This is a long one. I apologize beforehand, but it felt weird to cut it up even more. Maybe my mom will be able to read through it without falling asleep. If she does, I will be happy! Read part 1 and part 2 here of this report here.
Sunday September 29th:
As is customary, we were not told whom the three were who had qualified for the finals after we were done with the semi-finals, even though we knew the judges had already tallied up the score. We were left to cook and try to get a full night’s sleep. The day after the semi-finals was spent in Monaco, with a tour of the city, a gala dinner at the prestigious Hôtel l’Hermitage and for my part at least, a few €16 Campari Tonics at Café de Paris.
About an hour before we were to meet at the Casino on Sunday the 29th the rain was hammering down in a very ominous way. Vicious thunder and lightning. The ten semi-finalists made our way through the crowd for another hour of nervous waiting. If our hearts weren’t pounding before, they sure were now.
God damn it. I am running out of wine here with all this typing. The Clos Rougeard served well, but now it’s time to more onto heavier stuff. How about some Equipo Navazos Amontillado #37 to help with the writers block? Amazingly, complex wine. Perhaps a tad too powerful for casual drinking. But it sure tastes good.
Onward with the story! All 37 candidates were made to wait outside in full sommelier gear as defined and enforced by the international sommelier association: white shirt and bow tie, with apron and an open short-cut jacket. Anywhere else people would think you were heading into a bull-fighting show. The theatre filled up, mostly with proud relatives I would imagine. Sommelier competitions never have been, and never will be a sport for the public. Chefs have an advantage there to be sure. Cooking is at least something everyone can relate to.
The ten semi-finalists were made to go on stage and three envelopes were handed to Serge Dubs, who took the opportunity to make us all sweat a bit more, before announcing:
“Candidate number 12: Julia Scavo, Romania” Julia is a fierce competitor, and perhaps the person I saw as my most powerful competitor should we both get to the stage. She has worked in France for many years on the Riviera, and competes in French. She is a brilliant theorist, a great blind taster and has a level of charm I have a hard time matching. She is also as of now the only woman to have reached the stage in the European championship. (See correction from João Pires in the comments section below.) (Véronique Rivest of Canada did the same feat in the World competition earlier this year.)
“Candidate number 28: David Biraud, France” David is one of the most experienced candidates of all. I have seen him do very well (in Strasbourg 2010 he was my favourite on stage) and not so well (in Tokyo earlier this year where his performance felt forced). He is also a very well rounded candidate, and has that romantic flair the French do so well.
“Candidate number 11: Arvid Rosengren, Sweden” What a feeling. A strange mix of pride, joy and utter fear. I was now going to compete in front of all these people?
We drew numbers to decide who was going to start out. Me, first, then Julia and David last. Going first can be either a plus or a minus depending on your mind-set. Sometimes I like going later, just to have the nerves calm down by pure exhaustion. But it can also be good to be the first out, ride the wave of excitement and get it over with. I was led backstage; the others into some dark chamber even further below to await their judgement. I am happy there were no cameras back there, as the pep talk I was giving myself might have provided endless embarrassing entertainment for others on YouTube.
When I was brought on stage, I felt focused and ready, if not quite calm. The stage is set up they way a restaurant would look if a crowd came to watch people eat. Two tables of six, a table of four, another table of two, a large service table at the back and a clean table up front - for the blind tasting.
The conferencier, Enrico Bernardo, a legend in his own right as previous European champion and the youngest (and some say most convincing) ever to conquer the World title as well in 2004, welcomed me up, shook my hand and started presenting the first task.
“Your first task will be to select a bottle of champagne and serve to this table of six. They are having beef Carpaccio with truffles as a starter. You have five minutes.
In an ice bucket lay three bottles covered by a napkin. All from one of the main sponsors: Moët & Chandon. There was a regular rosé, a 2002 Grand Vintage Rosé and a 2004 Grand Vintage. The choice was quite easy, and I think all finalists went for it: 2002 Rosé. Moët has stepped up their game lately, and the vintage wines are pretty damn good! And with Carpaccio why not some rosé.
Tasting the wine was another legend: German Markus del Monego MW and the Worlds Best Sommelier 1998. The spacing around the table was tight, and the slippery silver trays didn’t help, but I managed to avoid any accidents and finished the task with plenty of time left.
