New Zealand

Life beyond Marlborough Sauvignon

Or ‘Why New Zealand wine doesn’t just have to be about gooseberries and passion fruit…’

Before this year’s big New Zealand tasting opened in London, there was a press briefing. It focused, understandably, on Sauvignon Blanc, which is 70% of the country’s total production. However, something else that was mentioned caught my attention rather more.

‘It’s not all about Sauvignon,’ said Wines of New Zealand’s Chris Stroud. ‘There are 28 different grape varieties in this room.’

Obviously, we know about Riesling, Pinot Gris and the odd Albarino, but still. Twenty eight? That seemed like a lot of wines that I wasn’t familiar with.

So in the couple of hours that I had, I decided to whizz through as many as I could, nobly ignoring expensive Pinots in the cause of education. You’re welcome.

My favourites are below.

De la Terre Viognier 2014, Hawke’s Bay

Tony Prichard used to be winemaker at Church Road, but set up his own wine estate (also in Hawkes Bay) in 2009. Volumes are small and the varieties unusual. In fact, it almost seems as though they’re single-handedly responsible for half of the ‘atypical’ varieties in the country, with a Montepulciano, Arneis, Barbera and very good Tannat alongside this Viognier.

All succulent apricots and white pepper, it’s exuberant, but not tarty and should be a crowd-pleaser as well as a useful food-matching option. It’s aged remarkably well, and on this evidence, there deserve to be more than 65 hectares of Viognier in NZ.

£11 ex VAT, Synergy Wines (small importer based in Yorkshire, but will deliver countrywide)


Rockburn Pinot Gris 2020, Central Otago

Pinot Gris isn’t really a minority grape any more in New Zealand. Plantings have grown a lot over the last 20 years, to the extent that it’s now the fourth most-planted variety. Its 2,700 hectares are as much as Merlot, Syrah, Riesling, Cabernet and Gewurz combined. But that still surprised me – and I liked this wine, so I’m including it here anyway.

It’s very much in a Gris rather than Grigio style – 11%, with 20g/l of sugar, but that isn’t noticeable, beyond a comforting plushness on the palate. A useful option on a tasting menu.

£17.28 ex-VAT, Hallgarten & Novum wines


Blank Canvas Gruner Veltliner 2015, Marlborough

Matt Thomson was winemaker at St Clair for many years, and acquired a deserved reputation for making elegant, high quality wines that were genuinely site-expressive. He left SC to set up Blank Canvas with his partner, Sophie Parker-Thomson MW. They look for wines that are ‘distinctive and cerebral’ and this is certainly that.

It’s bright, peppery and lemon-grass spicy; poised and supple, yet intriguing. When young it might have been rather austere. With the seven (!) years of age on it, it’s a super-interesting addition to any wine list.

£13.50 ex-VAT, Liberty Wines


Esk Valley Artisanal Collection Chenin Blank 2020, Hawkes Bay

Esk Valley was bought by Sir George ‘Villa Maria’ Fistonich in the 1980s, and it’s been a reliable source of good Hawke’s Bay wines pretty much ever since. Winemaker Gordon Russell has been there (as far as I can tell) for ever, and clearly knows every wrinkle of the land where he sources fruit.

There are just 19 hectares of Chenin in New Zealand, so this is a rare beast indeed – but well worth seeking out, particularly for the price. It’s got quintessentially exuberant pineapple and stone fruit richness, enhanced by creamy lees-work and stretched throughout with the grape’s characteristic balancing wire of acidity.

£10.52 ex-VAT, Hatch Mansfield

bordeaux

Bordeaux 2021 – the word from the en primeurs

As the châteaux open their doors to the trade, we caught up with some producers for their take on the vintage – and asked Collective members for their impressions

France’s 2021 vintage has been one of the most talked about of recent times. But for all the wrong reasons. And the famously brutal frost last April didn’t just trash volumes in the Loire, Burgundy and Champagne; it took a fair bite out of Bordeaux as well.

Alain Reynaud is president of the Grand Cercle des Vins de Bordeaux group of wineries, and his members make wines in the €5-40 area which covers around 90% of the appellation. He reckons that, on average, around 25% of the crop was lost due to the cold snap. This was followed up by a damp summer which created problems with mildew, which meant that some châteaux lost a further 25% of their total – or worse. Those practising organic or biodynamic viticulture were the most badly affected.

At Château Haut-Chaigneau, which picked just the wrong time to start its conversion to biodynamic viticulture, Andrea Giraud reckons they lost 60% of their crop. ‘Fortunately, we have a lot of stock,’ she said. ‘But we need 2022 not to be the same as 2021.’

It’s a cliché to say that a terrible start to the year was rescued by a good autumn, but that does seem to have been the case. A tasting of the Grand Cercle wines in London before Easter revealed good colour and decent fruit – though less depth and ageability than the top vintages. According to Reynaud, the polyphenol rating is just 70-80, compared to 100-120 in 2021.

Bordeaux’s chateaux suffered with volume, but quality was better than expected – and more ‘classic’

Millésime de restaurant

It is, to use another cliché, a restaurant vintage – accessible straight away. And since it is unlikely to interest collectors as much as a top year, prices should be the same as 2020, or even go down a little, making it affordable. It will be tough for the producers, charging less for a smaller year, but if they want to sell the wines, it’s what most of them will do – at least away from the very top châteaux.

All of which means that, for Collective members, this could be a useful vintage for wines around the £8-20 ex VAT level. And since they’re not too heavy, they could even be Bourgogne Rouge alternatives, since we know there’s hardly any of that about – and what there is is expensive.

