Laura Rhys, a ‘desperately nervous’ 27-year-old from Hotel TerraVina in Southampton was the popular winner of the 2009 Sommelier of the Year on Wednesday.
Amidst a noisy standing ovation in the restaurant on the 7th floor of the Tate Modern in London, Rhys collected her prize – which includes two nights at competition sponsors Champagnes Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck and tasting sessions with chef de cave Regis Camus.
Fifteen of the UK’s top sommeliers took part in the semi-finals in the Tate. Only three made it to the final.
This included blind tasting, a restaurant role play, and spotting mistakes on a wine list, all in front of an audience of their peers, journalists and members of the food and drink trade.
For the grand finale they had to pour a single magnum of Champagne into 16 glasses, filling each equally without returning to any of them.
The tension, at the end of a competition which attracted 150 entrants whittled down over months of regional heats, had the finalists almost hyperventilating in the corridors of the Tate.
‘I was desperately nervous,’ Rhys (pictured) told decanter.com. ‘The worst part was the waiting between tasks. We did a lot of pacing up and down.’
The blind tasting, she said, was the most difficult. ‘I went for the first thing that came into my head and it went horrifically wrong.’
Two of the three finalists incorrectly identified a South African Sauvignon Blanc as Sancerre, and missed both varietal and continent with the Tasmanian Pinot Noir.
The audience, knowing exactly how difficult blind tasting is, was united in sympathy.
‘The standard of this year’s competition was unbelievable. To have the UK’s top 15 sommeliers demonstrating such high levels of expertise under such nerve-racking conditions was thrilling,’ Christian Holthausen, Heidsieck communications director said.
Rhys, who has been at Gerard Basset’s TerraVina since 2007, said the most important thing about winning the contest – which she has entered four times – was the recognition of her peers.
Her next challenge, she said, was her Master Sommelier exam in November.
‘I don’t know if I’ll enter European Sommelier of the Year. I’ll have to improve my French before I do that.’
The two other semi-finalists were Yohann Jousselin of Hote du Vin, Winchester, and Christopher Delalonde of The Square, London.
Written by Adam Lechmere