Event review: Hakkasan wine tasting

We discover the process of how the wine list at Hakkasan is created
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FOOD & BEVERAGE

Christine Parkinson is a refreshingly humble person for someone with such an encyclopaedic knowledge of wine. Hakkasan’s group head of wine modestly describes how she “didn’t have a clue” which wines would pair with Chinese food when she initially set out to build the restaurant company’s wine lists.

“What goes with Chinese? Someone suggested Gewürztraminer, but we couldn’t create a wine list just from that,” she recalls.

And she painfully recounts a meeting with a respected journalist at which she recommended a food and wine pairing only for them both to discover — to her horror — that the pairing was a terrible mismatch.

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The journey that Parkinson and the Hakkasan teams around the world have undertaken since that chastening experience has involved a process of discovery that has seen every one of the hundreds of wines listed on the menu (350 at Hakkasan Dubai alone, including 160–170 exclusive special imports) — and every new vintage of those wines — tried and tested with the restaurants’ food.

Tuesday tastings take place every fortnight with the sommeliers and other staff. Parkinson admits it is a subjective process as everyone has different tastes and flavour receptors. “That’s why we do it as a team — by committee,” she says.No one has a ‘black ball’ or veto as such, but Parkinson is looking for general consensus.

“You will experience very different flavours throughout the meal, so they can’t all pair perfectly,” advises Parkinson,“but we need to make sure no wine ruins the meal.

“A wine can be great with three courses but if it bombs with one, it doesn’t make it.

“Some wines are just terrible with some of our food,” she admits, candidly. “For example, left bank Bordeaux wines are fiendishly challenging.” And equally, she adds, Cantonese cuisine has a lot of sweetness and that can be difficult to partner with wine.

This special Tuesday Tasting (which happens to be on a Monday) is co-hosted by Olivier Gasselin, Hakkasan’s head of wine for Middle East & Asia, who has already reduced an initial longlist to a shortlist of two whites and three reds:

• Reisling “Blue Slate” Dr Loosen 2013 (12.5%)
• Sauvignon Blanc “Kekerengu Coast” Astrolabe 2012 (13%)
• Pinot Noir Astrolabe 2014 (14%)
• Primitivo Salento “Sasseo” MasseriaAltemura 2013 (14.5%)
• Fitou Domaine de Roudene 2011 (13.5)

And as we settle into our seats in the middle of the restaurant, in front of five pristine, empty glasses, a pencil and an A4 sheet of paper featuring a 5x4 grid, the pair explain our duties.

The wines are listed on the Y-axis of the grid, and along the X-axis are the various dishes organised into mild, savoury, sweet and spicy groupings.

So the wine is poured and the food is served, and we Tuesday Tasters begin diligently to mark our scoresheets with: P+ (pass plus) for “a great match”; P (pass) for ”wine and food work together”; ? (question) for “a poor match but drinkable” and O (out), which means “awful, undrinkable”.

And immediately there’s a problem for the Fitou. “I was worried about that one,” says Parkinson. Perfectly pleasant on its own, it clashes terribly with the mild dishes, which include fried scampi & foie gras and seared scallops & caviar. Things don’t improve for the wine with the savoury or spicy meals, and unravel entirely with the sweet plates. It’s out.

The Masseria Altemura divides opinion and — as such — also fails to make the cut.

But the others all fare better, and the aggregate scores reveal a triumph for the Reisling and Pinot Noir; and a more qualified success for the Sauvignon Blanc.

These three will find their way on to the Hakkasan wine list — in Dubai at least — taking their place alongside those that have previously passed muster.

Hakkasan doesn’t provide explicit wine and food matching advice on its menu. The descriptors for each wine are simple and concise, but the team can be sure that any wine choice will work (or at least be drinkable) with any dish.

And with four trained sommeliers on the staff, and usually two or three working any dinner shift, customers can always call on a walking, talking expert to guide them through the well-organised wine listings.

Gasselin says that most requests for a sommelier recommendation centre on the choice of grape varieties, regional variations and, increasingly, the price, rather than what wine would work well with the prawn fritters & truffle or Chilean seabass with Chinese honey, for example.

As the Tuesday Tasting draws to a close, Parkinson genuinely thanks us for our ‘efforts’. “When you see the three wines on the Hakkasan list,” she says, “remember the food you had to taste to get them there.”

We certainly will. It was our pleasure. And coincidentally, we are definitely available every second Tuesday!

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