‘From time to time we need years like this,’ said Reynaud. ‘But we can’t have them every year. If we made [wines like this] every year we would be dead very quickly.’

Grand Cercle des Vins de Bordeaux’s Alain Reynaud

Expressive of vintage

What was very obvious from tasting wines particularly at this more affordable end of the scale is that the winemaking has been significantly more sensitive than might have been the case 20 years ago when it seemed like everyone was desperately trying to impress Robert Parker.

Oak use was mostly moderate, allowing refreshing, bright fruit to speak. The word ‘classic’ has been used, which can be a euphemism for ‘unripe’ but actually seems accurate here. The Grand Cercle wines I tried were refreshing.

Armit’s buyer, Nicolas Clerc MS, describes it as a ‘classic’ vintage – stylistically more like the kind of wines seen at the end of the 1980s or early 1990s.

‘There is a potential for ageing, but you need to know the people behind the wine,’ he said. ‘It’s a sensitive year and proper ripeness hasn’t always been easy to find.’

‘We didn’t try to make something that the vintage couldn’t give,’ says Jean-Francois Quenin, owner of Château Tour de Pressac. Which, if nothing else, makes these wines authentic expressions of their vintage.

Though of course, whether France’s winemakers will want to be reminded of 2021 is another matter entirely…

Collective members sample the vintages
There were a wide spread of vintages on display
Some tasters relax after a stimulating session

We took a string of Grand Cercle Bordeaux wines – en primeur and older vintages – to Edinburgh to get some feedback from Sommelier Collective members (above). Here are their favourites.

James Payne, Douneside House

Château Mazeyres 2021/2018, Pomerol

Both of these wines stood out for me. The 2021 was so different in its airy biodynamic texture, but still showcased a Merlot-dominant richness of plummy fruit and rounded mouthfeel.

The 2018 had an amazingly velvety texture which, for me, is hallmark Pomerol.

Isobel Salomon, Market Street Hotel

Château Grand Corbin-Despagne 2016, St Emilion Grand Cru Classé

This was all cherry vanilla ad barky chocolate notes, with a lovely eucalyptus note coming through as well. I’d have this with chicken or a hard cheese.

Maybe chicken drumsticks with lentils.

Graeme Sutherland, Good Bros wine bar

Château Soutard-Cadet 2019, St Emilion Grand Cru

Dense and dark with lots of pencil shavings and cloves with silky dark fruit, it was the balance of sweet and savoury that won me over.

Food wise, there’s no need to complicate it, this would be great with Sunday roast, or the Moorish dish, pinchos morunos – pork skewers marinated in paprika, cloves and garlic.

Molly  Buesnel, WineKraft

Château de Villegorge 2015, Haut-Médoc

I’m not typically a Bordeaux drinker, since I’m a vegetarian and don’t go for larger reds, but this was both silky and lighter in style; quite accessible with bright fruit and controlled oak.

I’d serve it with puy lentils and mushroom casserole.

Davide Traverso, Divino

Château Tour Baladoz 2019, St Emilion Grand Cru

This wine is still quite young, but it’s already starting to acquire some really nice complexity. There’s plenty of fruit, with a complex liquorice and aniseed finish.

It would be great with a fillet steak with a wine reduction sauce and steamed chicory.

Somms face big decisions as Burgundy shortage bites

How tough was 2021 for northern France? Well, Burgundian grower, Raymond Dureuil, told Jancis Robinson last year that he’d never seen such a bad vintage – and he’s lived in the region for over 80 years.

The April frost last year that decimated young vines – particularly Chardonnay – has been well documented. But to have it followed up by summer hail and then torrential rain around vintage simply added insult to injury.

Worse, it came on the back of a string of depleted vintages for Burgundy. Only one year in the last seven – 2018 – has been above average, with three well below, and 2021 something of a catastrophe in terms of volume.

Frost has been a growing problem for the vineyards of northern France. Pic: Francois Millo, courtesy of the CIVP

It’s a similar story in the Loire, where four of the last seven vintages have been 10-20% below the norm.

Put all this together, and it means that across northern France, wineries are in damage limitation mode. Allocations, particularly for white wines, are through the floor as growers attempt to eke out their depleted cellars.

And all the while they are praying there is no more frost. Chablis, in particular, seems to have been hit again this year – although not to the extent of 2021. Growers, importers and sommeliers all over the world are praying for a mild end to April. No-one can afford another short year.

Chablis is reckoned to have been hit with spring frost again this year

Major shortages

The trade all knew the situation would be bad – and now we’re seeing how much. One Collective member told me that his supplier usually has 70,000 bottles of Burgundy to sell. This year they’ve got 17,000.

‘We have been seeing reduced allocations on the popular appellations such as Meursault and Puligny over the last two years, and it is likely to get worse when I come to discuss the availabilities for 2021 [vintage],’ warns Beverly Tabbron MW, Buyer and Quality Controller at Hallgarten Novum.

‘I’m allocating Chablis,’ says Gearoid Devaney MS of Flint Wines and former UK Sommelier of the Year. ‘It feels deeply wrong…’

At Douneside House in Deeside, James Payne says he is ‘currently basking in the delicious drinkability of 2020 white Burgundy and a few 2019s’. But the future looks uncertain for restaurants who don’t have big stocks or preferential status with suppliers.

‘I prepared myself as soon as I knew,’ says Andre Luis Martins of the Cavalry and Guards Club in London. ‘I’ve got stock reserved for my house white, which is a Macon, because I’ve been a customer for years.’

