An early start on a bright but cold Monday morning, London bound for the Sommelier of the Year heats at the Grosvenor House Hotel on Park Lane, a suitable setting for London’s finest to showcase their skills.
A swift coffee and plenty of handshakes and by 10am we’re ready for the off. First task for our forty anonymously numbered candidates – blind tasting. As wine sponsor, Matthew Clark provided the wines, and there was a mix of classic varietals and more testing styles. Leasingham Riesling should’ve been an easy spot with its fresh acidity and limes on the palate, whereas the Muscadet from Chateau Cleray (Melon de Bourgogne) proved a little trickier. Then followed James Diceys Ceres Pinot Noir – classic Otago and trickiest of all, Chateauneuf du Pape from Clos de L’Oratoire, a blend of five grapes but predominately Grenache.
No rest for the wicked, we then went straight in to a 50 minute test paper. Many of the questions were pretty straight forward, but there were some pretty testing ones too, and at least one question that no-one could answer. The range of experience in the room was evident with scores from 40 – 100 out of 110.
Next was a “snappy scenario” where the candidates were individually interviewed as to how they would go about looking for a new supplier… should’ve been easy – just call MC! The importance here was to show an understanding of the business and see what was most important to them in sourcing product in their individual accounts – wish I could’ve been a fly on the wall – great insight.
There finished the morning session, and the judges met to decide which six candidates would progress to the afternoon.
The afternoon session was based around service skills and working knowledge. Three challenges in 17 minutes: a decanting challenge, a food and wine matching test and finally, each candidate had to blind taste a wine and then build a 3 course menu to match. All of this sounds easy, but thinking on your feet, in front of the judges and around 20 of your peers proved too much and the nerves were definitely having an effect.
Last but certainly not least – the Champagne challenge, with the main sponsor, Moet et Chandon. Again, sound like a simple task, but a real skills test and the nerves were really showing. Each of the finalists was presented with 8 champagne flutes and a bottle of Moet Brut NV. The task? To pour 8 equal glasses, emptying the bottle, but without revisiting any glasses once poured. The pressure was on, although each candidate performed well.
Again, the judges took some time to deliberate, but we had clear winners. Then followed the presentations and more handshaking – the day was done and we cleared the skilfully poured champagne with a toast to the finalists who will perform for us again on 16th May at the Mandarin Oriental, Knightsbridge.