friendly when paired with wine.
So wine pairing is a pretty important part of the culinary concept at Amber?
For me, food is always the main character of the menu. Wine sets up a platform, a stage that the food can best perform on.
And is there any one particular wine region that tends to pair best with a wide range of Chef Ekkebus’s dishes?
Personally, I would prefer to pair Burgundy with his cuisine. Within the Burgundy selection, we have a very good variety of whites and reds, and so it tends to complement a myriad of our dishes. I would say that more of our dishes pair more nicely with the whites than with the reds, because only the gamey red meats go better with reds. Most of our dishes are lighter in terms of both flavor and texture – seafood, poultry and foie gras, for example, and thus go best with white wine. On our 8-course degustation menus, we actually match more white wines than red wines to the dishes.
How is the wine list physically arranged? By variety or region? Why?
First, by color – white, red and rosé. Within color, we arrange them by country and then by sub-region. Since this is an Old World oriented list, most of the wines are listed by appellation. With Old World wines, the appellation already implies the style of the wine, so our customers will usually ask for a Barolo or Barbaresco, for example, because they are looking for the specific red wine styles of those appellations. They don’t usually ask for specific brands or domains from a specific area.
I’ve heard wonderful things about your Private Wine Room here at Amber. Please tell me a bit more about this.
It is a special private room for larger parties. The two rooms can be linked together or separated. When linked together, the combined rooms can hold a maximum of 18 people, so it’s ideal for medium-sized groups for lunch or dinner or even for a wine tasting. The room has an excellent view of our wine cellar, giving it a comfortable dining room feel and making it the perfect atmosphere for wine lovers.
Please tell me a bit about the structure of your clientele here at Amber. Are they mostly locals, Mainland Chinese, expats or tourists?
I would say we have a pretty good mix. On weekdays, especially at lunchtime, we get many businessmen and -women who come here for business lunches. This isn’t surprising, considering the fact that we are in the center of Central, in an ideal location within the business district. At dinnertime, it’s more of a mix. We get quite a lot of foreign travelers – Mainland Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Western visitors as well. It varies seasonally as well – for example, we get more Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese during Chinese New Year, but more Japanese and Koreans during the Christmas Holidays. Overall, I would say around 35% of our total visitors are locals. The Landmark Mandarin Oriental isn’t a huge property and does not have a huge number of rooms, so the number of our patrons who are also hotel guests is not very high, only around 10%. But we do serve breakfast (and, in fact, we are the only fine dining French restaurant in Hong Kong that does so), during which most of our guests are the hotel guests.
Have you noticed any trends in the regions that Amber clients seem to order from the most?
Quite a lot of past Bordeaux drinkers are now shifting their interest towards Burgundy and Rhône Valley wines. The reason behind this is that a few years ago the prices of Bordeaux wines, at auctions for example, increased significantly and so these wines are now no longer such a good value. The demand for Bordeaux is also increasing rapidly, especially influenced by the demand of Mainland China. As a result of these changes, many local connoisseurs started to look into Burgundies as well as Rhône Valley wines, which they didn’t know too much about before.
If you were to give a reason to explain the change in preference from Bordeaux to Burgundy, what would that reason be?
Bordeaux drinkers would mostly look for wines with a bigger and richer style, powerful wines. Burgundy drinkers look more into subtle details, because Burgundy is not a wine in which more powerful necessarily means better. It’s usually quite the opposite – the more elegant and delicate, the better. Valuing a Burgundy, I would say, is almost like a training of the palate. The palate matures while looking for those subtle details in the flavor. So, the shift in interest from Bordeaux to Burgundy echoes a growing maturity in the average Hong Kong wine drinker’s palate.
And the growth in the interest in white wines probably also has something to do with this shift in preference, since Bordeaux does not produce much in terms of whites and Burgundy does. Would you agree?
Yes. At the beginning of my career as Sommelier in Hong Kong, I used to serve white wines that were far too chilled, because back in the day that’s how customers asked for it. Customers would request white Burgundies, such as Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet, at 6-7° C which is way too cold. But nowadays people have a much higher sophistication and more knowledge about wines, and they enjoy white Burgundies in the way they were meant to be enjoyed.