Martins says he has stocks that will last him until the middle of next year.

Well prepared: the Cavalry & Guards’ Club’s Andre Luis Martins

Replacements

With big-name appellations so short of stock, merchants have been searching for new producers from different regions to make up the shortage.

Hallgarten’s Tabbron says she has looked to Macon Villages as an alternative to Chablis; Menetou-Salon, Quincy and Pouilly-Fumé instead of Sancerre; and Santenay, Hautes Cotes, Beaune and Monthelie to replace Puligny and Meursault. Although she accepts that ‘consumers are going to take some persuasion to move to these different appellations, away from the familiar ones.’

At Mentzendorff, Claire Scott-Gall says that AC Bourgogne and Chablis have become prohibitively expensive because many producers buy these grapes in, and the extreme shortage has sent prices soaring. Macon-Villages and Viré-Clessé are being shipped as alternatives.

But across the board, pricing is tough, with somms telling the Collective that they are seeing increases of over 20%.

‘It doesn’t make sense,’ says Martins. ‘I’m looking at Australia, the US, New Zealand – seeing where I can get Burgundy style Chardonnay that isn’t Burgundy. Prices have gone through the roof.’

The alternatives, as one Collective member put it, are a Chassagne for £100 or an alternative from elsewhere for £60.

Regions like Margaret River are alternatives
Pix (from left to right) Vasse Felix, Cullen
and Voyager Estate winemaker, Steve James

Of course, some venues can’t substitute A-list appellations with alternatives, no matter how good they are.

‘We do Puligny by the glass,’ says Igor Sotric of China Tang at the Dorchester. ‘Normally it would be £18 a bottle trade price, but now I’m paying £33 – and I had to buy tonnes of it to get the price down even to that. It’s pretty simple village wines – nothing spectacular or expressive.’

In other words, restaurants – and their customers – are going to be paying significantly more for the same or less, which could lead to a wholesale rethinking of the way a list is put together.

But less formal venues may well find it easier to switch from Burgundy…
… than those with very large, traditional wine lists

Tabbron describes entry level Bourgogne as ‘almost getting to the point that it is no longer competitive, particularly when compared to good quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir coming from other countries’.

There are two big questions. Firstly, in the immediate short term, how do restaurants manage the shortages and price rises they are facing – and how do they ‘sell’ any changes to customers.

Then, in the medium term, whether the 2022 vintage will allow wineries in northern France to re-stock depleted cellars and, if so, whether prices will come down.

Either way, at a time of extreme social and economic turbulence, the Collective’s members look like they are going to have to face up to even more big changes over the next 12 months.  

Discovery Tasting: Alternatives To Burgundy
Monday 9 May, 4-5pm
REGISTRATION NOW OPEN

Romain - UK Somm of Yr

How To Win In Competitions

With the heats for the UK Sommelier of the Year competition approaching, we asked reigning champion, Romain Bourger from the Vineyard at Stockcross for his six top tips on how to succeed.


Get the basics right

If it’s your first time you just need to cover all the bases – studying the different countries. The classic ones, obviously, but don’t omit the more unusual ones. They’re putting more stuff in from places like Eastern Europe and Uruguay now.

Romain at work at The Vineyard

Prepare service, and work on your timings

We all practice service in the restaurant every day. But it’s important to be timed doing it and do training as well, so when you have a practical task you can stick to the schedule. When you’re doing a decanting, for instance, it’s important to have like a check list of everything that you need and make a plan for your station. You need to make it as flawless and easy for yourself as possible, so it all comes naturally.

Breathe – and get in your bubble

Calmness comes a bit with experience. The first time you are on stage it’s always a bit stressful and you can lose focus more easily. You can practice it by doing your training in front of a small audience. But having four or five people in front of you is different to having 200 people from the trade. Some people are more prone to stress than others, but before you go on stage take a couple of minutes to yourself to breathe, concentrate and get in your bubble.  At the upper level [like the Sommelier du Monde] some sommeliers treat it like a sport and would train like an athlete, training their mind as well as their body. Breathing exercises can help.

Performing in front of an audience can be nerve-wracking the first time

Be natural

When you’re on stage you should treat it as though you’re in your restaurant, serving your guests. Breathe, relax and be natural. Think it’s like you’re at home and you’re serving guests like you would at home. It’s easier said than done, but the judges basically want to know ‘would I want to be served by this person’ and if it’s very cold and robotic that might go against you.

Be creative where you can

When I won, the blind-tasting element was a scenario was two guests who had brought their own wine, and I had to analyse the wine, describe it, talk about temperature of service, decanting, whether to drink it now – then create a menu around those wines for the guest. So yes, there’s blind tasting but there are whole other elements around it. Some questions in the exam are closed questions, where there’s only one way to answer. But in these open scenarios it’s important to be imaginative. That’s where your personality can shine through.

Experience helps – and all experience is good

When I won I’d done a few competitions in the past and had feedback. That helps because you can focus on your weaknesses. But it’s not all about the winning. It’s a journey. You get good feedback, which means you can work on your weaknesses. It’s also great for networking. I’ve made some great friends through exams and competitions; different generations all going up the ladder together.

Hard work and practice were the key to Romain’s success in 2019

Discover more

If you’d like to take part in one of the many sommelier competitions visit our COMPETITIONS page for more details.

