MENDOZA – Huddled together in small groups, mentors rub backs and mop their wards’ brows, sommeliers easily distinguished from other revellers at a Moët & Chandon cocktail party thanks to perfectly pressed black suits and aprons. The tension and nerves crackled like an Andean electric storm around the Park Hyatt Mendoza hotel as 60 competitors from around the world chewed down cuticles, waiting to find out whether they’d earned one of 15 coveted places in the A.S.I. Concours du Meilleur Sommelier du Monde Argentina 2016 (A.S.I. Contest of the Best Sommelier of the World) semifinal.
A number rather than a name, #16, #17, #49 #27, was called out, meaningless unless you were the chosen one. Fortunately, Argentina’s great somm hope Paz Levinson’s (#49) destiny was cemented quickly, the second to be given a green light into the semis. And with the world’s top 15 anointed on Saturday night, the finest noses and palates then kicked off this physical and mental Olympic Games for somms with a 60-minute written exam at a particularly early 7.15am just hours later on Sunday. And that’s where the rollercoaster ride began: the 15 undertook a fast and furious series of practical tests designed to sort the Two Buck Chucks from the Burgundy Grand Crus, narrowing numbers down to just three finalists.
Separated from the masses on a mezzanine, candidates – Paz Levinson from Argentina; Robert Andersson from Sweden; Christian Jacobsen from Denmark; Heidi Mäkinen from Finland; Piotr Pietras from Poland; Rassavkin Alexander from the Russian Federation; Henrik Dalh Jahnsen from Norway; Gareth Ferreira from South Africa; Hiroshi Ishida from Japan; David Biraud from France; Elyse Lambert from Canada, Julie Dupouy from Ireland; Raimonds Tomsons from Latvia; Satoru Mori from Japan; and Arvid Rosengren from Sweden – anxiously awaited their turns to complete timed practical tests and hypothetical situations. Such as:
Part one, taste, correctly name and allocate vintage, and offer pairings for a white and a rosé in front of scary judges and a crowd of onlookers first.
Part two, pairing two wines to a smoked salmon blini in front of scary judges, dealing with their mean questions, then correctly describing a wine – with more than 10,000 varietals in the world, that should be a walk in the park, right? – before attempting to convince more mean judges why they should include it at a party.
Part three, fortified wine (port, sherry, madeira or marsala, for example) knowledge and service. Naturally, protocol is highly valued when it comes to serving scary judges.
And part four, selling a visit to Argentina for a fictitious wine club to, yes, scary judges.
Whisked in and out of four rooms, the whole semifinal shebang lasted around 25 minutes per somm; remember, candidates have to undertake this in their second language, which can either be English, French or Spanish. Poland chose English, as did Japan and Argentina.
Speaking of Argentina, our great somm hope Paz put in an impeccable performance. I’d never seen her in action until today but she was utterly charming, relaxed, knowledgeable and adorable. If nerves were hovering, she left them back in Paris, where she resides.
In order to keep candidates’ minds off the tough five-day contest, they’ve been whipped around the Mendoza countryside to various wineries to sample Argentina’s finest grape-based wares and tuck into yummy food. In fact it’s been more like being on the Francis Mallmann diet, given that the legendary chef is catering for three such events, which included a lavish Roman-style banquet with somms reclining on large pillows around low tables, vegetables trussed up bondage style on wires and cooks spit-roasting whole pigs by hand. Somms and their delegations have also visited two wine fairs, one at the Sheraton featuring a mere 800 labels and a special event dedicated to Argentina’s favourite red grape at La Nave in honour of Malbec World Day.
Regardless, even the stunning Mendoza countryside teamed with fabulous vintages won’t keep Paz and company’s collective minds off the final. Only three sommeliers will make it to the last round, and only find out a few minutes before they have to compete. A physical and mental battle that only the very best oenological Olympian will win.
Some #BestWorldSommARG2016 fun facts
- Bolivia’s candidate Bertil Levin Tottenborg is actually from Denmark
- New Zealand competed for the first time ever in 2016 with Michael Bancks
- Argentina’s Martín Bruno shares the same birthday as me
- The UK’s candidate is French-born Eric Zwiebel
- And Ireland’s is French-born Julie Dupouy
- Monaco’s Dominique Milardi is the eldest competitor at 50
- And Norway’s Henrik Dalh Jahnsen from Norway is the youngest at 24
- Wine unites us: Mauritius’ Jorald Julie saw my name badge at the Sheraton wine fair and told me we had a friend in common, Malene Ginete from the US embassy in South Africa, who told him to look out for me
- More than 14,000 wine glasses have been washed and polished by sommelier volunteers for events.
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