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Masters of wine

You have to be multi-lingual, cool under pressure, a master of tact – and knowing a thing or two about wine doesn’t hurt – if you want to be the best sommelier in the world.  Penny Boothman reports from Athens

I FELT guilty enough interrupting the one day of rest Enrico Bernardo had during this 6-day marathon competition, but when he appeared in the midday Athens sun wearing a turtle-neck fleece and a scarf, I felt really sorry for him.

Whether it was the stress of the competition or just terrible timing, Bernardo had developed a painfully sore throat – the day before the grand final in which he would have to show off his best sommelier skills to a panel of judges and a large audience in the Athens Concert Hall.

I needn’t have worried, however, as Bernardo went on to claim the trophy as the Meilleur Sommelier du Monde 2004.  The 11th Concours du Meilleur Sommelier du Monde (literally, world’s best sommelier competition) took place between October 6 and 13 in Athens – a suitably olympic setting for a clash between the best of the best of the wine world.

Organised by the International Sommelier Association (ASI), the competition was first held in 1969 and usually runs every three years.  However, four years have passed since Olivier Poussier took the title in Montreal in 2000, as the following event, which was due to be held in the USA, was postponed after the events of 9/11.

Representatives from 43 countries met to battle through a series of rigorous tests, including a written exam, timed service trials and blind wine and spirit tastings.  And in a final – some would say cruel – twist, all this had to be completed in a language other than the entrant’s native tongue.

As UK candidate Gérard Basset said, "You need to be a living encyclopaedia."  Basset, a Master of Wine, used a memory champion to help him study but he still found the finer points of olive oil, chocolate, cigars, tea, coffee and wine law – in addition to the world of wine, beer and spirits – a challenging syllabus to remain on top of.

"My wife is an expert now," Basset jokes, testament to the huge amount of preparation necessary to attempt this competition.  "In theory it is possible to win, but in theory you can win the lotto!"  A competition like this is even more difficult when the examiners throw a few curve balls to confuse the competitors.

During the timed service test, the competitors were required to decant and serve a bottle of wine.  The bottle was sealed with a synthetic stopper, but on checking the wine it was clearly corked.

"It was like seeing an electric stove spouting a gas flame!" comments Basset.  "It just didn’t make sense.  Of course we’re all aware that TCA taint can be picked up in the winery, but that is extremely rare.  The bottle had been doctored."

Swedish candidate and Meilleur Sommelier d’Europe 2004, Andreas Larsson, explained that sommeliers are used to working under pressure and being in a sommelier competition is always going to be stressful.  "It’s easy to be nervous," Larsson comments.  "You have to behave like an actor, go up and perform."

Bernardo, who has been chief sommelier at the three-Michelin-starred Four Seasons George V Hotel in Paris since 2000, seemed to be taking it all in his stride.  This was his first attempt at the competition (sommeliers are allowed to enter three times only).

He decided to take part after watching the 1995 championships in Tokyo.  "I was very impressed with the high standard of the competitors," he said.  "I decided to make it my goal to work towards."

Four finalists were selected from the 43 on the night of the grand final and, along with Bernardo and Basset, the other finalists were USA candidate Hervé Pennequin, a New York-based independent wine consultant, and German entrant Jürgen Fendt, chief sommelier of the Michelin-starred Hotel Bareiss in the Black Forest. Gérard Basset was awarded the silver medal for second place, but he was gracious in defeat.  "C’est juste," he said of Bernardo.

"He’s young, he’s talented, he has a great career ahead of him."  Moët & Chandon has been the official sponsor of the competition since 1989, and this year presented the winner with a silver methusalem trophy engraved with the names of all the previous winners.

Most refreshingly in this day and age, the Meilleur Sommelier du Monde does not carry a monetary prize.  The international recognition as being the best at a difficult job is enough for these passionate and hard-working individuals.

Moët became an exclusive partner of the ASI to promote the sommelier profession and the unique skills involved in the hope that it would stimulate interest in sommellerie in younger generations. 

The depth of knowledge displayed by the sommeliers during the competition was aweinspiring – from how long it takes to smoke a certain size of cigar, to devising vegetarian food matches for an unknown wine – and yet this occupation is so often undervalued in the UK.

There is no denying that in top restaurants these highly qualified professionals perform an excellent service to enhance the enjoyment of a meal, but it is a sad fact that in the vast majority of restaurant dining experiences this is not the case.

Perhaps if more respect was given to the sommelier profession in the UK, this unique role would become more aspirational and better service in restaurants would develop.  This, in turn, could help produce an improvement in the frequently mundane wine lists and poor offerings of wine by the glass we are presented with.

This would be to the benefit of the wine industry as a whole as well as for the diners seated at the table. rom the left: Hervé Pennequin, Enrico Bernardo, Jürgen Fendt and Gérard Basset

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