Read about Collective member Mattia Mazzi’s experience of competing in the last Copa de Jerez; and read Romain’s excellent article about the wines of the Santa Rita Valley in California

It Was Like The Champions League…

After taking part in this year’s Copa de Jerez, Collective member Mattia Mazzi is already dreaming of next year’s competition. This year’s Copa de Jerez [held on November 9th and 10th in Jerez] was incredible. Really unique. For me and my chef Vincenzo it was something else – and not what we expected. We were… Continue reading →

Santa Rita, Sideways and Sea Breezes

Romain Bourger takes us through Santa Rita Hills – one of the best cool-climate areas in the world. Located in the southern part of California, 148 miles north of Los Angeles it stretches for about 10 miles inland between the towns of Lompoc to the west and Buellton to the east.… Continue reading →

Tinashe Nyudoka

A Somm With A Dream…

Tinashe Nyamudoka left Zimbabwe in 2008 with one change of clothes and zero knowledge of wine. Since then he’s worked at the best restaurant in Africa, represented his homeland in the World Wine Tasting Championships, appeared on the silver screen, and – every sommelier’s dream – created his own range of wines.

The Sommelier Collective caught up with him at the Bibendum tasting in London.

Are you still a sommelier, Tinashe?

I’m no longer on the floor. But I’m helping out my old boss soon. He’s opening a new venue in Johannesburg, and he called me and said ‘I know you’re not doing anything in the evenings…’ He was convincing. I’ll do it for a few months as a favour then stop.

So how long were you a sommelier for?

I did four years at the bottom level, then had seven years at my peak – all in South Africa. I’d love to have been a sommelier in London. The last four years I worked as a somm I was already working on the Kumusha wines.

How did you make the step from ‘wanting’ to make wine to actually making it, when you have no wealthy backer, no vineyards and no winery?

So I’m not a fully fledged winemaker. I work closely with Attie Louw from Opstal to help me create my wines. I make decisions on the wine style, on the vessels to use, length of maturation and making the final blends. I used my networking and close relationships to make the step.

Tell us about the name

Kumusha means ‘origin’ or ‘homeland’. The label shows a picture of me looking out towards the mountainous area of my grandfather’s home. There’s a Protea flower – the flower of South Africa – and a Flame Lily, which is the symbol of Zimbabwe.

The White Blend
Breedekloof Chenin
And Cab/Cinsault blend

Which is the harder part – getting everything in place to be able to make the wine, or selling it?

Getting the wine in bottle is the easy part but selling is a challenge – especially getting distribution. 

Did the publicity for Blind Ambition help get you noticed?

Not really. The movie hasn’t made much impact yet. I’m big on social networks and that’s how I have grown my brand and the wines.

How has your somm background influenced the style of the wines you make?

My range includes top tier wines that are made with food in mind. I use my experience of food & wine pairing. Mid-tier style wines is more experimental: unusual blends and region specific. The lifestyle range is for everyday drinking. Nice quality wines that don’t dent the pocket. I was getting tired of big old wines. I wanted something that you could have a second bottle of without knowing it.

Tinashe on the label

With the other members of the Zimbabwe team in the film Blind Ambition

You’ve made the point before that in such a white industry you feel very much like an outsider. Is that changing do you think?

It’s slowly changing as the industry opens up. My mission is to use Kumusha Wines to open up more opportunities. 

Which was the hardest thing you’ve ever done: leaving Zim in the first place, competing in the Wine Blind Tasting Championships or launching your own label?

Leaving home was the hardest. It was the first time l ever left the country – venturing into the unknown.

Do you see yourself now as a sommelier or a winemaker?

I see myself as both – and more!

Blind Ambition – the film about Tinashe and his countrymen’s attempt to win the Blind Tasting World Championship is due to come out in the UK in the summer and should be well worth a watch. Tinashe’s Kumusha range of wines is available through Bibendum.

MS badges

What I’ve learned from taking my first MS exams

With lockdown, reopenings and staffing pressures, Collective member Klearhos Kannellakis’ preparation for his first round of MS exams wasn’t ideal. He tells us what he’s learned from the experience and how he’ll bounce back stronger.

I took my Introduction and Certified exams on the same day in 2016. There was a tasting, a small practical and a questionnaire.

Two years later I took the Advanced Master Sommelier. That was a big step up. We had six wines blind instead of two, a written exam and a practical with many tables where you also had to answer questions. It’s almost like a junior Master Sommelier.

After that you have one or two years to prepare and sit for the Master Sommelier exam.

With Covid it’s not been easy to form a tasting group and being super-understaffed at work when we started again it’s not been perfect conditions either. The only plus side was that we had a lot of available time for studying the theory.

‘My mistake was that I didn’t have the right plans to prepare myself. It wasn’t lack of time that was the problem.’

Here’s what I’ve learned, and how I’d prepare differently next time.

The Theory

The exam is an oral exam, designed to replicate talking to a customer, it’s not a written exam paper. Someone asks you and you have to answer straight away. I found this hard.

Imagine being in a room for an hour, getting approximately 100 questions from two examiners – you have around 45 seconds to answer questions from anywhere on the planet. One question could be France, the next could be sake, then New Zealand. And you either know it or you don’t. You can’t go back to it later on.

Preparing flash cards and studying books, publications and websites are all vital in preparing for the exam. But so too is the verbal aspect of it. It’s important to team up with someone and ask questions face to face about the subjects you have studied and I didn’t do this.

The other mistake was that I tested myself by learning whole sections and testing myself on them. So doing all of Italy at once, say. But I needed to mix countries because that’s more difficult.

