Decanter's chief sub-editor TINA GELLIE describes competing in the final of the Sommelier of the Year competition, alongside the 15 professional sommeliers.
I almost left the room after reading the first question: ‘What are the grapes in white Chateau Musar.’ Who knows that? I floundered. Obaideh and Merwah, said Jan Konetski, of Gordon Ramsay Restaurant in London, after the exam. He had lunch with Serge Hochar the week before. Jammy bugger.
And who is the winemaker behind Silex? Oh God – what’s his name? I can see his face… I write: ‘Pouilly-Fumé winemaker with crazy hair and big beard that died in a plane accident’. As soon as I hand in my paper I remember it was Didier Dagueneau. I wonder if I’ll get a point?
This written exam of short- and long-answer questions was just the first hurdle for the 15 brave souls competing in the national semi-final of the UK Sommelier of the Year Competition. Other challenges included a blind tasting of four wines and a mysteriously titled ‘snappy question’. The three scoring the highest aggregate marks would compete in the final that afternoon.
Despite turning up smartly attired in black and white, I was rumbled as a ringer straight away – no lapel badge of grapes, no apron and no secret stash of sommelier goodies that some seemed to have hidden in pockets: a chamois to buff glasses, a waiter’s friend, foil cutters…
What we all had in common though was palpable nerves. I hadn’t been this on edge in wine company since taking my Unit 3 WSET Diploma exam five years ago. How about if I couldn’t tell a Pinot Noir from a Cabernet? What are the second growths of St-Julien?
And, despite what you might think, wine isn’t the only thing a sommelier has to be au fait with. Thankfully I remembered under the pressure of exam conditions that Steinlager, despite its Germanic name, is actually a New Zealand beer, orris root and cassia bark are gin botanicals, and (somehow) recalled the malting, mashing, fermentation and distillation process of whisky. But only Philippe Moranges from Hakkasan in London knew that Camilla sinensis was the Latin name for tea. Thank goodness there were no questions on cigars.
There was only one hour for the 100 or so questions plus a blind tasting of four wines. Before I knew it I’d spent 45 minutes on the paper and hadn’t even nosed the glasses. As soon as I did, a photographer was inches from my face, clicking away. Hope he airbrushes out the sweat on my brow.
Two reds, two whites. Give the grape, region, vintage and price plus a detailed tasting note. The first one stumped me. Was it Chenin? Not high enough acidity. Definitely Old World, but I can’t place it. I settle for Chablis, but not really happy with my choice. The second I immediately thought was white Burgundy. They wouldn’t put two French Chardonnays on, would they? Probably means the first is wrong. Too late; no time to change it. The reds seemed easier. The first was very Italian – pretty sure it’s Nebbiolo by the colour and cherry flavour. I’ll say Barolo. The second was Old World, definitely, judging by its ripe flavour. Shiraz, I think, and Australian. More elegant than Barossa, but more leathery than McLaren Vale. I’ve got nothing to lose, so I’ll say Hunter Valley.
The wines are revealed. Not bad for a 15-minute frenzy. It was a Barbaresco, not a Barolo, and I got the Shiraz spot on. Less great with the whites: a Pouilly-Fumé for the first (will Didier Dagueneau continue to haunt me?) and a Grüner Veltliner. Yohann Josselin from the Vineyard at Stockcross in Newbury is looking pretty confident…
The last part of the semis was the ‘snappy question’ or what I was later told was supposed to be answered more in a role-play manner. (Why do they tell you these things later?) Standing before a panel headed by Matt Wilkin MS director of the Academy of Food and Wine and a winner here in 2005, I had to say what I, as a sommelier, would do if a customer refused a wine because it was under screwcap. Some competitors apparently froze under questioning, Wilkin said. Others breezed through. I thought I did OK in explaining that screwcaps don’t mean cheap wine, citing a few big-name producers that use them, and that while I would exchange the bottle if the customer wished, I’d urge them to try the wine before condemning it. Was that right?
Later I bump into Gerard Basset, not only chairman of judges here, but technical director of the Academy of Food and Wine, owner of Hotel TerraVina and the only person to hold Master of Wine, Master Sommelier and Wine MBA qualifications. French born he may be, but he’s Britain’s most famous sommelier. He, like the other judges, has won this UK competition before – a springboard to greater success. A week before, Basset had finally scooped the big one – the World’s Best Sommelier title. In six attempts at trying over 18 years, he made it to the final three times and come second twice.
Basset’s a bit of a God in circles like this, especially after his recent triumph, so I was floored when he told me I’d done pretty well – 10th in the tasting and questionnaire and ninth in the role-play – but perhaps not good enough to give up the day job, he said with a smile. Dammit. Maybe I should have studied. I know these guys certainly did. Erica Laler of Texture in London said she hadn’t had a weekend off in about four months, first studying for the regional sommelier competition and now for this. Master Sommelier Christopher Delalonde of Sarment Wines said losing was not an option, and wouldn’t let on how much he’d spent on wine samples and training to get this far.
When the results were announced that the pre-competition favourites Delalonde, Josselin (who won the prize for the highest blind tasting mark) and Clement Robert (surely a future winner) of the Summer House Country Lodge Hotel in Evershot were the three finalists, there were cheers, but also a few dejected faces. These are hard-working people passionate about their craft and their journey was over. For this year anyway. (For the record, Delalonde went on to win the final, just a few points clear of Josselin.)
Not long after I see Laler at Texture, who tells me she’s entered into another sommelier competition. Why subject yourself to more studying? Why not take a break from those long hours sourcing wine, chasing suppliers, updating your wine list, teaching staff, serving customers and smiling all the time?
Its fun, she says. If you improve your skills by learning more about a subject that you love, why wouldn’t you? And she’s right. Look at Basset. So next time you’re in a smart restaurant and a sommelier glides to your table, don’t look down on them as an upstart waiter or try to show off in front of your dining companions by challenging their suggestions. Listen to what they have to say: you might learn something. Most of them certainly have.