How to be crowned Sommelier of the Year? It's more than just blind tasting and precise pouring

Female sommelier sniffing a glass of wine
The Sommelier of the Year competition was a nerve-racking but thrilling event Credit:  PHILIPPE DESMAZES

In a grand room at a London hotel whose walls are decorated like the royal icing on a wedding cake, two men in suits are leaning over a table. Arms behind their backs, being careful not to touch the evidence, they peer intently at the glasses of pink champagne ranged across it. The thicker-set one thinks he has seen some drips. The other, a Frenchman in a blue suit, crouches down to get a better view. “Where? I can’t see any anywhere.” He moves in closer, scrutinising the liquid levels with an unforgiving eye.

Security operatives investigating a potential poisoning could hardly be more rigorous in their approach than the judges of Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year. The competition is the one that every young somm wants to win, but it’s also impossibly formal; even making it through the regional heats demands a hell of a lot more than knowing your way around a wine list, maintaining a cheery manner and wielding a corkscrew with a decent spiral.

I turned up at The Savoy in London a week last Monday to sit in an audience of some 200 people to watch three finalists – selected that morning from 15 quarter-finalists – compete, and found a level of tension matching that on Centre Court when a player calls for a Hawk-Eye review.

Jan Konetzki, a former winner, came over to me. “I’ve seen the tasks for this afternoon and they’re horrible. Horrible. A lot of live service scenarios,” he said, with a shake of his bespectacled head. “I’m glad I don’t have to do it.”

So was I. The finalists faced a series of tasks designed to test their wine knowledge, blind-tasting ability and dexterity with a glass and bottle, as well as a precise understanding of arcane practices such as decanting using a candle (it lights the bottle neck so you can see the flow of sediment), all the while working against a ticking clock.

First on stage was Alan Bednarski from Poland, the tall, slim head sommelier at Texture, who started out well in the first blind-tasting task, correctly identifying all three wines as being from Bordeaux and placing the two reds on the correct sides of the river. As they would be in a restaurant, all instructions were delivered orally.

Next, Bednarski had to suggest the correct drinking order for the wines, create a menu to match them, describe each wine in layman’s terms and run through any service preparation needed before going on to offer suggested drinking windows for his guest, who apparently had a case of each at home in his cellar.

By the time he had conjured up the food suggestions, I had forgotten what else he was supposed to do and was scrabbling through my notes to find out.

It was rapidly becoming clear that the first quality possessed in spades by the best sommeliers is steely composure. These are men and women who can move around a room with such adroit grace that you barely notice they are there, and whose inner reserves allow them to respond to the unreasonable demands of a shouty customer with the politesse of a footman offering a glass of sherry to the Queen of England.

Finalist number two was actually unusual in this respect. Gareth Ferreira – or Laurence Fox as I called him in my notes because he bore some resemblance to the actor – is the South African head sommelier at Core by Clare Smyth. He played a blinder in the “spot the mistakes” round, spotting within a couple of seconds that Château St Pierre in St Julien is a 4ème not a 5ème classed growth. Unlike the others, in the service role plays Ferreira’s smooth delivery was leavened with a relaxed wry humour. I wondered how this might be accounted for in the scoring.

“We try not to make it personal,” said Gearoid Devaney MS, a judge and former winner, “though the scoring grids can sometimes get too complicated.”

'The first quality possessed in spades by the best sommeliers is steely composure' Credit:  GEORGES GOBET

I took a look at the scoring grid for a task in which the contestants were asked to serve two men and a woman seated at the bar. As well as the marks for getting the drinks right, there were points for working tidily and deftly, for correct body language (“no touching, no fidgeting”), for remembering to ask guests to try their drinks and check that they were satisfied, and for eye contact and a friendly approach. And – chivalry is still formalised here – a point was docked if the lady was not served first.

The third finalist was Romain Bourger, the French head sommelier at The Vineyard in Stockcross. Bourger exuded composure even though he admitted afterwards that his stomach was churning. At 30, he was already a veteran of the competition, having entered “five or six times before” – and the only contestant not to ask for all the instructions to be repeated so he could take them on board.

Once each of the three had been put through five gruelling rounds alone on stage, they all returned to participate in a quiz before the final set-piece: the magnum champagne pour. The task? Fill 19 flutes from a magnum of Taittinger rosé as if pouring in a restaurant. Once you’ve moved on to a new glass, you cannot go back to a previously filled one.

All glasses must be filled to the same level and the bottle should be empty at the end (points docked if more than 75ml remains). All of that, in just six minutes… The magnum pour is a party piece that contestants know to practice for. It’s impressive to watch but I heard tutting from the judges about sommeliers “bobbing up and down” (to look at levels).

At the end of what must have been an exhausting day for the contestants, a very happy Romain Bourger was crowned the winner. How did he plan to celebrate? He was going to work the next day. But he was, he said, relieved not to have to enter again.

Wines of the week

Tio Pepe Fino En Rama Sherry NV, Spain

(15%, The Wine Society, £14.95 for 750ml; Tanners, £15 for 750ml; Slurp.co.uk, £8.95 for 375ml)

En rama sherry is bottled without filtration and – as long as you drink it reasonably fresh – has a glorious vitality. A real treat drunk chilled alongside salted almonds or crab pasta.

finest Casablanca sauvignon blanc 2018, Chile

(12%, Tesco, £9)

A just off-dry sauvignon blanc – don’t wince, they work really well with Thai food and this one has plenty of acidity so retains a fresh zing. Think sugar snap peas and white currants – great with stir-fried chicken with basil and chilli.

Bird in Hand chardonnay 2017 Adelaide Hills, Australia

(13%, Waitrose, four branches, and Waitrosecellar.com, £15.99 down from £19.99 until Aug 4)

Beautiful, luminous cooler climate Australian chardonnay that’s all peaches and cream and lemon meringue pie filling with a gentle structure that opens up with time.