What It Takes to Become the Best Sommelier in the World

© Abby Hocking

By Ray Isle Posted April 27, 2016

Every three years, the Association de la Sommellerie hosts an international competition to choose the best sommelier in the world. But what do people go through to achieve that honor? Here's a hint: A lot.

For anyone interested in becoming the world's greatest sommelier, take note: It isn't easy. As Arvid Rosengren, who won the 2016 Association de la Sommellerie World's Best Sommelier competition says, "I've woken up every morning for the past six years and spent at least two hours studying. The fridge in my apartment has been nothing but bottles of wine and a couple of eggs, that's it. I've barely read a book that wasn't about wine or watched a movie, because if you do, you feel guilty; you could be studying! If you turn on the TV, you think, but I should be learning the different wine regions of Bulgaria."

How could knowing the different wine regions of Bulgaria possibly matter, you might wonder? Well, consider that in the initial round of this year's competition—in which 60 contestants from around the world were winnowed down to 15—Rosengren did in fact have to name from memory all 13 grapes allowed in the production of the Hungarian wine Egri Bikaver, or "Bull's Blood." Among the 13? Such obscurities as Bíbor Kadarka, Kékoportó and Turán.

To achieve the title, Rosengren, who works at Charlie Bird restaurant in New York but is Swedish (and competed for Sweden at the event), had to respond to written wine-theory questions like the above, but also blind identify multiple wines—as well as beers, sakes and ciders—and compete in practical challenges as well. The service challenges take place in front of an audience, in a mocked-up restaurant setting. This year, for instance, Rosengren was presented with a table of guests who wanted a specific bottle of Champagne—a Moët Extra-Brut. The hitch? That wine doesn't exist. "So you have to know that Moët's recent vintages are low enough in dosage that they could be labeled extra-brut," Rosengren said, "and you have to explain that to them without offending them, and offer a substitute they will like, and pour it for them. And then in the middle of the whole thing, one guest tells you he'd rather have a dry Martini, and you have to go mix that perfectly and serve it as well." And, it should be added, do all of that within four minutes.

Pour a magnum of champagne equally into 15 wine glasses? Of course. Realize before you pour that several of the wine glasses you can choose from are very, very slightly not quite clean enough? Tougher. Look at eight wine labels on a screen, memorize them instantly, create a pairing menu for them, and suggest it to a table of guests? Easy peasy. Realize that one of the eight labels is a famous counterfeit wine (the 1945 Ponsot Clos St Denis, which the domaine never made), and then explain to the host of the table that he may have brought a fake wine he probably paid several thousand dollars for without offending him? Now, that's sommelier-ing.

In the end, in front of 500 people in a theater in Argentina, Rosengren won the title. Did it instantly go to his head? Not so much: "You know, whoever's the best sommelier is really the one who makes his or her guests feel the best," he told me. "I'm not really a fan of this rock-star sommelier thing that people are building up right now. We—sommeliers—are really at our best when we do our job and then just get out of the way."

With that kind of down-to-earth-ness in mind, here's a list of Rosengren's five favorite Wednesday-night wines; not pricey (at least in world's-greatest-sommelier terms) and not rare, just great drinking and fun to have around.

NV Fernando de Castilla Fino Antique ($30) A deeply old-school style of dry sherry, umami-rich and gorgeously complex.

NV Champagne Chartogne-Taillet Sainte Anne Brut ($40) The most affordable cuvée from one of Champagne's finest small growers—"farmer fizz" at its best.

2012 Suertes del Marques Vidonia ($40) The rugged, volcanic vineyards of the Canary Islands combined with the Listán Blanco variety produce this austere, minerally white.

2014 Domaine du Pélican Arbois Rouge Trois Cépages ($40) Burgundy's Marquis de Angerville's venture in the Jura is the source of this Pinot Noir-Trousseau-Poulsard blend.

2012 Jean-Louis Chave St-Joseph ($55) This intense Syrah comes from one of the greatest Rhône producers.

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