Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Passion for Food and Wine

We met with Bernardo Sim, president of the International Wine and Food Society (IWFS) Manila Branch for the last five years and president of the French cultural institution Alliance Française de Manille since 2002. The IWFS was founded in 1933 in the United Kingdom by Andre Simon, and the Philippines branch was established in 1982, a great Bordeaux year. “I was delighted to be part of the society—I got to meet many people who shared my interests,” Sim recalls of his first IWFS years. “The aim of the IWFS is to have a proper understanding of good wine and good food, and to find the right harmony between these two elements. Wine should complement the food and the food should bring out the inherent qualities of the wine.”

This calm, soft-spoken gentleman discusses his passion for food, wine, and the French language, which he only started learning when he was 45 years old.

How did you start enjoying wines?
Being the eldest, I was helping my dad out with the family business even while I was in school. We are in the sugar trading business and, just like any man starting out in such a business, you have to know how to drink scotch and cognac. One time, after traveling to Hong Kong, I contracted Hepatitis A, a virus you get from the air. So I was advised to stay off alcohol for six months. Then I went to the States to rest. One day I saw a bottle of California wine in the supermarket and the label looked very attractive. The label described how the wine would taste and smell like. The alcohol content was 13% so I said—why not, I’ll try it? So I did and I liked it. It was more interesting than whisky or cognac. When I returned to Manila, the father of a good friend had just brought back some good Bordeaux wines from Europe. He invited me to try some wines. I got more interested in it and started reading about it, especially French wine. I discovered wine needs to be taken at the right temperature, so I went to Hong Kong to buy a EuroCave wine cabinet.

How did you get involved in the International Wine and Food Society? I have always been a health freak and I have always gone to the gym regularly. I met Antonio Olbes, one of the original IWFS members. He introduced me later on to Rene Fuentes who sponsored my membership to the society in 1986. I organized my first serious vertical wine tasting with Château Branaire-Ducru, St. Julian appellation with the vintages all the way back to 1970 with the IWFS members, headed by Filemon Juntareal. He was the founder of Chaine des Rotisseurs here in the Philippines as well as in Singapore.

Are you promoting the activities of IWFS?
Yes, the Philippine branch is very active. In fact we just formed the Cebu branch last June and then we’ll have Davao branch this year. We are also pretty active within the Asian region. Dong Puno will be the next chairman of the Asia-Pacific zone and Oscar Ong has just been elected as the secretary of the zone. We have monthly meetings which involve going to different restaurants, where we would taste different kinds of cuisine and find the proper wine to go with these. Occasionally we also do more challenging pairings such as matching wine with Filipino, Thai, Indian, and Chinese food.

Which cuisine has been the most challenging?
Thai and India cuisines are difficult, because they have spices and strong flavors. Filipino food is also difficult, but easier than Thai and Indian.

What have been some of the most memorable pairings you’ve had? Philip Faure-Brac of Bistro du Sommelier along the Boulevard Haussmann in Paris pairs his lunch and dinner menus with excellent famous and unknown wines from all over France and charges very reasonable prices. I’ve had fresh herring, which he paired with Chateau Haut-Brion Blanc, and some calf’s liver with a good Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Both were unforgettable.

Another memorable pairing was at Alain Ducasse’s Louis XV restaurant in Monaco. The cuisine was so simple, but the flavour and rich ingredients were very striking. The pairing of the local wines as suggested by the sommelier was just perfect. After this, I tried to look for these wines and this was how I got into importing unknown French regional wines. One of my most memorable pairings of food and wine in Manila was at Via Mare, with food cooked by Glenda Barretto herself. Glenda, her assistant Dulce, and I worked on the pairing of the Jurançon, an excellent dry white wine that can be found at Sommelier Selections in Manila. It was one of the best pairings I’ve ever done. The food included crab with curry which was striking. In Café Juanita in Barrio Ugong, Pasig, I’ve paired an excellent kare-kare nicely with a Cote-du-Rhone village wine.

Can you describe some of the most memorable wine tastings you’ve had? Among the Bordeaux, a Chateau Latour tasting would be my favorite. It’s the most complex and the breed of the wine was excellent. It really shows the imporatnce of the terroir in producing a superb wine. More so the quality of the second wine, which can be very good value. We did the tasting at Bianca’s. We paired it with very good food including French pigeon. The best vintage for the Grand Cru was 1990 and the best for the second was 1996. We did one time a 17 vertical vintage tasting of Grange Hermitage, all the way back to 1978.

In my wine quest, I was reading reviews by Robert Parker, Michael Broadbend, Edward Penning, and Clive Coats. Whenever I had a chance while traveling, I tried to look for bottles with good reviews and brought these back to share with the society members. I was so happy that I became a member, and I want to do things to help improve the knowledge of the members.

How long do you think you should keep first-growth Bordeaux wines to fully appreciate them?
I sometimes find it difficult to enjoy a first growth, especially when they’re just five or six years old. I remember I had a case of Lafitte 1979 that I bought in Hong Kong. Every year I opened a bottle, and I didn’t appreciate it until my second to the last bottle. This made me realize that you have to be patient to enjoy good Bordeaux wines.

I bought my first Petrus, a case of the 1981 vintage, and I never enjoyed a single bottle during the 10 years I was drinking this. Last year we had dinner with a friend of mine who happened to have bought the last bottle of the case from me—it was fabulous. Another French wine that impressed me was Hermitage la Chapelle. I had the chance to have two bottles of the 1978. I finished those by 1992—way, way too early. Later I bought three cases of the 1983 vintage based on the recommendation of wine writers. I drank this over the years and I never liked it until my last bottle, which I had with the owner who sent me the 1985 vintage afterwards.

You are now active also as the president of Alliance Française de Manille. How did you get exposed to French culture?
In 1993, seven Filipino members of the IWFS Philippine branch were inducted into the Society of Chevalier du Tastevin, a club of Burgundy wine enthusiasts. These included Dong Puno, Filemon Juntereal, Brian Harber, Philip Co, Dr. Federico Leelin and myself. We took the train from Paris to Burgundy, but we missed getting off at our station. When the train stopped at Chagny, we didn’t have enough time to take out our heavy luggage as we couldn’t communicate with the conductor as none of us spoke French. The train was entering Switzerland and we didn’t have visas. We got off at the next station and went through a lot of trouble to arrange a taxi to go back to Chagny. So I told myself that when I got back to the Philippines, I would take up French.

I started studying the language in 1994, and I still go to my class twice a week. In Alliance Française de Manille I met Philippe Gauthier, then-president of the French Business Club, Le Club. He gave me an issue of La Revue du vin de France, a French wine magazine which influenced me a lot. I subscribe to it even today. It’s completely in French, so it motivates me to continue studying the language. Through this magazine I discovered a lot of small wineries in France that produce outstanding wines, but are not known by many wine writers.

I also learned a lot about the proper pairing of wine and food from this magazine. I believe that it’s really only the French, with 200 years of tradition, who have established the proper pairing of local wine with local food. One’s experience of wine is completely different when tasting it on its own and tasting it with food that complements it.

This originally appeared in the March-April 2009 issue of Travelife Magazine.


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