It’s important to mix up your flash cards

Covid and then reopenings meant that I didn’t have a mentor towards the end. That was another mistake. Having someone who’s been through this before can really help tell you what the examiners are looking for.

I prepared things I thought were important, but it’s probably twice the effort of doing the Advanced. The detail you need for every part of the world is really tough. In Tuscany, for instance, you don’t just need to know the 11 DOCGs and the permitted grapes, you need to know what a producer can call his wine if he doesn’t follow the laws. It gets more complicated.

You need to get 75% to pass, and I was far away from that.

For theory you need to learn a lot of information about a lot of places, such as all the Washington State AVAs

The Practical

In the practical there are four tables, each requiring different skills that I believe can change slightly from year to year.

In my exam, the first table had three wines from one region to identify and I had to do a ten-minute presentation – like staff training – on that region. It’s to show that you understand a region and can communicate it before service: climate, grapes, soils, appellations, food-pairing and so on.

How not to pass the ‘opening sparkling wine’ section of the practical paper… pic: Frank van Mierlo, Wikimedia Commons

The next table was serving sparkling wine and they ask you questions about it. It’s not just champagne. You need to know every style of sparkling and all the trends. In fact, that’s a key part of the MS – they really want you to be up to date with everything that’s happening around the world. Who’s buying land, new laws, new labels etc.

The third table was decanting a red wine, and there were questions about the specific wine I was serving: different vintages, which ones I’d recommend, whether I’d decant it or not – and then questions about the region, including other producers from that particular area.

They asked about pairing it with the local cuisine, but I didn’t know any local dishes from that region so that was my worst table in the practical. I scored highly on all the others.

The final table was to do with the business side of things. We had ten minutes to do three different tasks calculating staff wages, working out costs and breakages for stemware, and calculating cost and selling prices – GPs.

I was close to passing this section, and I really like that in the practical paper you have to describe and understand regions; I just maybe needed to be a bit more structured and systematic in my approach. Maybe I’ll create a template that I can use to answer questions whatever the subject, so I make sure I cover it all and don’t miss anything.

The Tasting

Everyone knows the tasting paper is hard. You have to get a score of 75% for the whole tasting. So you can’t make too many errors with this. The structure – alcohol, acidity, tannin, fruit descriptors, winemaking influences, climate and of course grape variety must be very accurate.

Out of the nearly 30 candidates this year, nobody passed the tasting paper – probably because it’s been a crazy year – people closed, open, changing jobs, reopening restaurants with fewer staff. It’s been hard for everybody, but we’ll probably all do better next year.

My problem was that I didn’t have somebody giving me feedback – I was just tasting blind by myself. My girlfriend would pour the wines for me and I would try them and describe them, but I didn’t have any feedback. You need a group or a mentor to talk to about the wines with. With Zoom and Skype I will now look at networking with other sommeliers and colleagues.

Tasting with other somms is essential

Some grapes have many different styles – like Grüner Veltliner which can be light and high acid or full-bodied and botrytised. So you need to be familiar with all of the different styles, all the different areas (Wachau, Kamptal, Kremstal, etc.) and the characters of the vintages, too.

The key is to be really focused on training your palate consistently for the whole year before the exam: trying similar styles next to each other – not blind – to understand the differences. Get that deeper level of familiarity and working on the mental preparation. Once you have a structured approach decided you are less likely to be stressed.

This year’s examiners – a terrifying bunch!

I think the real purpose of the exam is to achieve ‘mastery’ in each region, country, style of wine. This can’t be achieved by just learning lists but an overall understanding of history, climate, geology and geography, localised winemaking styles and the best producers and vintages.

You have to be able to speak confidently about all of the above, to truly understand how all these factors influence how the wine tastes. All while confidently decanting a bottle of wine with a nice smile!

Overall, I’m disappointed that I didn’t pass any of the papers – even if I was really close on one of them. But you learn and you come back stronger, and through the whole process – pass or fail – you become better.

With another year of studying, concentrating on my tasting, perfecting my service techniques, it can only make me better at my profession as a sommelier.

The tasting paper is notoriously tough and needs a LOT of practice

It Was Like The Champions League…

After taking part in this year’s Copa de Jerez, Collective member Mattia Mazzi is already dreaming of next year’s competition.

The Copa is a real three-day immersion into the world of sherry

This year’s Copa de Jerez [held on November 9th and 10th in Jerez] was incredible. Really unique. For me and my chef Vincenzo it was something else – and not what we expected.

We were there to represent the UK, and thought it would be more like what we did in the regional heat in London, which was quite formal. But you get there and it is like Masterchef meets The Final Table: the Dutch team brought carriages of trolleys with all the silverware and chinaware, the Russian had massive beautiful trays. It was incredible.

It didn’t feel like a competition – more like a World Cup or the Olympics – everything was bigger and more spectacular.

Mattia Mazzi

You watch the videos and it looks amazing, and you go ‘wow, I was part of that’.

I’d recommend it to anyone who’s thinking of taking part, but be aware: we’ll probably take part too – and now we know what you need to do to win!

You get a taste for it. You see what the rest can do. London is big and international, but being able to challenge other countries and the approach that they have is just crazy. It’s very inspirational.

The Belgian team were sheer class. Paul-Henri Cuvelier was best maitre d’ in Belgium three years in a row and Fabian Bail was a Bocuse d’Or finalist. Particularly in terms of presentation, there was definitely inspiration there from the other teams.

No shortage of media and audience
The classy Belgians in action
A truly international event

Inspiring visits

While I was there I also learned from the producers who gave me great ideas on how to pair sherry. Fernando de Castilla gave me a really good insight into the way the negotiant world works over there.

