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At Ma Cuisine Singapore, The World Is In A Wine Glass

By Joie Goh

Sommelier Anthony Charmetant (left) and chef Mathieu Escoffier are the founders of Ma Cuisine.
Ma Cuisine
Sommelier Anthony Charmetant (left) and chef Mathieu Escoffier are the founders of Ma Cuisine.

“If you want to travel the world, an evening here at Ma Cuisine is the cheapest airline,” says Anthony Charmetant gleefully as he raises his glass. He is the co-owner of the recently opened Ma Cuisine in Singapore — and if that name sounds familiar, it’s because the ambitious new wine bar is loosely affiliated to the original Michelin-recommended bistro Ma Cuisine in Beaune, Burgundy, famous for its extensive wine list.

Chef Mathieu Escoffier, the other co-founder of Ma Cuisine, leans casually against the bar, responding to Charmetant’s humour with a knowing half-smile. Attired in a crisp chef’s uniform embroidered with his name, the 31-year-old not only boasts an impressive resume, having worked at Michelin-starred establishments in France and New York including celebrity chef Joel Robuchon’s La Grande Maison in Bordeaux, but also comes from a pedigree of culinary excellence. After all, his parents have run the original Ma Cuisine for over 20 years, while his late maternal grandfather ran the one Michelin-starred L’Ermitage de Corton in Beaune.

Ma CuisineThe chic, earthy decor of Ma Cuisine mirrors the exquisite simplicity of its food offerings.
The chic, earthy decor of Ma Cuisine mirrors the exquisite simplicity of its food offerings.

Despite sharing the same name, the Singapore chapter is distinct from its original, although its wine list is
just as extensive. Less intimidating and less traditional, it offers over 600 labels of wine from all over the world, making it one of the largest wine collections in the country. To go with its wine selections, which is overseen by Charmetant, a former commercial director for the storied wine producer Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Escoffier has devised a menu of classic, uncomplicated French fare from family recipes, such as pork shoulder terrine and silky crème caramel.

What’s truly exceptional about the restaurant, however, is its sheer dedication to its wines. Nestled on the ground floor of a shophouse along Craig Road in the hip Duxton neighbourhood, its decor is a chic blend of raw industrial and vintage elements. Chandeliers made of wine barrels cast warm light on the white walls and rustic wood furniture, while funky acid jazz plays in the background. Behind glass doors, diners are welcome to step into Ma Cuisine’s two wine cellars, which have sandstone strewn across the floors to absorb humidity (and give a very satisfying and authentic crunch underfoot).

At any given time, the cellars are home to between 1,500 to 3,000 bottles of wine ranging from France (Charmetant rattles off at least six terroirs) to Australia, the United States and other far-flung locales. Behind another door is the special port and Madeira cellar, which houses the largest and most sophisticated collection of fortified wines in Singapore, including vintages that date all the way back to the 1800s.

Ma CuisineOver 600 labels of wine, personally selected by the founding pair, come from all over the world and are available for order.
Over 600 labels of wine, personally selected by the founding pair, come from all over the world and are available for order.

The founding pair are both French, and charmingly so, but in terms of appearance and personality, they are polar opposites of each other. Arriving earlier than my appointed time, Escoffier — tall, auburn-haired and bearded — initially greets me guardedly, almost aloofly until I introduce myself. Knowing then that I’m not a random interloper who had so rudely barged into his closed restaurant, he warms up, offering me a seat at the bar and a glass of water.

Minutes later, Charmetant bustles in and greets his business partner with a flurry of cheek kisses — a Gallic greeting custom. He is dark-haired and wiry, and sports an impressive and carefully waxed Dali-esque moustache. His energy is almost frenetic, he moves lithely behind the bar, steaming several delicate wine glasses and inexplicably pulling black nylon sheaths over four bottles.

When he concludes his preparation, he cheerfully lined up the four bottles in front of me. Each bottle is completely covered with black nylon and marked with a comically drawn large question mark.

“Blind tasting,” Charmetant says. “My English isn’t so good, so I will answer your questions through wine.”

Despite his caveat, the effusive sommelier has the uncanny ability to converse effortlessly and continuously, his passionate anecdotes blending into each other as he waxes lyrical and shares his encyclopedic knowledge of wine. He hands me one of the wine glasses, exquisitely light and thin-stemmed, he had steamed and polished.

Ma CuisineThe port and madeira cellar at Ma Cuisine.
The port and madeira cellar at Ma Cuisine.

“This is the lightest wine glass in the world,” he proclaims, telling me that it’s only 75 grammes and hand-blown. He hands me another wine glass from under the bar. It appears similar in size and appearance, with a slightly thicker stem. That one, he says, is machine-made with lead in the glass, and instructs me to pick up both glasses at the same time, one in each hand.

The difference is obvious — the hand-blown one feels light, almost weightless, while the machine-made one is weighty and sturdy. Charmetant puts a finger on the former and wiggles the glass, and it is surprisingly and disconcertingly pliable, a feature he attributes to its lead-free composition.

“To truly taste a wine, you need a wine glass that’s this fine and delicate,” he explains. Its barely-there nature, he adds, allows one to be “in communion with the wine”. He pours a small amount out from the first bottle.

“Today we will be tasting four wines that are made with the same grape,” Charmetant says as he pours another glass for himself. “Then, you will guess which country they come from based on the notes you smell and taste.”

