While we coo and crow over the magical skills of chefs from every rounded corner of the world, we should remember that an accompanying beverage can make or break a dining experience.
A German Riesling with grilled lamb chops and oven-roasted root vegetables? Probably not. The same with chicken Thai green curry and basmati rice? A lot more likely.
So let’s not forget about the person looking for that ultimate pairing, where food meets its liquid match and ultimately turns your meal from a good one into a great one: the sommelier.
This past week saw the country’s finest wine and spirits specialists come together as they competed for the title of Argentina’s best sommelier. After a suitably tight competition organised by the AAS Argentine Sommelier Association taking place over two days at the Four Seasons, a winner was selected, and a most worthy one she was too.
It would be oh too easy simply to name the nation’s top wine guru for the next 12 months and leave it at that, a piece of news to digest.
But after witnessing the demanding tests the three finalists undertook on Tuesday (plus, as I start to reach the conclusion of my own two-year sommellerie programme I’ve got some kind of clue as to what they were up against), I want to share the final with you. So that next time you have a sommelier on tap, make full use of him or her because along with the chef, they will enhance your eating experience.
The final three
After a first day sorting the wheat from the chaff on Monday, the final came down to three contenders.
Agustina de Alba from Aramburu —the country’s second best restaurant according to this year’s regional 50 Best awards — who was previously anointed Argentina’s best, a hugely admirable feat as she won at the tender age of 20 in 2008, then again four years later.
Martín Bruno, whose repertoire includes time well spent at HG Restaurant (now under a new chef and knwon as Uco), star bar Florería Atlántico and currently Tegui, the number-one establishment as per the 50 Best, made his final début.
And Paz Levinson, currently somming at the three Michelin star Le Bristol Paris and Argentina’s most recent representative at the Concours ASI du Meilleur Sommelier du Monde competition — she ranked 12th in the world in 2013.
The stage is set. Two dining situations, a table for four and another for eight. Really, they are on a stage, miked up, then presented with seven situations, each with a time limit.
Round one, blind tasting. Three wines, a white and two reds, and just a few minutes to describe the trio. At school, we’re presented with several wines to blind taste each class, and it usually takes me 10 minutes to write just one down. So to describe three — accurately! — out loud in front of 200 people in the same time frame as well as suggesting the grape, the year, the region, plus food pairings is no mean feat.
Round two, a similar test but with spirits. Five glasses, and even less time to assess the beverage and its origin. It’s generally easy enough to call a whisky, but is it from the islands, the Lowlands, how long was it aged for. You get the picture.
The next round brought in the important pairings assessment. Choose seven white wines to accompany a tasting menu but not repeating any countries. While that gives sufficient room — the motherland, Chile, the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand in the New World and of course France, Spain, Italy and others in the Old — suggestions have to be precise and complete: the name, the winery, vintage and explain why it pairs well with pan-fried prawns, lamb sweetbreads or smoked trout. That Riesling might work with the prawns but not the sweetbreads.
Round four then took somm skills to the table. I love the sound of a Champagne cork releasing those gorgeous bubbles, and there’s no greater pleasure, not in beverage terms.
But in the sommelier’s world, there’s no noisy Formula One show — on the contrary, the quieter the opening, the better. The top trio each had to uncork a bottle of fizz then serve it carefully, ensuring every flute had the same amount of Champagne and that there was none in the bottle. One diner, however, chose a Manhattan over Moët & Chandon, an additional task to squeeze into those 10 precious minutes denoting the time limit.
Next up was decanting, a personal bugbear which has taken a year to overcome. Six minutes to open and decant a Château Latour 1977 correctly, a sneaky question in English thrown in to upset the balance and concentration. Dexterity slicing open the capsule at a quirky angle plus weight lifting (filled decanters are really heavy, especially for weaklings like me) — this competition just got physical.
The final two rounds included an error-littered wine list — not just knowing which wine was wrong but explaining why — and a picture round featuring faces from the wine industry. I managed to get one out of the dozen right, Laura Catena from Catena Zapata.
And the winner is…
And to the end. A panel comprising leading local experts totted up the scores, and Paz Levinson was named 2014’s best sommelier.
In a brief chat at CAVE, our alma mater (that’s right, I’m seizing the pedigree), Paz said: “I loved participating once again and it was a very well-organized competition. I really liked all the tests, and they were more challenging this time! The overall assessment was positive and my aim was to reach the Americas competition, which I’ve done.”
Paz, along with second placed Martín, will head to Chile in April 2015 for the 4th ASI & APAS Contest of the Best Sommelier of the Americas. That winner will then represent Argentina at the Concours du Monde, proving that it takes some somm to rise to the challenge.
Buenos Aires Herald, November 2, 2014
Ph: Martin Delame