First off, a warning. This post will be about me. Me, me, me! I am sorry, I really am not a very narcissistic person. Promise... As I am writing this, it is only about 48 hours ago that I was crowned the winner at Concours de Meilleur Sommelier d’Europe, the competition of the Best Sommelier of Europe 2013, organized by ASI, the international sommelier association. I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around it, and the last couple of days have been non-stop congratulations and celebrations. But I thought it would be good to get my memories and thoughts down before they fade into nostalgia.

With me tonight to help with the recollection is a bottle of 2008 Clos Rougeard, an absolutely beautiful wine based on the notoriously difficult Cabernet Franc grape from Saumur-Champigny in the Loire valley, France. This is one of my very favourite wines and although the 2008 is still a baby, it is quite approachable. Aromas of wild dark berries and floral notes mingle with a suave texture, while the sleek acidity carries it all the way through. A very pretty wine, and it will only get better with some age. It should still be available in many markets. I urge you to seek it out! Anyway, back to business.

Blind tasting practice - Picture by Sören Polonius
Blind tasting practice - Picture by Sören Polonius

The competition this year was the 13th in order since the first one was organized in 1989. It has been held every two years, but seems to be moving into a triennial programme as of late. One candidate from every European country with a certified sommelier association competes for the title of Best Sommelier of Europe. The candidates have to win the right to compete in their own country first. This time there was 37 in all. The competition is fierce, and the roster is pretty much the same as in the competition for the World title. In fact, the last four world champion sommeliers have all won the European title first. the list of previous winners include luminaries like Paolo Basso, Gérard Basset, Isa Bal, Andreas Larsson and Serge Dubs.

This year the competition was hosted by the Italian and Monegasque associations in San Remo, Italy. For someone from the cold north (who also just came back from the cold early spring of New Zealand’s south island), getting some late season sun and warmth was a very welcome treat. There was sense of faded grandeur about San Remo, like a sun-bleached photo. Walking its narrow streets, it was easy to mentally travel back a century to the golden years of the Riviera.

The competition was held in the Casino in San Remo, Liguria
The competition was held in the Casino in San Remo, Liguria

Day one of the competition started with a theory test to be finished in 60 minutes. Let me go off on tangent here. Many people who witness these spectacles never understand how much preparation and work goes into making it to the stage for the final showdown. Studying for the theory test is by far the most time consuming and difficult part of the preparations. This is also what normally separates out those who are willing to dedicate themselves to the study and those who aren’t. Personally, I estimate that I have spent around 2500 hours over the last three years just on theory studies. What does the test encompass? Well, just about everything related to wine but also spirits, coffee, tea and service related things like cheese, chocolate and cigars. A few of sample questions from this years test, just to let you get a feel for it:

  • What is Sotolon in relation to wine?
  • Which two appellations from the Rhône Valley are based on Muscat?
  • What grape is Touraine-Azay-le-Rideau rosé based on?
  • Name the communes of the Swiss region Chablais.
  • Name all the subregions of Niagara Peninsula.

There was also a large questions relating to the more practical aspects of working as a sommelier, pricing and stocking for a wine list. I ended up spending too much time on this, going perhaps too deep in to the answers, and ended up being quite pressed for time. I did finish all the questions though, leaving only a few answers blank. My worst performance was probably on a large question on liqueur ingredients. I need to spend some more time behind the bar… XUXU liqueur anyone?

Next up was a written blind tasting of two wines and three spirits. This exercise is not so much about guessing the right wine as it is about describing the wine in proper fashion, recommending how and with what to serve it. But getting it right doesn’t hurt of course. The wines were (I unfortunately don’t know exactly what they were) a rather neutral, young Austrian Grüner Veltliner, which I was able to pick out. The red was a Pinot Noir (or Spätburgunder rather) from Baden, Germany. I debated with myself whether it was German or New Zealand, but in the end decided to go for New Zealand due to the rather high alcohol. I always struggle with the more rustic kiwi Pinots and Spätburgunder. It must be something about the clonal material (and the oak handling I think). The spirits were an Italian grappa, a scotch whisky and dark, heavy Jamaican rum. At least I think so, as I haven’t managed to get any more information on that.

The practical test in the quarter-finals consisted of decanting and serving a bottle of red wine in four minutes tops for a table of two. Fairly standard fare. But there was also a hurdle thrown in, as the guests complained the wine was too warm upon tasting, to judge the sommeliers diplomatic skills and ability to solve problems during service.

The happy semi-finalists
The happy semi-finalists

The semi-finalists were announced later that day. Proceeding to the next day of competition was:

Aristide Spies, Belgium

Christian Jacobsen, Denmark

David Biraud, France

Julie Dupouy, Ireland

Matteo Ghiringhelli, Italy

Rodolphe Chevalier, Luxembourg

Francesco Azzarone, Norway

Julia Scavo, Romania

Eric Zwiebel, United Kingdom

Very, very dangerous competition. Six of us had also been semifinalists in the competition for the world title in Tokyo earlier this year, and many had several years of competition more than me. This would not be easy.

And even though there is a dominance of French or “semi-French” sommeliers here, it is a huge achievement to have three Scandinavians in the semi-finals. A fantastic feat! And to add to that, Christian Jacobsen is my colleague who runs MASH in London, having been my assistant sommelier in Denmark and training partner for long. This is probably the first time there are two sommeliers from the same employer going this far in an international competition.

Part 2 is here.