Ma Cuisine French wines form the bulk of the restaurant’s offerings.
French wines form the bulk of the restaurant’s offerings.

I balk at the challenge. I’m a wine drinker, not a wine taster, and the first thing I usually look out for is the alcohol content of the bottle (the higher, the better), and not its vintage, origins or flavour.

As though reading the doubt and hesitation in my face, Charmetant helpfully assures me that wine tasting relies mainly on the memory of other flavours. “If you’ve eaten fruit before, or salt and pepper, or smelled the burning of a match, you remember these tastes and smells,” he says. “Wine is just the combination of different smells and flavours that [are] familiar to you.”

He then animatedly tells the story of Madeline Triffon, the first American woman to pass the prestigious Master Sommelier Exam in the 1980s. “She was surrounded by all these men, male examiners, who doubted her ability, and she took a whiff of a sauvignon blanc and said that it smells like cat pee,” Charmetant says, punctuating his punchline with a laugh.“Cat pee!”

His point is that wine tasting, at its core, isn’t pretentious, stuffy or esoteric. “Sure, the fancy men were scandalised, but describing a wine as cat pee immediately lets the average person understand,” he continues. “A city dweller knows how cat pee smells like since they smell it often. If you choose to describe with very technical jargon, like the French terms used by wine producers, only a very select few can understand it.”

He smells the wine and swirls it in the glass. I cautiously mimic him. I smell hints of dried fruit, although I’m unable to identify the precise fruit. Charmetant nods encouragingly. “That’s good, it narrows down the field of possibility,” he says. “Dried fruit comes from warm countries, and that leaves out certain regions already.”

While I am happy to finish the glass, I am made to empty the rest of the wine into a silver bucket so that Charmetant can pour out the second glass. Escoffier explains that pouring out excess wine, and even spitting out wine after tasting a mouthful is part of a tasting process — by not imbibing the wines, I wouldn’t get intoxicated and impair my tasting ability.

Ma CuisineThe wines are paired with rustic French recipes passed down for generations, like tarts.
The wines are paired with rustic French recipes passed down for generations, like tarts.

The second one is intensely full-bodied and sapid, with a medicinal sweetness. After a few more sips and deep sniffs, I identify the medicinal note as eucalyptus — something I will never have taken the time to figure out if I’m not actively tasting but just mindlessly drinking.

“Ah,” Charmetant exhales almost blissfully when he sniffs and tastes the third. I am struck by how different it tastes and smells from the previous two, even though all three were made of the same grape. It’s spicy and peppery, and isn’t as overwhelming as the second. “This is the kind of wine you order as a bottle to drink with your friends all night,” Charmetant comments. “You don’t get tired of it since the flavour is not overpowering all the senses.”

However, when the final bottle is poured, both Charmetant and Escoffier express their immense appreciation to each other in French. They’ve tried the previous three before, Charmetant explains, but it’s the first time the either of them have opened the fourth since they tried it before placing their orders.

“Incroyable,” I hear Escoffier say.

I take a sip and I understand their reactions, as inexperienced as I am in fine wines. The flavour is extremely complex, almost salty compared to the rest, with a lingering aftertaste almost as rich as the first sip. I jealously guard my glass, refusing to pour even a drop out into the slop bucket, but I needn’t have worried since Charmetant pours me an even more generous amount after refilling his own glass.

The tasting done, it’s now time to identify the origins of each wine and the grape variety. “It’s a process of elimination,” Charmetant says. He adds that while with enough practice and experience tasting many wines, one can get to a level where one can immediately identify the wine, but even for beginners, just focusing on eliminating possibilities can yield correct answers.

Ma Cuisinethe wines are paired with rustic French recipes passed down for generations, like tarts.
the wines are paired with rustic French recipes passed down for generations, like tarts.

The grape, it turns out, is the syrah, or shiraz grape. The first one I tasted, with the hints of dried fruit, is a 2013 Syrocco from Morocco, produced by the renowned grape cultivator Alain Graillot. The second is Australian, thanks to the eucalyptus note, and comes from the Eden Valley wine region in Adelaide.

The peppery third bottle is from the Sonoma Coast in Northern California, a 2015 Shiraz made from the grapes grown in the Que Syrah vineyard and produced by Arnot-Roberts. The fourth bottle, which evoked such great emotion from the pair of Frenchmen before me, is unsurprisingly French; a 2012 Les Varonniers, produced by the legendary winery M. Chapoutier from the Rhône Valley.

Still, despite their heavy focus on French wines and their clear preference for the Les Varonniers, Charmetant and Escoffier dismiss the notion the region the wine is produced denotes the superiority of the product.

“One of the best wines we have here is from New Zealand,” Escoffier says. Charmetant nods, adding, “Can you imagine that New Zealand was only discovered 2,000 years ago by humans, the Maori, and now it grows and produces some of the best wines? If I told my grandfather about New Zealand wine, he would’ve told me I was crazy!”

They also make no preference over the current trend for organic and raw, natural wines. “If it tastes good, we’ll serve it,” Charmetant says plainly. “I don’t care if the wine is fashionable or trendy.

“Ma Cuisine is not really a business,” he continues with a Gallic shrug.“Ma Cuisine is passion. And you can’t really do business with passion.”