Just Ask: Robert Stelmachuk of Mott 32 on the Art of Unorthodox Wine Pairings

SHARP & Mark Anthony Wines

Wine director Robert Stelmachuk characterizes his knowledge of the wine list at Mott 32 — a Vancouver destination spot for top-tier Chinese food — as “inappropriately intimate.” That expertise comes through loud and clear the moment this veteran of the scene starts talking about wine, be it on the floor selling a bottle, on his social media channels, or chatting with us about how to always pick the right bottle of wine for the occasion.

We sat down with Robert recently to get his take on the world of wine pairing.

Chinese food isn’t as commonly paired with wine as cuisine from Italy or France. Why is that?

It’s not so much that it’s uncommon as it is that people rarely go to a Chinese restaurant with a world-class wine program. So it’s kind of a new frontier and an exciting opportunity to introduce people to new experiences with wines that bring out the incredible complexity of Chinese cuisine.

Cocktails and dumplings are practically a lifestyle in Vancouver. Is there room for wine at the dim sum table, too?

One hundred per cent. The flavours range from delicate to intense and we have a lot of options for pairings but, certainly, the Penfolds Bin 311 Chardonnay does incredibly well across the board. It’s one of those Chardonnays that’s perfectly poised and balanced with just enough bright acidity to keep it fresh and crisp, like a vibrant lightning bolt through the middle of your palate.

There’s a lot of jargon with some wines that people are easily confused by, such as “Premier Cru” or “Grand Cru.” What’s the difference?

That’s a guest question I love to answer. Sometimes people notice that there’s a big price difference between the “Premier Cru” and the “Grand Cru.” The Grand Cru comes from a tiny little single vineyard, so it’s at the top of the hierarchy and not many of us can afford to drink it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better for your mouth.

So the most expensive isn’t always the best?

People always associate the more expensive with better but that’s not always the case. Wine is about personal taste and the food you’re having it with. One of the things that I love about the Louis Latour “En Chevret” Premier Cru 2012 Volnay we carry is that it pairs with everything from, say, our seafood fried rice with black garlic, to our new plant-based menu item, the lion’s head meatball dish — any dish with herbal and earthy notes — because they echo all the flavours you’re getting in that wine.

When it comes to pairing wine with meat, would you recommend something like a California Cab?

One of the things I’m always cautious about when it comes to California Cabernets is the alcohol and tannin structure, which can be very intense, depending on the region. I’ve always really enjoyed working with wines from Sonoma County, which often have a slightly softer edge, like Rodney Strong Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018. It doesn’t come into the room like the Hulk, destroying everything it touches, and that allows it to pair with a wider range of foods, like our chicken with black beans, which is an absolutely stunning pairing with that Cabernet.

So what would you pair with a totally decadent cut of meat, like Mott 32’s Wagyu beef?

As rich as Wagyu is, it’s also delicate. But there’s this depth of complexity with the dish so, if you’re going to go all out, I’d bring it back to B.C. The Mission Hill Oculus has always been the standard bearer in terms of top-flight B.C. reds and what you can show to the world. I just tried the 2018 Oculus and it’s a monster.

Any last advice for people about how to approach their wine list and asking their somm questions?

Be curious, not judgmental. I mean, it’s a famous quote that was made popular by Ted Lasso, but I always say you have to have a curious mind. And, you know, if you don’t eat the same food every day for the rest of your life and like to try new things, why wouldn’t you want to have that adventure in wine, too?