ASI’s 12th Best Sommelier of Europe Contest,
20th – 23rd November 2010 at Strasbourg, France.
What makes a great Sommelier?
The traditional role of a Sommelier as a professional in charge of serving wines and spirits in a restaurant has expanded broadly in recent years. Wisdom, knowledge and understanding together with conversational skills in a second language and matching the best combinations of food and wine to enhance the diner’s experience.
A contest to establish the Best Sommelier in Europe was organised in Strasbourg last November by the French Sommelier Union and the Alsace Wines Board on behalf of the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI). ASI also organise competitions for the Best Sommelier in the Americas, in Asia-Oceania and ultimately, the Best Sommelier in The World.
A total of 35 Sommeliers representing 35 countries vied to win the prestigious title over three days of written testing and practical tasting. ASI representatives from 51 countries globally assembled to witness the grand final.
The Irish Guild of Sommeliers team who travelled to Strasbourg was: Oliver Murtagh, Guild Deputising as President. The delegate representing Ireland was Andrzej Dasiak, Sommelier at the Hodson Bay Hotel, Athlone. Andrzej was the candidate for Ireland previously at the ASI Contest: Best Sommelier of the World held in Chile earlier in 2010. Also in attendance was Council Member/Journalist, Liam Campbell.
Formerly held every two years since its first competition in 1988, from 2011, the competition will be held every three years with the next event in 2013.
The role of the Sommelier is that of a wine diplomat, they share the culture of wine and help to introduce its pleasure and heighten the emotional experience for the customer. But in addition to serving the customer, modern Sommeliers are also managers who make decisions on which wines and vintages to buy, how best to store the wines and sell to satisfy the needs of their customers while generating important revenue for the restaurant and promoting its image.
In Strasbourg, the contest for the Best Sommelier of Europe 2010-2012 was held over three days of written examination and tastings 20th – 22nd November 2010.
During that period there were opportunities to visit some of the vineyards and wineries in the Alsace region. Of particular interest was the Domaine Stentz-Buecher winery at Wettolsheim. Stefan the winemaker, one of the 10% of Alsace wines that are produced organically, explained the benefits of their organic practice since 1996: reducing yield to less than half the permitted levels to concentrate flavour and employ minimal interference; lees stirring/battonage in harmony with the moon’s growing cycle e.g. done when the moon is waxing as the lees stirring then produces more aromas and flavours in the wine; lengthy fermentation, usually 6-8 months at 15C using only wild yeasts; no fining that might remove any of the wine’s character. We tasted some of Stefan’s more eclectic and unusual wines, a 2009 Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc blend called “Who Am I?” with lovely oily and honeyed fruit; a 207 Pinot Blanc from over 100 year old vines with yields at a miniscule 15hl/ha and a little oak aging producing vanilla and honey notes to the dry wine; and a 2003 Pinot Noir at 15.5% alcohol and 6.5 acidity boosted by the granite soil to underpin the lively cherry fruit.
In addition, the mountain came to Mohammad in the sense that the wines from the Vosges mountain slopes were presented at an exhibition and tasting at the Confrerie St. Etienne d’Alsace in the Castle of Kientzheim. A highlight was the pure citrus and minerally wines from Domaine Gresser whose table attracted a lot of tasters.
To air the debate about closures: cork stoppers versus the Stelvin screwcap, a comparative tasting of wines from Alsace, Burgundy, Bordeaux and Languedoc using both stoppers was organised by Amcor. The wines under cork tended to have richer and more developed aromas; while those same wines under Stelvin had fresher and more fruit dominant flavours.
In addition and created in co-operation with the ASI, the Peter Lehmann Shiraz Award was held on the second day. The award aims to further knowledge, awareness and appreciation of Shiraz as one of the world’s classic red wine varieties. Each of the 35 participants undertook a theoretical questionnaire about Shiraz, an essay and the blind tasting of a Shiraz, which was a 2006 vintage wine from Abadia Retuerta, Ribera del Duero, Spain.
The award went to David Biraud, Head Sommelier at the Hotel Crillon, paris and was presented following a dinner and a cabaret spectacle at the Kirrwiller Royal Palace. Upon receiving his prize from Hans Astrom, President of Hess Family Estates in Europe, David said: “I actually discovered the Shiraz wines from the New World, and specifically Australia, a few years ago when you organised the Peter Lehmann ‘25 Years of Barossa Shiraz Tasting’ in Paris. It did start there and since then I have been dreaming of travelling to Australia…….I am so happy to have won this competition!”
