The wine choice can make or break a highly anticipated dinner. Get it wrong and the special occasion you’ve been looking forward to might become just a routine meal. But the right bottle can make it spectacular.
That’s where a good sommelier steps in. As the late Gerard Basset, winner of the 2010 ASI Best Sommelier in the World title explained, there are many aspects to the job. His list of essential attributes included a welcoming personality, ability to understand what the diner wants and match that to the right bottle, and team work to combine with other members of the staff. Plus, of course, exceptional knowledge of the wines on the list. Sommeliers will invariably tell you that they love food. That makes sense as they work in the restaurant industry. But to be a good sommelier it’s all about being able to convey that enthusiasm to the diners.
Some people claim that the ability to taste wine is an innate gift. Basset disagreed, insisting that attitude is the main asset for a budding sommelier – the rest can be taught. As with any other job, there are various levels of skill. The best way to find the best in the business is to put them to the test. That happens every three years at the World’s Best Sommelier Championship – the wine equivalent of the Olympics. This year’s competition, held in Belgium, underlined the skill a good sommelier possesses. The 66 competitors from 63 countries had qualified through their national events. At 21 years old, Dayana Nassyrova from Kazakhstan was the youngest competitor, most were in their 30s, and the elder statesman was 58 year old Bruno Scavo from Monaco. The UK was represented by Eric Zwiebel from the Summer Lodge Country House Hotel in Dorset.
The three day competition was divided into three parts, testing the contenders in a written exam, their ability to serve wine and a blind taste test. And it was not only wine knowledge – the challenge also covered beers, spirits, sake, water, coffee and tea. Gradually, contenders were eliminated from the competition until 19 survivors were left to battle it out for the title. That number was trimmed further until only three remained. The leading trio were the contestants from Latvia, Denmark and Germany. The final comprised an attempt to identify some of the world’s more obscure grape varieties. Other challenges involved recommending food to match the wines, rather than the other way round, and pouring a magnum of sparkling wine into 16 glasses, the aim being to make them all the same. And after a tense and draining final, it was the 27 year old German Marc Almert from the Baur au Lac in Zurich, who lifted the title. He now joins a list of winners who have used their success in the competition to build successful careers. And he earned the right to pop a cork in celebration. Our choice would be this champagne, but perhaps Marc prefers something else.