El Maestro Sierra, who provided my chosen sherry match for the main course, gave me a great historical snapshot into how sherry evolved.

I hadn’t planned to see them. But the oenologist, Ana, approached me at the competition and told me to come and visit. They don’t do tours or accept many visitors, and their bodega has a life of its own – with no electricity! It’s a place of silence and love.

A trip to Barbadillo was one of our scheduled visits

Top-class pairings

During the Copa there were some great masterclasses. On the afternoon after the competition, there was a debriefing of some of the sauces that we used. There are little samples circulating on the stage and you get to try it, which is really clever – it’s not just someone talking you through a pairing; you’re actually experiencing it.

Matteo Mazzi
Tasting and matching on stage

Ex El Bulli super-somm, Ferran Centelles

Throughout the competition there were masterclasses and food pairings. For instance, I went to a talk by Ferran Centelles, who was the sommelier at El Bulli. It was really geeky, but really digestible, and eye-opening.

Matteo Mazzi

While I was there I also did a tuna ronqueo where you try cuts from nose to tail moving from those with less blood to those with most blood, then fat and finally the cheeks. It wasn’t part of the Copa, but someone invited me, so I went, and it was amazing; the perfection of the pairing with the manzanilla was stunning, and they only used three ingredients per dish.

Preparing…
Presenting…
The judging panel

No regrets – well, just one…

From this year’s competition, I’ve only got one regret: I wish I’d gone to the region before the Copa, doing these kind tastings and visiting the wineries. It would have taken my presentation to the next level.

The Copa de Jerez is like the Champions League: it’s a thrill, a journey, doing something you love with a friend, the back-stage stories…

You have to be a bit of a performer – it’s not like service – but now we know how much we can push it. And we’re already thinking about our idea for 2022.

Vincenzo and I hope to be back again next year!

Find out more at http://www.sherry.wine #sherrywinesjerez

If you’d like to take part in one of the many sommelier competitions visit our COMPETITIONS page for more details.

Rheingau

Meeting Weil’s new ultra-premium from the slopes of the Gräfenberg

The Rheingau is close to my heart. Frankfurt is where I was allowed to manage my very first wine list as a sommelier, and from there I was able to visit the prestige vineyards and producers based around the famous villages along the Rhine River.

Once you cross the Schiersteiner Brücke from the south and turn left, a route packed with history and tradition opens up in front of you.

From Eltville in the east to Rüdesheim in the west, this is one of the most famous 20km stretches in the German wine world: the home to such A-list vineyards as Schlossberg, Nussbrunnen, Gräfenberg, Berg Schlossberg and Höllenberg.

The ‘elbow bend’ in the Rhine – site of some of Germany’s most prestigious vineyards

The reason for this is simple. Most of the time, the Rhein flows from south to north. But here it briefly turns through 90 degrees to run east to west.  This means that the Rheingau’s vineyards have a full southern exposure and are protected by the hills of the Taunus mountain range to the north.

The Rhine River has a warming effect during the night but also maintains a constant temperature during the ripening phase.

Don’t forget, we are at 50 degrees north here. This is still a cool wine region and grapes sometimes struggle to ripen fully.

All About Riesling

The Rheingau is Riesling. Fact. There is some Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, and good Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) on the west-facing, slate soils of Assmanshausen when the river makes a turn back to the north.

But 80% of the Rheingau is planted to the White Queen.

Though some of the country’s best Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenausles come from here, the wines generally tend towards the dry style.  

Soils change constantly, from slate in Assmannshausen, to quartzite in Rüdesheim, and löss/clay soil in the centre of the region and on the top of the hills. The slopes are steep and can quickly climb to almost 350m above the river.

The Gräfenberg

Located above the village of Kiedrich the Gräfenberg is owned almost exclusively by Weingut Robert Weil, which has 9.7ha of its 10.5ha. Only two other producers take grapes from here.

The hallowed slopes of the Grafenberg – owned almost exclusively by Robert Weil

It is famous for wine of higher, sweeter qualities such as Beerenauslese, Trockenberenauslese and Eiswein. But what people don’t know is that it also produces some of the best dry Rieslings, from fresh crisp Gutswein, through the delicious Kiedricher up to Grand Cru (Großes Gewächs – usually known as GG) quality.

For GG, low yield, 40hl/ha is a standard, the use of large Stück (1200l) or Doppelstück (2400l), mostly old casks, is a given.

As the vines became older, the Riesling in some smaller parcels of the Grafenberg vineyard stood out, for giving wines with more complexity, flavour intensity and the character.

Home of Monte Vacano

One such ‘special’ parcel was the Gräfenberg-Lay in the north-west, very close to the Turmberg. The soil here is predominantly slate, called Phylliteschiefer, which is spread throughout the Gräfenberg but has a higher content in this parcel. The vines on this 0.5ha parcel are now 40-60 years old.

And this is the home of a special new launch from the Robert Weil winery: Monte Vacano.

Named after the founder’s wife (she was a descendant of the Vacano family in Lombardy) 100 years ago, it used to be made just for the family. After the 1922 vintage it was incorporated into the regular GG Gräfenberg.

But Wilhelm Weil decided to revisit his family’s traditions and bottle the 2018.

Wild-fermented, and matured for 24 months on its lees in large traditional Stück, the Monte Vacano comes 100% from the Lay parcel of the Gräfenberg. Production is tiny – there are only 1200 bottles (plus a few magnums and one double-magnum) – and prices are around the €130 mark.