David received a double-magnum of PLW ‘The Futures’ Shiraz and an invitation to spend a week in the Barossa Valley as a guest of Peter Lehmann Wines to further study the grape variety, Shiraz. He will also be recognised as the ambassador for Peter Lehmann Wines in Europe for the next three years until the next ASI European Contest in 2013.
Mr. Hans Astrom, who presented Mr Biraud with his prize, commented: “The wine, ‘Futures’ is a name that perfectly suits our policy of supporting young sommeliers, because they are our future….!”
On the last day, there was an opportunity to conduct a comparative tasting of Champagnes hosted by Duval Leroy including the styles of their standard House Champagne, their Premier Cru Fleur de Champagne their all Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs from the 1999 vintage and a personal favourite, the Femme de Champagne 1996 in an atypically ripe style with a nut character from 7% vinified in oak casks for nine months and a hint of honeyed fruit from the ripe 75% Chardonnay.
The three finalists who competed on stage in the Grand Finale over thee hours in the Palais de la Music et des Congrés in Strasbourg were:
David Biraud, aged 38, Head Sommelier at the Hotel Crillon’s restaurant Les Ambassadeurs, Paris and who finished in third place at the ASI Contest Best Sommelier of the World earlier in 2010 in Chile, representing France;
Matteo Ghiringhelli, aged 24, Head Sommelier at the restaurant Il Vino d’Enrico Bernado in Paris representing Italy (Enrico Bernado was the 2002-2003 Best Sommelier in Europe);
Paolo Basso, aged 44, Sommelier-Director of Ceresio Vini at Lugano and finished in second place at The Best Sommelier of the World earlier in 2010 representing Switzerland.
The competition comprised of a number of timed tasks:
- Serve a magnum of Champagne, deciding in advance how many glasses to assemble and serve. Each glass to be poured to the same level with to top-ups or re-pouring previously filled glasses within 7 minutes. Penalties for any wine remaining in the bottle. Thirty-two glasses was the correct number of glasses.
- Suggest five wines, each from a different European country to match a given five-course meal and explain why.
- Decant and serve a magnum of Pinot Noir 2008 from Alsace to a table of diners, choosing the correct requirements: two plates, two decanters, a candle, matches and a wine glass for the Sommelier to taste the wine first after asking the host’s permission. While conversing with the diners about the wine and what it matches in a second language within 6 minutes.
- A blind tasting to identify and describe in English three wines and six beverages in 12 minutes: Grüner Veltliner, Austria; Pinotage, South Africa; Monastrell (sweet), Spain; Bourbon Whisky; Italian Cherry Liqueur; Drambuie Whiskey Liqueur; a Spirit from Brazil; a Ginger Spirit and a Fortified wine from Cyprus.
- Examine a wine list and identify any errors and mis-spellings in 3 minutes.
- Name the winners of ASI Contest: The Best Sommelier in Europe in 1998, 2000, 1996, 2002, 1992 and 2008.
Later that evening, each of the four courses at the Gala Dinner was prepared by some of Alsace’s most accomplished Chefs and the wines were chosen by Serge Dubs who was the first to be awarded The Best Sommelier in Europe in 1988 and long-time Head Sommelier at the 3 star Michelin restaurant, L’Auberge de l’Ill:
- Emile Jung at Chef Etoiles d’Alsace, Strasbourg prepared Pike, Perch and Crayfish and a chip of Carp milt matched by Riesling 2005, Frédéric Emile, Domaine Trimbach
- Olivier Nasti, Meilleur Ouvrier de France, Chef Etoiles d’Alsace, le Chambard a Kaysersberg prepared a Pigeon fillet and confit pigeon leg with pistachio cromesquis with beet relish, balls of pistachio and black truffle matched by a Pinot Noir “8” 2008 from Cave Vinicole de Hunawihr
- Marc Haeberlin, Chef Etoiles ‘Alsace at L’Auberge de l’Ill at Illhausern prepared a Brioche of foie gras whose simple description does nothing to illustrate its brilliance. This was matched with a Pinot Gris 2007 Altenbourg from Domaine Weinbach.
- Christophe Meyer, Patisserie-Chocolaterie at Christian in Strasbourg created a Plum Millefeuille with Quince granita and sorbet, accompanied by chocolate Venezuela 80% in a gold autumn leaf. This was matched with a Gewürztraminer 2005, Vendange Tardives by Hugel.
All 35 participating Sommeliers were acknowledged and the overall winner of the title The Best Sommelier in Europe was Paolo Basso, Sommelier-Director of Ceresio Vini at Lugano, representing Switzerland. Paolo retains the title for three years until the next Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) Contest in 2013.
Liam Campbell, Diploma Wine & Spirit Education Trust
Council Member, Irish Guild of Sommeliers