South Africa’s original sommelier shares his secrets

South Africa’s original sommelier shares his secrets
Clockwise from top left: Germain Lehodey at Tour d’Argent, France, in 1977, the youngest head sommelier in France at the time; the art of opening a bottle of Chateau Climens, vintage 1929, without the use of a bottle opener; at Le Richemond, Switzerland, in 1982; South Africa’s first honey tasting in 2021; and bottom left, again at Le Richemond in 1982 when he was the first accredited sommelier in Switzerland. (Photos: Supplied)

Every South African sommelier walks in the shadow of Germain Lehodey who, when he started out, was the only practitioner of this fine craft in the country. Legions of younger sommeliers can learn a lot from him. And he’s put it all in a book, especially for them.

Long before sommeliers were called “somms”, a term that has always seemed clunky for some of us (why does a beautiful word need abbreviating?), Germain Lehodey was guiding diners in the pairing of wines with their food.

At the 2023 Eat Out Woolworths Awards ceremony at GrandWest in Cape Town in November, Lehodey was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his services to the industry, a deserving winner. In the succeeding years, he has seen the profession open up and expand to the point where every serious restaurant worth its salt and pepper employs a sommelier.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The winners, the losers, the joy, the tears

Earlier this year he published a slim book entitled WINE: The second sauce of a dish, in which he goes into great detail about many aspects of the sommelier’s craft. His advice has an air of wisdom about it, the wisdom that comes from age and experience. For example, at the outset, he writes, “Look for balance, and consider the weight/body/richness of both the food and the wine. The wine and the dish should be equal partners, with neither overwhelming the other. By balancing the two by weight, you raise the odds dramatically that the pairing will succeed”.

Lehodey said this week that he had written the book during the pandemic as well as another on honey, and is “still coaching sommeliers who receive accolades, like Tapiwa Jamu who finished third at this year’s competition of best SA sommelier”. He added: “I produced three Cape Wine Masters in the past.” He also created the National Cheese Festival in 2000.

Lehodey was surprised to be congratulated by only three other sommeliers at the Eat Out Awards ceremony. “Regarding people who congratulated me, only three sommeliers did it. Cape Town’s sommeliers do have an attitude, they believe that they are superior. It is okay by me. I am at the autumn of my life, I am willing to share my knowledge to anyone who asks for it. Pairing is not easy, therefore the food knowledge is important to understand.”

He added: “My book was written especially for the sommeliers. Seventy-five per cent of the information mentioned in the book comes from my personal experience. At the moment only six sommeliers bought one, most of the books sold go to winemakers and gourmet people. The book is also available as an e-book to make it inexpensive for sommeliers and overseas people.”

Key to his thinking is Weight and Favour Intensity. He explains: “It is all relative to the intensity of the food and wine. A grilled fish will have a delicate flavour, and if you add a sauce to it the intensity of flavour will increase. Therefore, the description of the dish will be light to medium-bodied. The pairing of wine will be of the same weight as the flavour of the dish. When you add a sauce to the main ingredient, we must take into consideration the flavour of the sauce as this will also influence the selection of the wine.”

Wine pairing and flavour

Detailing the five primary taste sensations (sweetness, acidity, saltiness, bitterness and umami), he lists some of the main condiments and/or ingredients used to enhance the flavour of food. In essence, he is making it clear that the sommelier has to understand the elements of food and flavour when selecting a wine to match it.

He shares small insights too: “The sap of the natural oil contained in fresh spices imparts more flavour than dry spices. There are a hundred different types of spices, from mild to very hot, and often you may find a blended selection to your liking.”

On salting food, he writes: “You should not taste the salt, but it needs to be there to lift the flavour of a dish; small quantities of salt are needed in your body too. Celery has a high natural salt content [hence celery salt], therefore it is often served with a Bloody Mary cocktail to enhance the flavour of the tomato juice.”

Little droplets of wisdom abound in the book. He remarks that extra virgin olive oil “is technically a fruit juice”, and says of garnishes that, as well as making the plating prettier, they “should also enhance the flavour of the dish. Some chefs make the mistake of adding the wrong garnish to a dish, which has the opposite effect.” In other words, the wrong garnish spoils a dish.

But he also acknowledges that the flavour of the food is paramount: “The wine to be served with a dish is directly related to how much flavour the dish has, the related fat content, acidity, sweetness, and how the food has been prepared. The wine must be a support component, and should never dominate the flavour but should rather support the flavour of the dish. If the fat content is high, a dry wine will be recommended, if a cream sauce base is served, a semi-sweet/off-dry white wine is recommended. Meat with red wine sauce will be served with the same wine or similar.”

