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Moët UK Sommelier of the Year 2013

Yesterday was 35th annual UK Sommelier of the Year Competition in association with The Food & Wine Academy, sponsored for the second year by Moët & Chandon, and held for the first but hopefully not last time in the Mandarin Oriental’s ballroom in Knightsbridge.

Medlar's Clement Robert in full flow during the magnum challenge
Medlar’s Clement Robert in full flow during the magnum challenge

A truly national event, for those who decry the London-centric nature of some competitions, the 15 quarter finalists came from restaurants around the country – including Nottingham’s Sat Bains, Harrogate’s Hotel du Vin, Manchester’s Albert Square Chop House (the first gastropub to get through to the finals) and a trio of sommeliers from The Fat Duck.

Gleneagles’ Remi Fischer was also among the 15 – a sommelier who previously impressed WineChap by recommending beer rather than wine (Feran Adria’s Intedit Estrella) when given free rein to choose a match for dinner at the hotel.

Head Judge and current repeat holder of the World’s Best Sommelier title Gerard Basset MS MW must have been pleased that one of his Hotel TerraVina sommeliers made the cut, while The Vineyard at Stockcross, whose Yohann Josselin was winner in 2011, as usual fielded a competitor.

Kathrine Larson of Zuma charms during the restaurant scenario round
Kathrine Larson of Zuma charms during the restaurant scenario

The London contingent meanwhile, always a closely fought regional round, constituted representatives from Zuma, Coq d’Argent, The Ritz, Medlar and Launceston Place.

In front of a live audience of their peers and other guests, the quarter finalists had to perform a number of tasks including blind tasting, spirit identifying (by nose alone), wine list error spotting and then for the three finalists – negotiating a restaurant scenario (with tables of guests made up of former competition winners) before the infamous magnum Champagne pour, timed for the first time this year.

First of these last three finalists, Clement Robert from Chelsea’s understated but deservedly Michelin-starred Medlar, appropriately demonstrated a deft but unshowy confidence, engaging both tables of guests competently and enthusiastically despite an awful crooning swing band arrangement of Material Girl ruining appetites as background music.

The Ritz’ Tobias Brauweiler was more mannered but equally engaging, electing to open bottles at the table, and even suggesting that “guest” Gearoid Devaney and his date might like to finish their bottle of Moët later in a room; an impressive upsell if ever there was.

His tendency to direct conversation to the man was noticeable, but for the Ritz perhaps forgivable, failing to acknowledge a party of six before launching into suggested pairings for the couple’s tasting menu, less so.

However his knowledge of Gaja’s Damagi, observations on the wine and repartee with the table soon had them smoothly back on side, the empty minutes subjected to a soufflé-soft version of Time After Time, quickly forgotten.

Clement Robert of Medlar is all smiles after being crowned the UK Sommelier of the Year
Clement Robert of Medlar in Chelsea is all smiles after being crowned the UK Sommelier of the Year

Finally, Zuma’s Kathrine Larson took to the stage and delivered a confident if more reserved performance, boldly recommending not one but two North American Cabernet Francs to accompany the tasting menu. She should have been awarded extra points for maintaining concentration despite the unforgivable smooth jazz cover of Should I Stay or I Should I Go oozing from the speakers.

The Champagne pour was the concluding round, involving a magnum of Moët rosé evenly and completely distributed between 16 flutes in seven minutes with no topping up.

A tough feat and one where WineChap would ditch the Riedels, prepare a stack of saucers and pour with abandon over the tower, hoping to impress with style if not accuracy. Kathrine seemed pleased with her effort, Clement even more so, but you could see Tobias’ dismay at the less than half measure in his final glass.

Sponsor’s speeches were given as the judges deliberated and then Gerard returned to announce the winner…. Clement Robert.

Tobias Brauweiler was a worthy first runner up. Talking to judges afterwards they indicated it had been neck and neck, Tobias’ matchless blind tasting being particularly impressive, but in the latter stages Clement edged ahead and clinched it with the final tasks, especially a perfect Champagne pour. Kathrine Larson was second runner up but was also awarded the UK Wine Guild’s Young UK Sommelier of the Year.

A bevy of prizes were handed out and then drinks were served and congratulations warmly meted out inbetween canapes. The competition is a great event for identifying and nurturing talent; its past winners are a roll call of the best sommeliers in the country and it deserves wider attention from the wine trade and press, the few attendees from both surprised that more of their peers were not in attendance.

WineChap will certainly be back next year, if only to ensure health and safety has vetted the mood music choices first. In the interim, I’m off to Medlar where I know I won’t need earplugs.

Tom Harrow, aka WineChap, runs, offering advice on restaurant wine lists, tasting dinners and wine trips from truffle hunting in Piedmont to wine safaris in South Africa. 

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