The competition of the best sommelier of the world 2023 was held on February 12 in Paris. You probably already know that the big winner is not Pascaline Lepeltier, our French girl who was playing at home, nor Nina Jensen, the Danish candidate 2nd of the 2019 edition, who represented the other female chance in a contest won until now exclusively by men. It was the Latvian Raimonds Tomsons who won the final with brio and took the coveted title of World's Best Sommelier 2023 (he had also been a finalist in 2019).
If we talk about this event (again), it's because it has the merit of raising some questions that concern the wine industry. The tastings, the tests and the social events around the competition are rich sources of information on the place and the role of wine in the world of international sommellerie and consequently in the world of the final consumer. Here are the moments that we think deserve to be revisited after a few days of decanting.
Low or no alcohol wines
During the presentation of the drinks tasted since the quarter finals, Andreas Larsson, best sommelier of the world 2007, revealed those of the "low or no alcohol beverages" session:
- Water kefir
- Geisha Coffee Finca Deborah, Panama (Chemex, Cold)
It may surprise the neophyte, but the sommelier is not a wine specialist. He is a beverage specialist, including wine. In fact, the tests that followed included spirits, cocktails and fortified wines. What surprised us, however, was the importance that the organizers gave to this event given its novelty. Andreas Larsson reminded us that this difficult test did not exist in 2007, but that it now has its place in the sommelier's field of competence. What should we understand? That alcohol, not to say wine, is no longer the imposed drink of high gastronomy? Yes, a priori. Despite its statistical majority (17 out of 30 drinks with Jerez) from the quarter-finals onwards, wine is giving way to alternatives with little or no alcohol, which are imposing themselves on new combinations such as vegan food, with which the candidates had to create associations. It is difficult to evaluate the weight that this new category will have in the future, but it exists because there is a demand, a growing demand.
A wine with a default
During the restaurant service test (a stage reproduced a restaurant room), where the candidates have to manage real situations, questions are asked to break the rhythm and add more difficulty. Among them, the tasting of a wine brought by a customer with the only indication: "we need your advise as an expert, we are going to have a corporate diner here in France with our partner who is not with us tonight so you can speak freely... Could you please give your opinion on the quality of his wine". The three finalists described the wine positively and ventured on an origin... None of them however spotted the default that had to be identified to win the test: 1.2g/L of volatile acidity, which is above the market standard for a wine, in this case a still red wine.
At the end of the competition, an aperitif followed by a dinner extended the evening. There were many critics. How could they not smell this volatile? To tell the truth, the analysis is, it seems to us, a little more complex. If the objective of the test has been confirmed by the authorities (to find the volatile and describe the wine as deviant), the candidates' reactions must be contextualized. First context: the final and the stress that goes with it, which deprives you of the necessary detachment to imagine this eventuality, that of a non-marketable wine to be tasted. It's the final, the test is timed, but without a stopwatch, the candidates rush through a stereotypical tasting to gain time and regain control of the service they had to abandon. But stress does not erase the volatile and at 1.2g/L the volatile smells quite obvious, even very obvious, especially as the instructions were explicit: "our partner is not here, you can speak freely." Then second context, that of the "new" sommellerie. It is clear that the menus of the great restaurants have more and more often their share of "deviant" or "lively" wines, depending on the obedience. This "new" sommellerie does not hesitate to present on the menu wines whose volatility regularly flirts with the gram, among other deviances sometimes more problematic. So, did our candidates consider that wine belonged to this "new" sommellerie, to which they themselves perhaps adhere? Perhaps, perhaps not. In any case, this test leaves a bitter taste on a hot topic...
The wines of the closing dinner
We were spoiled, to say the least. A good thousand people were invited to share a gala meal served by the irreproachable caterer Potel & Chabot. The wines were just as remarkable. Among other beautiful Bordeaux, Château Lynch Bages 2005 and Château La Tour Blanche 2009 left their mark on our table and revived the misunderstanding around "Bordeaux bashing" in France. Another wine, from another region, made its mark on our table, but also on that of our neighbors: the Beaujolais wine, a Saint-Amour, whose volatile phenol content could not leave any room for doubt. After the test of the volatile acidity in the final, we are again confronted with the problem, but this time through the brettanomyces! Our first reaction (meaning a table of 10 people plus our neighbors) was to know if the choice of this bottle was intentional or not. Indeed, if the sample tasted before the service was relatively clean (the variations between bottles can be consequent on this subject) we can almost admit such a situation. On the other hand, if the sample was identical to those served at the dinner, what image did we want to give of the region? All the other wines served that evening were very clean. Why was only the Beaujolais wine stamped with an animal and volatile note? Is this the benchmark of Beaujolais for the sommeliers? This is all the more astonishing since a few days before, during the elimination phases of the competition, superb Beaujolais wines were in free tasting. These questions will surely remain unanswered, but they give food for thought to a whole generation of young sommeliers who see this deviance as a regional characteristic, wrongly.
A nice contest
Let's end on a nice note by warmly thanking the Union de la Sommellerie Française which, under the impulse of its president Philippe Faure-Brac, worked relentlessly for 3 years to make this event take place in Paris. It was a success and it certainly nourished vocations.
At a time when professions are diversifying, the sommelier is tempted to expand his services. Haven't we seen at least once the name of sommelier-adviser, sommelier-consultant or even, more randomly, sommelier-salesman in place of the sufficient sommelier? So when the finalists are evaluated on their ability to manage a restaurant room, to serve aperitifs, wines and digestifs with elegance, to create ever more refined food and wine pairings, we are reassured that the essence of sommellerie is preserved.