“Next up, on this table of four, a wine club is gathered. They will have a six-course menu. The theme of the day is thegreat sweet wines of the world. You have seven minutes to recommend sweet wines to go with their meal.”
Panic. Well, not really, but my wits certainly left me momentarily. All of a sudden you stand there thinking: “Sweet wines. Well, there is Port… and… Sauternes… and what else?” I take a moment to compose myself, recommend a sweet champagne to start with (and get some brownie points with the sponsors) and then set out explaining my method: I will go gradually up in sweetness, starting light and moving to very sweet. I start out with a 1995 Riesling Kabinett from Fritz Haag with Foie Gras. In retrospect, with my wits about me I should have good for Spät- or even Auslese. Next up, a powerful scallop dish. I go for Demi-Sec Vouvray from Domaine Huet. Then 15 y.o. Verdelho Madeira with a Lobster dish with curry and coconut milk. 1985 Dow’s Port to go with Venison. And 2000 5 puttonyos Tokay from Oremus with a dessert I don’t even remember. I do my whole spiel with coffee and tea recommendations, sweet digestives and cigars and finish ahead of time, feeling like I’ve spent an hour rambling.
If I was to go back and re-do it, I would certainly put more emphasis on the great sweet wines of the world. Sure, I love Vouvray, but when someone wants “great” they are probably expecting Sauternes. I would also not use the same country of origin more than once. It was not spelled out specifically in the task, but with so many great wines out there, why not include a Vin de Constance, a Ruster Ausbruch (which would have been magic with that lobster dish I am sure) or a Vin Santo?
Next up: “Decant this magnum of 2007 Barolo for a table of six. You have five minutes.”
Five minutes is not a lot, but just about enough to do this in a gracious way. When the wine is poured for taster Serge Dubs, he asks “Wouldn’t you agree this is a great expression of Sangiovese?” Now, the task is not to know that the grape of Barolo actually is Nebbiolo, that’s kindergarten stuff. The task is to in a diplomatic and gracious way correct a guest (or not). I try to explain that I myself often mistake the two in blind tastings, but that the two are quite different. With a 2007 Barolo, the tannins shouldn’t be too Nebbiolo-like anyway, and if the guests were expecting a Sangiovese, they might very well enjoy this quite a lot.
Next up, four wines to be tasted blind in twelve minutes, and then six beverages in three minutes.
Twelve minutes to taste and describe four wines will make anyone sound like a blabbering idiot. The first one is a tricky white wine. I re-taste it after describing and it hits me: Stone fruits, nuts and honey. Rhône Valley! Marsanne and Roussanne! Number two is a modern red with a certain kind of elegance but a serious tannic structure, plenty of oak and an alcoholic punch. I feel uncertain, but go for 2009 Ribera del Duero. Number three is a dead-ringer for Nebbiolo, and it’s a pretty one too. I lose too much time here, going off about how lovely this stuff is and what I would like to serve it with. I end up going with 2004 Barbaresco, as it is so light and fresh. The last one is a fragrant sweet wine. I am stopped before I am able to conclude anything. Not to give too much away but I would have gone for Málaga Moscatel and still wouldn’t have been close!
The spirits are fairly straightforward, and at this point I am confortable and not too nervous (which I feel really hurts my blindtasting abilities, especially the quick spirits tastings where you have 30 seconds per glass). The first is an aromatic pomace brandy, I go for Italian moscato grappa, the second a Gin, with the third I go for Bourbon. After that an elderflower liqueur. Next: A heady sweet red wine, I go for Jumilla Monastrell Dolc. Finally a bitter, semi-sweet thing, I go with Amaro, knowing that is not quite right.
Then there is another classic task: Correct a winelist carefully planted with errors. I won’t get into details here, but you can see if you can find the errors yourself (even though the picture I found is of pretty poor quality). The list is about 12 items long, with wines from China, Japan, Thailand as well as classics like Shafer and Bindi Winegrowers. I manage to find most of the errors, but miss a few ones that should be obvious, like a 2013 Grace Koshu from Yamanashi. The 2013 has not even been made yet!
