When you have served guests over several years you really appreciate it all the more when seeing a master at work. This was the case for me at the Wines Of South Africa (WOSA) Sommelier Cup 2016 finals in Cape Town.
Having paid for my education by working holidays twice a year in train dining cars and at the Blue Room I have a pretty good idea how to serve guests at a table. CWA wine courses much later ups my game, but when Sophie introduced me to “Somm” and “Red Obsession” a year ago I was in awe of such dedication and desire to succeed. So when the invitation for Cape Somm 2016 arrives unexpectedly I rsvp immediately, looking forward to experiencing real brilliance. Entering “The Reserve” on a red carpet I am swept away into a world of smartly dressed people, great wines and hors d’oeuvres - all creating a vibrant and classy ambiance. The tension is almost edible when three semi-finalists are announced from the eight who spent the past week visiting many of South Africa's best wineries: Joe Yang from Macau, Marc Almert from Germany and Nathan Morrell from Canada. Look on www.wosa.co.za/sommelier/#winners
Neil Grant, the MC and Chairman of the South African Sommeliers Association (SASA), describes the procedure to the audience once they are led to a waiting room - each candidate must perform three practical tests in a restaurant environment before two judges at a time. The six judges are well renowned in the industry, with three being on the board of SASA while the other three are respectively from Canada, the UK and the USA. Have a look on www.wosa.co.za/sommelier/#judges
|Marc Almert describing 'orange wine'|
Back to the onstage tests. First up is a 6-minute test to serve a 1983 Vintage Port. This involves lighting a candle which I find quite intriguing. Directly after that follows a 9-minute blind-tasting session with one red wine for which a full descriptive is required and two spirits for which basic comments are needed. Plus a bonus – an orange wine which assured some laughs. Lastly follows a 10-minute set in which wines must be paired to each dish of an extravagant 5-course meal with a South African slant. All this happens while film and stills camera crews capture their every move. With each candidate only brought onto the stage for his own test sequence I find the difference in approaches quite fascinating. Throughout the tests the judges grill the candidates on details of wines mentioned, including asking for alternative options. But they’re not done yet. A 5-minute group test with each one pouring a magnum of MCC (Méthode Cap Classique) follows which produces lots of sparkles while the serving brought about some shards.
|Nathan Morrell & Joe Yang serving MCC|
While the judges debate the score and it is verified by the auditors I get the opportunity to ask the six semi-finalists which wines and wineries they would choose as the best on their recent visit. Mullineux gets two mentions while Groot Constantia and Chamonix also stands out. Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc are favoured. Cheron Cowan mentions that the best wines are not to be found in the US, while Erik Grödahl from Sweden says that our wines are far too cheap.
|WOSA Sommelier Cup finalists with 3 winners|
Neil announces the winners in reverse order and with two tying for second place Marc Almert is the obvious and clear winner - well-deserved and definitely on a par above in all four tests. Petra Mayer, WOSA Germany Country Manager seems every bit as happy as Marc and there are smiles all round by everyone on stage. More photos are on https://za.pinterest.com/fmswinemarketin/capesomm-2016
|Siobhan Thompson, WOSA CEO with Marc Almert, WOSA Sommelier Cup winner and Petra Mayer, WOSA Germany Country Manager|
With the crowd once again enjoying some superb hors d’oeuvres and wines, I interrupt Marc to ask him a few questions. Here are his answers in brief.
Marc: “This is my first visit to South Africa. WOSA has done an excellent job and during the past week we’ve tasted a lot of mature wines. There is a very positive vibe about South African wines with our guests [Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten in Hamburg].”
For all aspiring sommeliers here is valuable advice from Marc.
A: What does your training regime consist of in terms of theory, tasting and focus on countries?
M: My training regime is mainly structured by the syllabus of the Court of Master Sommeliers. This includes all beverages, mainly of course wine, and requires details of the original product, the regions, legislation, climate and top producers. Of course classic wine regions like France, Italy etc. feature more than upcoming regions like Romania or India, but all are featured. And there is never theory without tasting the according wines.
A: What do you do to get all those information on the wines, vintages, regions, wineries, winemakers into your memory?
M: In order to make the information stick the most valuable source is travelling to the respective countries and / or interacting with the winemakers. Sadly this is not always possible. The main references are websites (i.e. Guildsomm) as well as textbooks (i.e. Oxford Wine). From these I take out the most important information and transfer it to a flashcard App, which I then use both on Tablet and Smartphone whenever time permits. In addition I attempt to attend as many specialised tastings and trainings on fairs or trade events as possible, especially to keep the tasting constant. Usually I spend about 1 to 2 hours each day outside of work for tasting and / or theory rehearsal.
A: Do you follow a specific format when tasting wines when training? Thus, by varietals, regions, vintages, wineries?
M: Tasting I try to mix two things: knowing which wines I am tasting, then I usually taste a lot of similar wines directly after each other (i.e. only Stellenbosch Pinotage). The second form is blind tasting, prepared by coaches or colleagues. Here I deliberately ask for a variety of wines to see which ones stuck. Tasting preparing for competitions or exams tends to focus on classic styles from classic varieties of classic regions, whereas privately I enjoy tasting all styles of wines, i.e. also something like a Veltliner from outside of Austria.
Now off you go, open that bottle and tell me what’s inside. Prost!
Photo credits: Anton Blignault
© Anton Blignault, Cape Town