Originally from a small village in Brittany, France, Jean-Charles Mahé, 31, abandoned a career in finance and moved to Australia on a whim in 2011, without a clear idea of what he wanted to do. Though his family had a background in food and restaurants, he didn’t catch the wine bug until after he began working in a wine bar in Perth, the capital of Western Australia.
Mahé joined the opening team for Print Hall in 2012 as a restaurant manager, then switched directions to pursue sommelier certification and rapidly became beverage director for the entire complex. Located in the old printing house for the West Australian, Print Hall now encompasses a centerpiece fine-dining restaurant, along with a more casual bar and restaurant, a rooftop bar, a coffee roaster and bakery, and a cheese bar. The company also brews its own beer on site.
The wine list for Print Hall reads as an engaging and interactive manual of the restaurant’s wine philosophy, as envisioned by Mahé. You’ll find sections focusing on the histories of specific producers (such as boutique Australian winery Giaconda), maps explaining the grower Champagne movement, and a page called “Wines Worth Your Learning,” where Mahé puts together flights of three or four wines around a theme. Mahé also spotlights a specific region each year, giving a glimpse at the diversity and excitement across the wine world. (This year it’s the Rhône.)
While in New York to accept Print Hall’s first Wine Spectator Grand Award for wine list excellence at the 2015 New York Wine Experience in October, Mahé sat down with assistant tasting coordinator Emma Balter to talk about his sudden move to Australia, the regions he’s passionate about in and out of the country, and the perfect pairing.
Wine Spectator: How did you end up in Australia?
Jean-Charles Mahé: Just because I needed a change. I decided the day of my sister’s wedding that I would move, and a month after, I was in Australia. It’s been five years now. I’ve got family in Australia that I didn’t know at all. I just called them and asked, “Can I stay?”
WS: Was there a big culture shock?
J-CM: I lived in England before, so it was quite easy in terms of language, but a big shock in terms of culture, for sure. But they’re pretty laid back in Australia, and they like to take it easy.
WS: How did you get into wine once you were there?
J-CM: I was working for my uncle, who had a restaurant in Perth [Must Wine Bar], and I was just a glassie [glassware cleaner], basically because I didn’t have any experience. And that was for me the big shock, because I was in finance before. I worked for HSBC, Barclays and investment banking in London and in Paris. Money was good, but that was not my passion. I didn’t know what my passion was.
One day, my former director of beverage [at Print Hall] came to the restaurant and looked at me and said, “I want you to come work for me.” It’s been a big progression, quite fast, because I started as a restaurant manager, then I told him I wanted to be on the wine team. And now it’s what I do every day.
WS: What is your approach to pairing food and wine? Do you have a favorite pairing you have made recently?
J-CM: We had a slight move in terms of how we pair food and wine. Instead of [creating] a dish and then pairing something with it, we do the opposite. We open different bottles of wine and we create a dish for one bottle, for one style of wine.
There’s a producer I love, which is Marcel Deiss in Alsace. I opened a bottle from his Grand Cru Schoenenbourg, and I was drinking it. Chef [Daniel Fisher] was looking at me to say, “What are you thinking about?” I said, “How do you picture yourself when you drink this wine and what would you create for it?” To me, it’s like being a teddy bear in a cloud. Plenty of fruit, the acid is just amazing, everything was amazing in the wine.
I said, "Create something with mandarin, cheese … something really different." He came two weeks after with a ball, which was a goat cheese curd and a mandarin chiboust that he filled up with a syringe. He put that ball into a white chocolate glaze, and on the side you had some orange blossom fairy floss and hazelnut crumble. And with that wine it was just unreal.
WS: What is your goal in providing a list of significant breadth across regions?
J-CM: We have three different restaurants with three different wine lists, focusing on different styles. We have a wine list dedicated to Western Australia and a wine list dedicated to wines that are natural, organic and biodynamic, for our rooftop bar.
Trying to get more American wine is something I would love to do. It’s hard to get people to drink American wines [in Australia]. If you tell them Americans do excellent Pinot, they do not trust you! I think that California is really good in the Rhône Valley varieties, and that’s what I really enjoy.
WS: You’ve had several mentors in the industry. What have you learned from them?
J-CM: Humility. We’re just here for wine. We haven’t created anything. We just take some products, put them together and propose them to someone. And to never stop learning and sharing your passion with other people. Because if you learn from someone you need to teach someone else.
WS: Since your background is French, how have you developed an appreciation for Australian wines since you’ve been there?
J-CM: I do harvest every year in different wineries. I’ve done Margaret River. I go a lot to Vasse Felix; I think it’s just outstanding. Those Chardonnays! In Gippsland, Bass Phillip is just incredible. Very small winery, with fantastic Chardonnay and Pinot. Next year I’ll go to By Farr, which is in Geelong in Victoria, close to Melbourne.
I do think if I have one wine region in Australia that I really love it would be Victoria. Beechworth is just an outstanding region.
WS: You seem to prefer cool-climate Australia.
J-CM: Yes. I think there is too much extraction in the wines [from elsewhere]. They try too much to do big things. What the people wanted changed in Australia; I do think people try to get more refined products [now]. In beer, in wine, in spirits … they try to get a more refined and elegant style.
WS: Do you have any Australian Shiraz producers that you recommend?
J-CM: Clonakilla in the Canberra district—once again, it’s cool climate—I think is the best producer of Syrah in Australia.
WS: What other wines do you like to recommend to people?
J-CM: I would go to the Rhône Valley, and I would go to Condrieu. Because it can give you pretty much anything you need in a wine. They give you power, elegance, balance … they give you everything you need, for me.