Of eggs and cheese

Lehodey dives deep into a variety of cheeses (you might want a vintage Port with that Stilton), and then moves on to eggs. You may be surprised at the first item under “eggs”: caviar. He concludes that caviar, from the egg of the sturgeon fish, “is preserved in a brine solution, therefore some saltiness may be present”, adding that caviar is “medium to full-bodied with a very pleasant long aftertaste”. The wine, logically, would be similarly medium to full-bodied with an aftertaste to match that of the caviar.

If you’ve never thought about the weight of the flavour of a hen’s egg, he has insights here too. “The yolk contains most of the flavour and, when mixed with the white, it produces a medium-bodied flavour with a powerful aftertaste. It is very difficult to match wine with an omelette, or other dishes when an egg is the main ingredient, because it creates a film on the palate.”

But if you’ve ever wondered about pairing wine with an eggy breakfast, he advises: “Scrambled egg made with cream or milk has a delicate flavour that works well with dry white wines. (The film on the palate will be lessened by the lactose acidity of the dairy product).”

A quail’s egg, by contrast, has a medium-bodied flavour and aftertaste, therefore “wine can be served if the egg is boiled hard, for example a Sauvignon Blanc”.

Similar gems of knowledge are imparted about the flavours of fish, spices, game, red meat (other than game), poultry, and even processed food. A frankenfurter is light-bodied, but haggis is full-bodied, as is mortadella.

Scorched plates?

Peri-peri sauce is not favoured by Lehodey, who raises it more than once in a less-than-flattering light. Introducing sauces, he writes: “The sauce should never dominate the main ingredient. For example, peri-peri sauce served with prawns can kill the delicate flavour of the prawns. A wine may do the same if its flavour dominates the dish. The flavour of the dish should be enhanced through the harmony of the main ingredients, sauce and wine.”

I must beg to differ on this and come to the defence of peri-peri. This is like comparing apples with pears, and Lehodey, who is understandably and obviously steeped in the French tradition, seems to regard peri-peri sauce as being served with something, whereas the prawn or chicken is cooked with peri-peri baste. It is in the skill of the chef or cook to balance it in a way that will have you tasting the prawn as well as the sauce, rather than have the peri-peri entirely mask the prawn.

Under Chilli sauce/Peri-peri in his list of sauces, he writes, “A coulis of hot peppers served with chicken or prawns; two ingredients with low flavour. It has a very hot, powerful flavour, even a burning finish. It often kills the flavour of the main ingredient and the wine served. Beverage recommended is a glass of milk to lessen the burning effect.”

Well, no, I’m not drinking milk with my peri-peri. Whisky in fact pairs well with peri-peri, and the Portuguese (in Portugal as opposed to their former colonies) even use it in some versions of their peri-peri sauces as a preservative.

If you’ve ever wondered why chefs steeped in the classical French tradition are rather skimpy with their portions of vegetables, Lehodey may have the answer.

“Related to pairing, vegetables can enhance and confirm the selection of food and wines. Vegetables are not too friendly with wine, therefore be careful of how much you want to put on the plate.”

Grains, seeds and nuts follow, then fruit, herbs and spices, before Lehodey shifts gear to move right into the world of wine, especially when paired with food. 

Liquid resources

Along with all of the above knowledge imparted about various kinds of food, Lehodey’s observations on wine are an excellent introduction to wine for the novice, as well as providing in-depth commentary useful for the connoisseur.

In a section on “White wines: presented from lightest to weightiest”, he observes that “the lighter the wine, the more difficult to pair with food”. On light white wines, he recommends little more than salads, sushi and oysters as suitable for eating with them. Bypassing light to medium white wines, he comes to medium white wines that “lean towards herbal”, observing: “Now we reach a category of food wine; a wine with character starts to have complexity, lovely aftertaste, and is perfectly paired with a lot of starters, grilled fish, pan-fried chicken, or any other medium flavoured food.”

Other medium white wines that lean towards minerality, however, are recommended for medium-flavoured food, “the younger the wine the better”. This category is widely popular in our restaurants.

Serving wine, glassware, and decanting all follow, after which Lehodey presents his CV and even references.

Any sommelier or budding “somm” eager to increase their knowledge will find succour and wisdom in this well-considered book, as will others who simply want to understand the world of food and wine pairing better.

Any older professional knows that they have things to impart to younger ones, even though generally they’re only seen as “old”. A wise younger sommelier would surely see the sense of buying one of Lehodey’s books, and learning from a veteran expert. DM

Buy Germain Lehodey’s book here.

Visit his website.


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