Top 10 sommeliers in Hong Kong
In a town like Hong Kong age is usually no barrier to excellence and some of the city’s best restaurants are staffed by incredibly capable young sommeliers.
While some of the older generation may take umbrage at a left-field suggestion from a young buck, one of the great things about wine is its power to democratise.
Here we celebrate ten of the best.
10: Ekaterina Doroshina (26) — Lupa/La Terrasa
Arriving in Hong Kong from Russia by way of New Zealand, where she spent her post-high school years, Ekaterina Doroshima initially found work with Boutique Wines, a distribution company while continuing her wine education. She soon found her entrusted with the wine list of Dining Concepts’ Lupa by Mario Batali and La Terrazza, where she is now working.
Given her antipodean background, she first came to wines through New Zealand and Australian wines but now finds herself juggling a 300-strong, 100% Italian wine list, which represents every corner of the country. She says that it features both “affordable and interesting” wines, including the restaurant’s signature family of wines from Bastianich vineyards, including some that have earned the coveted Tre Bicchieri award from the Gambero Rosso guide.
While there are many diners who know their wines inside out and have their favorites, she says that there are plenty of guests who are open-minded and happy to take suggestions.
“For those who are just at the beginning to discover the beautiful world of wines, me and the team at Lupa restaurant and La Terrazza are more than happy to give the general explanation of the wine list and all regions that our wine selection covers,” she says.
“We offer a by the glass wine selection which covers all the major Italian wine regions, which I believe helps to a lot for the customers to discover new wines, new regions, different styles of wine and understand their palate and taste in wines.”
Although this is her first position as sommelier, she’s not alone, and says she works closely with her colleague Maurizio Severgnini sommelier at sister restaurant Carnevino, who is also responsible for the wine lists of other restaurants in the Dining Concepts Group.
“Maurizio is very experienced and knowledgeable in wine; he often shares his knowledge with me and helps me in selection of wines for the new wine lists. It is very interesting and very helpful to work with such experienced and professional person, from whom I learn a lot.”
9: Alan Liu (29) — The American Club
The American Club’s Alan Liu started out behind the bar but soon found himself drawn to wine, intrigued by the myriad possibilities inherent in the drink. He still oversees the beverage operation at the American Club’s two locations – in Central and the sprawling premises in Tai Tam – and is the first dedicated sommelier at the organization.
He says he was attracted to his current position through a strong curiosity about wine and a desire to learn. He says he finds his profession “interesting and challenging. I knew about wine from when I was a bartender [but] it’s totally different from other drinks because wine involves so much more information like vintage, different varieties of grape etc.
“When I started learning about wine, I realized that I could not possibly learn everything. As the saying goes, ‘The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know’.”
While he naturally favors American wines in his portfolio – he points to a 2004 Kathryn Hall Cabernet Sauvignon as one of his favorites – he says there is room for a variety of regions and grape types on the list, including his highlights –a Brovia, Sori’ Del Drago, barbera d’Alba 2008, Shaw and Smith, M3 Vineyard, Chardonnay from 2010 and the Alin Graillot, Saint-Joseph 2010.
Liu feels that being in his position at a young age is a mixed blessing. “I would say both [a help and a hindrance],” he says. “My age makes me think creatively, I find it easy to accept new things and new technology.
“My teammates are of a similar age to me, so we share the same work concepts and we work closely together. Also, I’m willing to learn quickly from my experiences. Some people may think I’m not mature enough for this position, or lack the experience required to handle the challenges, so I need to spend extra effort to show my abilities and passion.”
8: Simone Sammuri (30) — 121 BC
Sammuri’s hospitality resume is relatively short – he started in the business when he was already at the ripe old age of 25. Starting out in London, where he had moved to improve his English skills, he had a stroke of good fortune when his friend recommended him for a position at a new French bar with focus on natural, organic and biodynamic wines, leading to a sudden interest in – and passion for – wines.
Prior to moving to Hong Kong Sammuri found himself on the other side of the planet from his native Italy, working in two of the Sydney restaurants owned by his current employer.
121 BC has a focus on natural wines, and Sammuri says that his list is “extremely interesting not just because it features exclusively Italian natural wines,” but also that it features only small producers who “have a maximum respect for the environment, limiting the use of chemicals in the vineyard and having a minimal impact in the cellar; so the people will have the opportunity to join us for a bottle that comes from genuine people, in which you can definitively recognize the grape variety and the terroir.”
He arrived in Hong Kong as this new venture was opening, invited by his employers in Australia to jump aboard and help start up their Hong Kong operations.
“Work in a new brand place is always quite intense, especially in the first period when everything is not set yet, but extremely exciting because you feel part of a big project that grows every day and you are part of it!
“At 30 years old I consider that I still have a lot to give to this industry yet. My passion about wines is growing day after day and I still have so many things to learn about this world…and that’s basically where the excitement comes from.”
7: John Ong (32) — Ristorante Domani
John Ong comes to Domani with over a decade of F&B experience, much of which was gained in his native Singapore, and even more in the vineyards of Australia. Whilst working in Sentosa Island, Ong’s bosses sent him to the Barossa Valley to learn a thing or two about wine. He was so bowled over by the experience that he quit his position and travelled around Australia for two years, learning all he could about wine and its production.
