Tim Atkin | Master of Wine

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30th Apr 2010

What makes a great sommelier?

by Tim Atkin

 

It's been a mixed month for Gallic gastronomy. If the French were insulted by the fact that their country didn't feature once in Restaurant Magazine's list of the top 10 eateries in the world, they could at least take solace in the result of the World Sommelier Championship in Chile, where one of their own was victorious. But not for long. Gérard Basset may have been born in St Etienne, but he took British nationality in 1990 and has lived here since 1983. Perfidious Albion or what?

Basset is a remarkable man. He left school at the age of 16 with no formal qualifications, but has more than made up for it. He is a Master Sommelier, a Master of Wine, an MBA and now, after coming second on three separate occasions, the best sommelier in the world. He's charming, funny and hard-working, with two successful businesses (the Hotel du Vin chain, which he sold in 2004, and the TerraVina hotel in the New Forest) to his name and a cabinet full of trophies. Not bad for a bloke who started his working life washing dishes on the Isle of Man.

Basset is the Rolls Royce of wine waiters. I first witnessed his well-honed skills 18 years ago when I participated in the UK Sommelier of the Year competition with no preparation for a piece I was writing. I assumed that wine waiting was nothing more than a bit of decanting, pouring and glass polishing, but I was wrong. He came first; I came second to last behind a man who turned up in a butcher's apron.

What makes a good sommelier? An easy manner is arguably the most important thing. People can be surprisingly nervous when they eat in restaurants, especially posh ones, as someone hands them a doorstop of a wine list. I still cherish the story, told to me by a Las Vegas sommelier, of a young couple dining in his restaurant on prom night. "Er, are you the Samurai?" asked the man in a barely-broken voice. "Some people call me that," replied the smooth sommelier, "but tonight I'm just your wine waiter."

A decent sommelier is a professional salesman, but never a huckster. Anyone who tries to flog you something you can't afford, or don't want to drink, in an attempt to improve his monthly sales figures should be forced to drink vinegar from the tastevin around his neck. Far better to guide a customer towards an unfamiliar wine style, or something that works brilliantly with a particular dish than rip him off.

And what about a bad sommelier? "Someone who thinks he is more important than the customer," says Basset. "You can have all the knowledge and technical skills in the world, but if you get that wrong, you are useless." I've met a few sommeliers like that myself. Idiots who refuse to chill your red wine when it's served too warm, or who tell you that a wine isn't corked when it's as musty as an old floor mop.

All too often in my experience, the worst sommeliers are to be found in France: arrogant, unhelpful and ignorant about world wine styles. Standing your ground against such people can be a stressful business. A former Oddbins buyer was taken to the police station in Beaune when he refused to pay for an out-of-condition white Burgundy. Eventually, he was released without charge.

If he'd stayed in France, rather than moved to the Isle of Man after watching St Etienne play Liverpool, Basset says he wouldn't have achieved what he has. "People will give you a chance here, whereas in France they are a lot more rigid. In the UK, you can be a baker one week and a sommelier the next, but in France you have to have the right qualifications or work your way up through the ranks."

Little wonder that so many of the best French sommeliers have moved across the Channel to work here. Basset himself has been a magnet for talent over the years, training dozens of young French men and women in the art of sommelerie. The French may not like it, but we should be proud to claim him as one of our own.

SIX FOOD-FRIENDLY WINES

2009 Secano Estate Sauvignon Gris, Leyda Valley (£7.49, 14%, Marks & Spencer)
There's a lot less sauvignon gris than sauvignon blanc planted in Chile, but this wine from the cool, Pacific Ocean-influenced Leyda Valley makes you question the decision. Pithy, grapefruity and full of flavour.

Waitrose Solera Jerezana Palo Cortado, Lustau (£7.59, 19%)
My colleague Heston Blumenthal isn't the only person who thinks dry Sherries work wonderfully with food. This nutty, toasty, almost burnt toffee-like palo cortado is one of the greatest bargains in the high street.

2007 Domaine Camp Galhan, Les Pérassières, Vin de Pays d'Uzès (£8.95, 14%, Yapp Brothers, 01747 860423 ; www.yapp.co.uk)
Wow! This unoaked blend of grenache and syrah from the southern Rhône Valley is wonderfully aromatic, with violets and spices on the nose and juicy, palate-warming flavours of liquorice, raspberry and blackberry. Try chilling it slightly.

2008 Alma de Blanco Godello, Monterrei (£8.99, or £7.19 by the mixed case, 13.5%, Oddbins)
Godello from north-west Spain is one the country's hidden gems, cheaper than most albariño and just as good. This is a weighty, complex white with notes of apples, pears and boiled sweets and a spicy finish.

2005 Gran Conti Rosso Biferno Molise Riserva (£9.99, 13%, Tesco)
A central Italian blend of montepulciano with 30% aglianico, this Molise rosso is lighter than you'd expect, but absolutely delicious. Soft yet savoury, with fresh acidity, a nip of tannin and a touch of the pepper grinder.

2008 De Morgenzon Chenin Blanc, Stellenbosch (£16.99, 14.5%, Majestic)
Made by a winery that plays classical music to its vines, this is one of the Cape's best Chenin Blancs. It's a super-ripe, barrel-fermented white showing flavours of honey and vanilla spice underpinned by fresh minerality.

Originally published in The Times

Related topics: Chile, France, Italy, South Africa, Spain, Grenache, Syrah/Shiraz, Other Reds, Chenin Blanc, Other Whites, Column

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