Almert, from Germany, is the 16th winner of the world’s best sommelier competition since the event was founded in 1969. He is also one of the youngest to take the prize, at just 27 years old.
He came out on top in a field of 66 candidates from 63 countries during an intense series of tests in Antwerp, Belgium, which hosted the final rounds of the competition last week.
Nina Jensen, from Denmark, came second, while Raimonds Tomsons, from Latvia, came third.
All three competed against each other in a grand finale, having already emerged from a group of 19 semi-finalists in front of a live audience.
Almert said that studying theatre in school, as well as practising breathing techniques before going on stage, helped him to overcome his nerves when blind tasting under time pressure.
‘We keep throwing harder and harder tests at them’
Andres Rosberg, chairman of the International Sommeliers’ Association (ASI), praised the skill and tenacity of the contestants in an ever-changing wine world that necessitated knowledge of new grape varieties and wine-producing regions.
‘We keep throwing harder and harder tests at them, and they keep reacting incredibly well, going through the tests as if they were nothing,’ he said.
ASI organised this year’s final in liaison with Belgium’s national sommelier association.
How the final played out
Candidates are judged in three main areas, with roughly equal weighting:
But Rosberg said that attitude and language would also be assessed.
The seven tests in the final were a mixture of service, blind tastings, theory, and food and wine pairing.
- Serving Klein Constantia, Vin de Constance with ice cubes
- Decanting a bottle of Vega Sicilia
- Blind tasting 10 spirits
- Suggesting wine pairings with a food menu within one minute of viewing it
Contestants appeared to have the most fun with a task requiring them to name the dominant grape variety for 24 wines, after only seeing the name of the wine and its producer.
‘You never know how it is going when you are in the task’
Almert said the theory test and blind tasting of spirits were the hardest sections of the competition for him.
‘It is very difficult to stay focused, to concentrate on the nose and palate and to identify them correctly,’ he said. ‘This is such a high level that you never know how it is going when you are in the task.’
Third-placed Raimonds Tomsons said that the pressure was the hardest part overall.
‘But representing a small country like Latvia and being in the top three is still a huge achievement. I am very honoured and happy,’ he said.
Second-placed Nina Jensen had to deal with an unlucky moment on stage when a sound technician accidentally knocked glasses flying from her hands.
‘I was extremely upset, I really started to get nervous, but I was thinking I had to continue until they tell me not to,’ said Jensen, who only started working in hospitality in 2012, and with wine more specifically in 2015.
‘They are the judges, they have to decide what is fair. So I was just trying to focus.’
Eric Zwiebel MS, the 2019 candidate representing the UK in Antwerp, said that he used sophrology and the Alexander Technique as part of his preparation.
The Alexander Technique involves improving movement and posture by becoming more aware of your habits.
‘Most of the people who use the Alexander Technique are musicians and actors,’ said Zwiebel.
‘It is a good way to notice how you walk, how to deal with things, and how to be a little bit more free with your gestures. To be a little bit more yourself.’
In a post-contest press conference, it was noted that the ASI and the sommelier profession in general is welcoming a younger generation; a new wave of sommeliers from more countries and including more women.
‘We were all very happy to see such a huge spread across all the continents, and happy to see women make it through [to the final three],’ said Almert. ‘It shows that the profession is becoming more dynamic.’
Tribute to the late Gerard Basset OBE MW MS
In his introduction to the finals, Rosberg made a moving tribute to the late Gerard Basset OBE MW MS, a previous winner of the competition. Basset was also Decanter World Wine Awards Co Chair.
Rosberg announced the creation of the Gerard Basset Lifetime Achievement Award in his honour, which will be presented to a sommelier who makes an impact on the industry; as a way to continue his legacy, and thank him for all that he has done for the profession.
Editing by Chris Mercer. Reporting by Natalie Earl in Antwerp.
The 19 semi-finalists were:
Raimonds Tomsons – Latvia
Pier-Alexis Souliere – Canada
Wataru Iwata – Japan
Martin Bruno – Argentina
Loic Avril – Australia
Antoine Lehebel – Belgium
Kam Fung Reeze Choi – China
Nina Hjgaard Jensen – Denmark
David Biraud – France
Marc Almert – Germany
Julie Dupouy – Ireland
Satoru Mori – Japan
Martynas Pravilonis – Lithuania
Andrea Martinisi – New Zealand
Piotr Pietras – Poland
Julia Scavo – Romania
Aleksandr Rassadkin – Russia
Vuk Vuletic – Serbia
Fredrik Lindfors – Sweden