Now, though, he’s happy to embrace a largely Italian wine list, and says that Hong Kong diners are quite knowledgeable about their wines, and willing to try new things. Given Domani’s reputation in Hong Kong as a favorite of the Italian expat community and its efforts to promote its culture in Hong Kong, Ong feels that he not only promotes wines but also acts as a fervent promoter of all things Italian to his customers.
“The wines of Italy are renowned for their variety and versatility. So normally we will advise our customers to try Italian wines with an open mind. It’s all part of the Italian wines adventure learning about Italian wines terms and understanding regional grape varieties.
He says that he is most proud to serve Flaccianello della Piave, Fontodi, – a “superstar” of the Super Tuscans that not many people know about. “Consistently rated 90+ points by the famous wine critics, this 100% Sangiovese is a perfect example of the true essence of Sangiovese grapes and the local terroir, [along] with modern vinification techniques.”
He says one of his favorite moments came when the restaurant hosted the Le Pergole Torte Wine Dinner earlier this year, and met Martino Manetti. ”I even have some bottles signed from him and we had a great laugh when he told me that actually I have more bottles of back vintage Le Pergole Torte then he had back in his cellar.”
6: Mathieu Pouchan (31) — Etc wine shops
Etc wine shops focus on three regions – Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy, and each has perhaps the best selection of wines from their respective region in the city, maybe even in Asia. With almost 6,000 labels, from the smallest estate and best value to the bigger name and rarest old vintage, the task of maintaining the brand’s reputation falls to Mathieu Pouchan.
“The control and quality that we have on the sourcing is extremely important,” he says. “In Hong Kong where you can find everything from everywhere it is a key point to be able to provide a perfect sourcing and understanding the history of your bottles.”
Pouchan started seriously thinking about life as a sommelier at the tender age of 17, while working as a waiter. While he was already familiar with wines through drinking with his family, working in the trade gave him exposure to a wider variety of wines and enhanced his curiosity.
“One of the motivations when I was working in a restaurant was also to eat and drink the best food and wines and the only way to enjoy both is to become a sommelier,” he says.
Pouchan’s somewhat unique position as sommelier for wine retail as opposed to the F&B trade makes his job a little different, he says.
“When you work in restaurant you are facing clients from the order to the end of the bottles so you have a follow up during all the meal and you can prepare the wine, continue to talk about the wine evolution in the glass and explain the different aromas that you can find in old vintage for example.
“But when you are working in a retail shop, you have to be really precise on what you want to say because you won’t have enough time to speak with your guests. Once the customer leaves, you cannot follow up with him.”
5: Elliot Faber (30) — Yardbird/Ronin
Sommelier Elliot Faber, of Japanese-inspired Yardbird and sister restaurant Ronin has to deal with a lot more than just wines – along with his carefully-curated (albeit small) wine list he’s in charge of a list of an “equally or arguably more extensive sake, shochu and Japanese whisky collection.”
Faber came to appreciate wine from an unlikely place – while living in Scotland as part of a study abroad program from the University of Calgary. While on the other side of the pond he used Scotland’s proximity to other, more noted wine regions around Europe to travel and learn more about the varieties that now grace the tables of the two restaurants that he was instrumental in opening.
He says that practical limitations have forced his hand when it comes to an extended wine list.
“I had a 100 bottle wine list planned when I moved to Hong Kong in 2011 to open Yardbird,’ he told the Drinks Business HK.
“I learned quickly that we had no storage area for that much wine in our typical Hong Kong storage starved space so I quickly reworked the list to about 20% of it’s original size and made things a little more esoteric but still accessible to any guest who comes in. For example, I don’t offer any new world Sauvignon Blanc by the glass but rather a fresh, crisp and lively Pecorino from the Le Marche.
“It’s great to give the staff a chance to learn about something different than they may have experienced before, they generally pass that enthusiasm to the guests.”
Recently, he says he’s listed a dry Furmint from Holdvölgy called ‘Meditation.’
“Now, the wine doesn’t always have to be unheard of but being able to offer a mineral, salty, honeyed wine like this as one of only four white wines by the glass, and having this wine come from a place that not many wine consumers have considered a major wine producing region, let alone for dry wine, and lastly having them enjoy it, has been a real pleasure to share with our guests and watch them enjoy it with our food!”
4: Bhatia Dheeraj (30) — The Peninsula
As one of Hong Kong’s enduring landmarks, the Peninsula Hotel has a reputation unto itself. So it comes as no surprise that they have a young sommelier who is as passionate about wines as the hotel is about quality.
Bhatia Dheeraj has been a sommelier since the tender age of 24, when he first decided to pursue the art. Initially it was all about reading and learning about the wines, he says. Alongside this theory, however, he waxes lyrical when it comes to the more practical aspect of tasting.
“The tasting part had its own liquid poetry that attracted me,” he says. “Wine is history; wine has life to it and brings people to gather. As a professional sommelier, we are constantly learning, travelling and updating ourselves in order to serve the best.”
