Despite a stunning view of Hong Kong harbour and the island from Felix restaurant atop the Peninsula Hotel (peninsula.com), Chief Sommelier Dheeraj Bhatia makes sure his wines hold their own against the vista outside. Bhatia was born in Jaisalmer in Rajasthan and raised in Dubai before studying hotel and tourism management in Gujarat. SI contributor, Carol Wright met this enthusiastic Indian sommelier (pictured, left,) in Hong Kong.
After working in New Delhi, Dubai, South Africa, the Seychelles and Beijing, he became Head Sommelier at Raffles Hotel in Singapore before moving to Hong Kong. He was nominated Best Sommelier of 2011 at the World Gourmet Summit in Singapore, and is a judge for Decanter Asia where Grover’s Sauvignon Blanc recently won a gold medal.
Bhatia’s first interest was food, but upon realising he couldn’t be a good chef, he developed a fascination and curiosity for wine and vineyards. “You must know how to differentiate and appreciate the characteristics of each wine before you can recommend one to a guest. It’s a journey that never stops,” he says.
On his travels, he sources exclusives for the Peninsula’s seven restaurants and two bars, though 90% of the 900 labels are bought locally. Hong Kong has only two hundred bottles of Philipp Kuhn’s Riesling from Germany’s Pfalz area and all of them are in Bhatia’s cellars. While judging for Decanter Asia this year, he discovered a very good fortified wine from Bali and hopes to offer this for the first time in Hong Kong.
While Burgundy, Rhône, Loire and Bordeaux wines are most requested, particularly by mainland Chinese guests, Bhatia has seen changes in drinking patterns over the past two and a half years. “People are more open-minded, willing to try new things,” he says. He helps them by providing interesting wines by-the-glass from Greece, Hungary, Israel, Japan, and Austria. Felix restaurant overlooking Hong Kong island
Bhatia believes that changes in wine preferences run parallel with changes in wine production – towards lighter more subtle wines with low alcohol content. ‘Guests’ tastes have become more flexible and they love pairing’, so Bhatia provides plenty of half-bottles and by-the-glass options. In Felix, the hotel’s more trendy restaurant, guests go for more exotic wines, and in the Felix Experience pairing menu Bhatia offers his 2012 Philipp Kuhn Riesling Alte Reben from Pfalz in Germany with duck liver; a Tavel rosé with olive oil-poached octopus and shrimp dumplings; the 2010 Bad Boy Garage, a Bordeaux find, with lamb; and a 1988 Armagnac with fresh cheese mousse complemented with anise vanilla ice cream.
In general, Bhatia recommends a rosé wine to go with garlic flavoured dishes; Greek and Hungarian wines with fish and Armagnac with desserts to act as a digestif. He believes Port or Riesling go best with cheeses. The first lesson Bhatia learnt in sommelier school was to “make the chef your best friend”. Acting on the lesson, he married a pastry and chocolate chef and enjoys hanging out with chefs after work.
When dining out, Bhatia is always looking out for new ideas. Recently he came across a quirky Spanish blueberry liqueur aperitif in a bar and immediately photographed the bottle with his phone and sent the image to his chef. He has also discovered a sparkling sake for which his chef created a special recipe.
Bhatia holds monthly training meetings for his staff of twelve, at which he discusses the wine list. To motivate his staff he conducts six-month-long programmes, with prizes of visits to the Champagne and Californian wine regions for the best pupils. Each night he tours the hotel’s restaurants, checking that guests are comfortable with their wine choices. “You must treat them as if they were in your own home and offer them the best. Guests new to wine can be terrified of sommeliers.” So he simply introduces himself by saying, ‘I’m the wine guy’, and moves away while they study the wine list.
Bhatia believes the taste of wine has much to do with the weather. He likes to serve champagne in white wine glasses because “champagne deserves to be in such a glass, not a flute, so that it can breathe as other wines are allowed to do and the bouquet can be fully appreciated. It can be served as any time of the day and is a good cure for jet lag”.
This article first appeared in SI, Sommelier India February-March 2015