How about New World varieties? Are there any that are particularly trending, according to your observations?
As far as I can tell, Chardonnay is making a comeback. A few years ago there was a large group of wine drinkers who named themselves ABC (Anything But Chardonnay). At that time, there was a huge demand for Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Viognier, and other aromatic white grapes. Since the triumph of white Burgundies, however, we can see that people are really starting to enjoy Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet and these are actually pure Chardonnays. People just don’t seem to like the name “Chardonnay,” which is still associated with a wine that is mass-produced around the world, and therefore not as “exclusive.”
And are there any wine regions that are “upcoming” in your opinion? Something you predict will be popular in the near future?
In my opinion, one of the upcoming regions in the Old World is Duoro, Portugal, the hometown of Port wine. This region has a very long winemaking history and since Port drinking culture is not as prevalent as before, they are starting to use a lot of the old vines to make dry red wines, which have been quite successful. They use the same grapes as for Port wine, but they harvest earlier to produce a dry variety. A grape called Touriga Nacional is especially great for making Port wine, and has been used by Duoro winemakers to make very good dry wines as well. One of my favorites from this region is the 2007 Niepoort, Charme, made up of Touriga Franca, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz. It is a rich, fresh and elegant wine, light in colour, a juicy red with fresh cherry and macerated raspberry aromas, and earthy notes of mushrooms and truffles as well as tea leaves, pipe tobacco and cigar. It goes particularly well with dishes featuring winter black truffle as an ingredient.
I’ve read that two of your personal favorite varietals are Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, because of their tremendous aging potential. Please tell me a bit more about this.
These two varieties are especially great for expressing the character of the soil they are produced in. In a Sauvignon Blanc, for example, you can never taste the soil because the fruitiness of this wine is very upfront and overwhelms the delicate earthy tones. In the production process of Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, the winemaker can very closely monitor and control the fruitiness, as well as the terroir expression. These varietals are thus great media through which the message of the soil can be amplified and expressed to the drinker.
You’ve referred to Pinot Noir as “a charming lady in a silk dress.” Please elaborate a bit on this metaphor.
For me, Bordeaux is like a strong man in a suit, very classic but sometimes a bit too stiff. The jacket of the man is like the heavy oakiness and tannins of the wine, which are not always necessary, and which make it difficult to see the beautiful body within. Sometimes when the tannins and oakiness are too aggressive, you no longer taste the fruity tones of the wine. This truly is a shame because, in my opinion, wine should always be more about the fruity body than the oak and tannin suit.
Pinot Noir, especially from Burgundy, is a style of wine in which the purity of the fruit, the body of the wine, can really shine through, without the tannins and oak clouding it. In this case the oak and tannins are more mild and soft, like a silk dress, through which the elegant, feminine, fruity body is still very easy to make out.
If you could pick one pairing of a dish with a wine that would best represent Amber which would you pick and why?
I would pick a pairing off of a recent degustation menu, one I personally loved: the Steamed and Char-Grilled Foie Gras with Cherry Reduction and Hibiscus. I chose to pair this dish with the 2008 Leth Gigama, a red wine from the Southern part of Austria, from the Weingut Leth Gigama Reserve, which not a lot of people have discovered yet. This wine is characterized by a profound fruitiness and spiciness. The deep expression of fruit is matched beautifully by the cherry reduction and harmonizes very nicely with the richness of the foie gras.
And for pairing with a white, I would choose our Line Caught Red Amadai and suggest with it a 2002 Maison Leroy Meursault 1er Cru “Blagny” from Burgundy, a pure Chardonnay but not a very typical Meursault wine. It is very intense in texture but has a nice, high level of acidity and goes beautifully with the amadai.
Address: The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, 15 Queen’s Road, Seventh Floor, The Landmark, Central, Hong Kong [google map]
Phone: +852 2132 0066
Breakfast: Monday to Sunday 7:00 am – 10:30 am
Lunch: Monday to Sunday 12:00 pm – 2:30 pm
Dinner: Monday to Sunday 6:30 pm – 10:30 pm