On the 6th of March at the VDP Rheingau Reserve Auction, one 12l bottle 2018 was under the hammer for an incredible €18,000. The Magnum got auctioned off at 520€.

Wine Available in the UK from Bibendum. Price on request, tiny quantities available.

This new arrival is not cheap. But it is a genuinely exciting arrival on Germany’s fine wine scene – innovative and experimental. And I really hope that this will inspire other Rheingau producers to follow Wilhelm Weil and his team – to respect the region’s traditions while still trying to do something different.

Top Tips For Matching Champagne And Food

Want some top starting points on how to match champagne and food? Or how to smash it out the park when it comes to doing it competitively and under pressure, with a glittering prize tantalisingly within your reach?

2020 Winners: Joshua Castle (left) and chef Myles Donaldson; Photography: Miles Willis

Of course you do! And we figured there’s no better place to start for either of these points than asking Joshua Castle, the winner – with chef Myles Donaldson – of last year’s Gosset Matchmakers competition.

And with a good few Sommelier Collective members probably considering their entries for this year’s Matchmakers competition right now, the timing could hardly have been better. Lucky coincidence, huh?

So sit back, take a few notes, pop a bottle of Grande Reserve if you have one, and prepare for instant success!

So where do you begin when it comes to matching champagne? With the flavours? The texture? The acidity?

I think you’ve almost got to take one step back away from the food. So in the case of the 2020 Matchmakers Competition first of all I listened to what Gosset had to say about their wine. A lot of champagne and food pairings have been born out of changing styles of champagne, with slightly warmer base vintages, and wider, more gastronomic wines.

But Gosset described their Grande Rosé as a very ‘winey wine’, which I really agreed with. It wasn’t the richest rosé, but certainly it had this freshness – this gastronomic side. I think understanding the wine is step one.

So you start with the wine. What next?

Next I’d look at the pairing in general and see how the food might link in with it. So acid, tannin – in a rosé at least there might be some of that, dryness, autolytic character, aromatics. How does all that translate onto the palate and how does it combine as a texture? Then you can think about ingredients that will interplay really nicely with those.

Contestants in 2021 can choose from Gosset Grande Reserve and Gosset Grand Blanc de Blancs

But you can also go one step beyond that and think ‘how would I put this dish in a dining setting? Is it an aperitif-type a dish, and is the wine an aperitif wine?’

What’s the hardest element when you’re matching with champagne?

Champagne is such a cool thing to pair. It can be a really intelligent thing to use in the right context. It’s true that you’re contending with high acidities, but the thing that is most tricky to me is allowing the delicacy of the champagne to not be overpowered by a dish.

Sure the flavours can be very concentrated in high quality champagne – and they certainly are in Champagne Gosset. But there’s also very delicate parts of it. There has to be room on the stage for the Champagne.

Your dish was ‘calves’ brains seared in brown butter, with Lardo di Colonnata, Kentish Cob Nuts, Champagne vinegar and watermelon radish’. How did you come up with that?

Sorry, we just have to say this in our best ‘zombie voice’: ‘braaaaaiiiiinnnns.’

I’d been doing a bit of research into German wine that week and I’d been coming across all these amazing old venues from ships and hotels in New York at a time when German wine was as expensive as Chateau Margaux. One of the recipes was for larded sweetbreads.

Basically the idea is to combine sweetbreads or offal – so not a particularly fatty cut – with lard, so you’re basically substituting the lack of fat in the cut. Lardo di Colonnata is basically pork fat aged in these marble sarcophagi, and it develops this amazing nutty earthy flavour. It goes sort of translucent when it’s warm and the fat melts. The idea sort of stemmed from there: something that is textually and visually very interesting.

So I was playing around with a couple of ideas in reference to that with champagne. And I thought ‘imagine ordering larded sweetbreads in this amazing regal dining setting, and having it with something that is texturally, really bright’. I thought: that’s a killer pairing – that’s really cool!

So how did you see it working with the wine?

You could easily go for a richly textured white wine – like Burgundy – with a dish like this. But here I wanted something that is going to make your palate sort of ‘pop’.

Brains are texturally hard to describe, but they’re not very filling, and we wanted to bring an element of acidity, that was not overwhelming to the wine, so we added a little champagne vinegar.

Creating the dish with chef Myles Donaldson

If you think about it, it’s a really simple dish: protein, acid, and then we kind of had to work around texture, which we achieved through these really cute little watermelon radishes. They kind of bled ever so slightly into the vinegar, giving it this pinky hue. We hadn’t expected that, but it really worked!

You’ve mentioned that your dish was really simple. Do you think entrants need to beware of trying to do too much on the plate?

Yes and no. We were pretty blown away by our competitors;  some of the dishes that they were putting out were technically phenomenal and visually really blew ours out of the water. But I think that represented who they were as sommeliers and chefs. If you can achieve that technically in that period of time, then go for it!

But the core of it has to be a wine and food pairing. The dish doesn’t have to be complex as long as it represents you – and we had a nice story behind it as well. It felt like something that we would put up in the restaurant, and it was collaborative between me and the chef. It felt natural.

The competitor dishes looked great…

But a watermelon radish pink tinge…

and superb matching skills won out

So a final ‘in a nutshell’ bit of advice?

It’s important to remember that this isn’t a cooking competition. Simple and repeatable is good – particularly if it has a nice story behind it.

You need to ask whether the cooking is being done for the sake of it, or whether it’s a means to an end – which is matching the wine.