“Finally: This gentleman wants your help to source some great wine for his birthday. Please give the current market price in euros for 2001 Harlan, 1989 Petrus and 1994 Penfold’s Grange”
Certainly a relevant task. Sommeliers need to stay updated and keep an eye on the market. I was pretty close with my quotes on the Harlan at €700 and Penfold’s at €250, but I am apparently not quite up to date with my Petrus, guessing only €1500 (a better estimate would be double that). I blame my guests for not asking for it more!
Phew! I survived. And it felt pretty damn good. Now I get to go sit in the crowd, and being the first out on stage I actually get to see the others compete.
Julia is next. She works through the practical elements with speed and although she seems a bit stressed at first, panting and walking back and forth, she compensates with beautiful language and charm. I am getting worried. Her food and wine matching were good, although I felt like there was no red line through it all. She started out too heavy and then actually moved back in terms of sweetness. Her tasting sounds so good that I seriously begin to doubt my own conclusions. She goes for Austrian(?) Riesling, Sangiovese, Barolo and much like me, is stopped before she can conclude on the last wine. Spirits in order; Grappa, Gin, Scotch Whisky, Elderflower liqueur, sweet red wine (can’t remember precisely) and something I can't recall on the last one.
Her wine list correction is good, she finds quite a few things I did not, but also misses a lot. Above all; she has that female charm. And she speaks French! Someone from behind whispers to me: “Everything just sounds better in French.” Yikes, I am seriously getting worried now.
David is last on stage. I have never seen him this good. He has speed, grace and he is quite charming. He is not getting lost in the language like he sometimes has in the past. He finishes the champagne service, the decanting and the wine and food pairing on time. Much like with Julia, I am not in agreement with all his choices on the pairing, again lacking a harmony in the menu, and he forgets both aperitif and digestives recommendations. Those extra points can mean a lot.
In the blind tasting David manages to finish on time and goes for an all-Italian conclusion: Vermentino from Sardinia, Sangiovese from Tuscany (much like Julia), Barolo and Malvasia di Liparia. Could it be? In my head, it kind of makes sense. He goes for Eau de Vie de Coing on the first spirit, Gin on the second, Scotch Whisky, Elderflower Liqueur, Crème de Mûre and some sort of liqueur. Seems kind of sketchy, given mine and Julia’s conclusions.
Afterwards, I feel uncertain. I think the audience got their moneys worth. Out of all the competitions I have seen, there has always at least been someone who was a clear third. Not today. If feels incredibly close.
While the jury goes through deliberations, Serge Dubs takes the time to present the beverages tasted blind. I unfortunately was too beside myself to get proper vintages, producers etc. They were in order:
- 2009 La Rodeline, Marsanne, Valais, Switzerland (Decent enough, correct grape, and the correct river)
- 2009 Rudeles, Ribera del Duero, Castilla y Léon, Spain (Score! All but producer correct)
- 2007 Beni di Batasiolo, Barolo, Piemonte Italy (Wrong vintage and appellation, but elsewise OK)
- 2010 Yarden Gewürztraminer Icewine, Galilee, Israel (A good wine, but impossible to pinpoint blind)
Relief! The conclusion on number one and two is enough to earn me a few points, and missing the conclusion on the last one is meaningless, as I would never have guessed it anyway.
The spirits were (again, I am missing the exact brands for some of these things):
- Traminer Tresterbrand (pomace brandy), Austria
- Bluecoat Gin, USA
- Heaven Hill Bourbon Whisky, USA
- Vestal Elderflower Liqueur, Poland
- 2007 Pisano Liqueur de Tannat, Uruguay
- Jägermeister Bitter, Germany
With that result, I felt like I was ahead. I had been worried about the blind tasting before the competition, as I know nervousness impairs my tasting quite a lot, but it actually turned out much better than I could have hoped for all throughout the competition.
The winelist is also presented with the errors corrected. I also manage to squeeze in a few more points than the other two here.
The decision comes alarmingly quickly, and we are called on stage once again. Shinya Tasaki, world champion in 1995 and president of the association is handed a white envelope from the jury and opens it carefully. The suspense is horrible.
“Meilleur Sommelier d’Europe 2013: Sweden, Arvid Rosengren.” I honestly don’t even hear what he is saying. But I hear the familiar voices roar from my girlfriend and friends down below. What a trip!
Next up: What now?