Part of this, he says, is taking a risk and putting some lesser-known wines on the list alongside the great vintages from old world staples. He says he has some “hidden gems” from lesser-known regions like Japan, Slovakia and England, alongside kosher wines from Israel.
He says that he is always mindful of where he is working, and says that the “judgment bar” that comes from working at the storied F&B outlets of the Pen is set fairly high, and has a “big effect” on what he does. However, he’s confident that his experience to date, along with the lessons learned from his previous mentors will stand him in good stead in this very visible role in one of the world’s most famous hotel properties.
“One needs to have enough experience to convince people drink good wine,” he says. ”I have had the privilege of working under many different Head Sommeliers and chefs, and they all have been my motivation on different occasions.”
3: Ringo Lam (32) — Shang Palace
A meal in the company of Ringo Lam, the self-taught sommelier of Kowloon Shangri-La’s two-star Shang Palace, is a window into the passion of this young woman, who went from a dull office job to her current position through sheer force of will.
“To me, wine is a living thing. It has so much character,” she says, with typical enthusiasm. “The knowledge of wine is so deep and it is like a never-ending story. I like exploring the beauty of wines from around the world and to share my discoveries and knowledge. I believe a sommelier is one of the key people [able] to elevate the guests’ unique dining experience.”
She says that part of the challenge of her job is to pair her extensive cellar with Chinese food, which is a very different prospect from pairing with Western cuisine. Given the family-style way of ordering – where a tableful of dishes are there to be shared – makes it a challenge to pair all dishes with just one white, red or sparkling wine.
Lam says she usually suggests guests to pick one white and one red wine to go throughout the dinner. For white wines, she tends to recommend something that is more aromatic, crispy and refreshing, and for reds, wines that are more fruity and medium-bodied.
“Among the list of wines in my portfolio, I am quite proud of Bonnes Mares Grand Cru, Domaine George Roumier,” she says. “The technique used in fermenting this wine is so unique and special that it truly reflects its vintage. The wines produced from this winery are normally among the very best wines from the terrior, and are considered to be very elegant and delicate, making Roumier one of the greatest producers in Burgundy.”
2: Nicolas Deneux — Grand Hyatt
Nicolas Deneux may be only 29 but he already has a fine dining resume that stretches back almost a decade and a half, and it was seeing Sommeliers working in the fine dining establishments of his youth that became his inspiration – the first time he actually tried wine was when he embarked upon his professional training as a sommelier.
Working at the Hyatt group’s flagship Asian property has reinvigourated his passion for the job. “The mix of people, culture and passion is just amazing and teaches me every day about wines obviously but also about myself as a person,” he says. “This is the best motivation.”
Deneux has ten restaurants under his watch, as well as a number of events, many that focus on wine, that take place at the hotel.
“With my wine ambassador/Sommelier team we always make sure to implement new wines depending on the restaurants needs or style. My job is to control and approve all changes [and meet all] challenges. I also help the team to prepare for winemaker dinners across all restaurants, along with dealing with the 94 wine and beverage suppliers that the hotel has.”
He says he is a Champagne lover, and as a result has introduced many boutique (grower) Champagnes to his lists.
“Five years ago the HK market about Champagne was completely closed. Being the first Sommelier implementing boutique Champagne was not an easy thing back then. It took a lot to convince our clientele but also the on-trade and hoteliers. Now Hong Kong has developed so much that we can find those products in many places.”
He insists that age has never been an issue for him. “I started very young and I never faced any big challenge because of my young age. The most important thing is to approach our clientele and wine in a humble way and know that there is always more to learn from everyone out there.”
1: Yvonne Cheung (31) — Upper House
The Upper House’s Yvonne Cheung has made a name for herself around Hong Kong as one of the city’s most competent sommeliers – regardless of her age. Now a “whopping” 31, she has taken this relatively new hotel and its bar, Café Grey, and put it on Hong Kong’s notoriously fickle dining and drinking scene.
She says she fell onto the sommelier path after working for several years in various positions in restaurants and hotels. She says she is “a curious person; I relish in learning new things, and broadening my understanding of pretty much anything.
“That being said, motivation comes from within, and the world of wine presents treasure troves of knowledge in nearly every facet of intellect, art, science, history and rhythm. There is always more to learn, and for someone who has a desperate disdain for boredom, this was the right career choice!”
She was introduced to the newly opened Upper House by a customer at her previous position at a resort in California, and relishing the chance to come to work in Asia, made the move. She is, she says, driven by challenges and as the wine scene became more interesting in this part of the world, she knew she didn’t want to miss out.
“I’m proud of the fact that my team and I do not compromise on quality,” she says. “Our reputation as a hotel and restaurant has always been about aspiring to improve, to be open-minded, creative, and to always try to go above and beyond… The wine selection is very close to my heart, and while I am at times criticized for being overprotective, I am happy to stand by every selection.
“I continue to gather experience and information and invest those further into what I’d like to do in the future. I believe in building foundations and growing, and I think I’m at a good age for that.”