The five finalist teams of 2020

The Gosset Matchmakers competition is now open to all chefs and sommeliers with less than five years experience. More information – including entry form – visit www.gossetmatchmakers.uk. Entries must be received by Thursday 30 June, 2021.

2022 Entry NOW OPEN

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Copa Jerez

A chilled glass of Fino, a complex Palo Cortado, the warm sun on your shoulders, a tasty tapa to set your taste buds tingling, a view of the Alcázar de Jerez…is this a holiday you’re on?

No, it’s what you can get to do in between sessions at Jerez’s most famous sommelier and chef competition: Copa Jerez. Seems like a dream right now but plans are afoot to hold the ninth edition of the competition in Jerez at the end of this year.

Sounds too good to be true but gaining a place in the bi-annual final of the Copa de Jerez in Jerez , not only allows you to learn more about one of the world’s most diverse and fascinating fortified wines in situ, but it also gives you time to explore and learn about the enchanting, historic city of Jerez.

International Final Copa Jerez 2019

Copa Jerez judge and MW, Sarah Jane Evans explains, “The Copa Jerez is a sensational event – for judges and contestants. The final takes place in the heart of the glorious old city of Jerez. This means there’s the chance to visit a bodega and enjoy a tapa with a glass of Sherry in between the hard work. As such it has to be the most fun destination of any sommelier competition.”

The Copa Jerez is a sensational event – for judges and contestants.

Sarah Jane Evans MW

She continues, “One of the pleasures of the international final is the way it celebrates the diversity of Sherry. Whatever the course, or ingredient, there’s a Sherry style to match. Copa Jerez acts like a reset or jump-start: it’s a whole new way of looking at the wine, and raises the game.”

Sherry, of course, is the focus. Food, the palette, which lets you and your chef to explore a world of taste and sensations as you discover the very best paring to set off the flavours in your dish and maximise the delicious nuances of your chosen wine from Andalucía’s most famous wine producing region, in southern Spain.

The ninth edition of the Copa de Jerez has just been launch by Sherry Wines and organisers are looking for chef and sommelier teams from across the UK to devise a three-course meal which will complement and showcase the versatility of Sherry wines. It’s a test of your knowledge of Sherry wines as a sommelier and your skill in food pairing based on the fabulous dishes you chef team can produce.

2021 UK Judges (left to right): Sarah Jane Evans MW; Anna Haugh; Mattieu Longuere MS

But it’s not just about the final, the preparation and creativity is also key to taking part. The regional heats in one of 8 different competing countries are a thrill to be involved in too. As former participant Owen Morgan, owner and founder of the Bar 44 group describes, “It is an incredible experience to be part of. Firstly for us as a chef and sommelier team, plotting and planning, experimenting and balancing, plus of course, how much can be achieved in the time frame.”

It is an incredible experience to be part of.

Owen Morgan, chef patron, Asador 44

He continues, “Getting to work with an exceptional level of ingredients and world class wines to taste and pair is an exceptional experience. Then there’s the experience of competing on the day – nerve wracking, yes, but is certainly honed our skills as professionals by getting to work alongside high levels pros in the UK business. We also made some great friends, who we are still in touch with today. We got so much out of the competition – learning, experiences and new colleagues. I’d recommend taking part to anyone who loves food and wine and especially Sherry.”

Participants agree that taking part is not just a learning experience but it is also about innovation and using your imagination, as Evans points out, “In this competition you can step outside the traditional pairings, and the regular choices of Finos and Manzanillas as aperitifs. The most exciting match for the judges in the last competition, for instance, was a very old PX paired a dessert. The Copa Jerez is a brilliant opportunity for sommelier and chef to work together to be really creative. It’s not just wine-pairing, we also score the quality of wine preparation and service, and the way the sommelier and chef work together as a team. “

A tasting menu is a story that you are going to tell via the food and sherries – you have to a catchy beginning, and interesting main part and sweet, happy ending!

Alan Bednarski, UK Winner Copa Jerez 2018

Alan Bednarski, head sommelier at Annabel’s, has participated and won the Copa de Jerez UK final and he was inspired to enter the competition by his love of the simplicity of tapas and Sherry. His real discovery was his time at Texture when he has the opportunity to work with unusual combination of flavours and ingredients that Chef used for tasting menu. He explains, “Wines from Jerez works perfectly with such a challenging combination of fusion Icelandic-British cuisine and Asian flavours. Working with Chef Karl O’Dell was so creative when it came to creating dishes, trying single components and looking for THE SPECIAL sensation when you taste food and Sherry and smile after each bite.”

left-right: Karl O’Dell, head chef and Alan Bednarski, head sommelier, Texture Restaurant competing at the International Final of Copa Jerez in 2019.

His top tips when entering the competition is “Less is more when it comes to ingredients,” says Bednarski, “Team work is also so important and easy to forget that this competition is about the Chef and the Sommelier. “ He adds, “A tasting menu is a story that you are going to tell via the food and sherries– you have to a catchy beginning, and interesting main part and sweet, happy ending!”

Most importantly he mentions is that “the competition is about the journey not about winning it. If you put enough effort in to make it the most special and memorable experience for you, it will pay back.”

Interested in entering Copa Jerez 2021?

Click here to find out more and start your Copa Jerez journey.

Deadline: 30 April, 2021.

Sherry webinar – March, 2021

To learn more about Sherry and competing in the Copa Jerez competition, members of The Sommeleir Collective were invited to join a webinar hosted by Charlotte Hey, with special guest Cesar Saldana, president, Consejo Regulador Jerez y Manzanilla.