Best Sommelier of the World – A once in a lifetime experience

Last week (10th -15th of March) the 16th edition of the Best Sommelier of the World contest set up its tents in Antwerp. It seems like only yesterday when we received an email from our President William Wouters (president of the Belgian Sommelier Association and Vice-president of ASI Europe) asking us what we thought of the idea of organizing the 2019 ASI Best Sommelier of the World contest 🙂 .  At that time most of us thought William had lost his mind, but William’s enthusiasm convinced us all. What followed after that specific email, were 3 years of hard work (although I only was supposed to help a little bit 😉 ).

The contest can definitely be compared with the Olympics, as it is an event that is only organized every 3 years where only the best of the best from 63 countries compete against each other. It takes years for the competitors prepare themselves for this contest…. Just like the athletes for the Olympics.   And although they don’t get a ‘money’ price if they win it, it does change their life tremendously. From the moment they win, there are soooo many interesting offers that pass by  that for many years to come they don’t have to worry too much about having spare time 🙂  but even for those who don’t win, it opens doors in their own country and gives opportunities that maybe before were unreachable.  So it represents so much more than only a contest… it can (to my opinion) be seen as a life changer and that is why I was glad to be help a hand to make this event a success.

Most people I mention the contest to immediately make the reflection that the competitors only need knowledge about wine, which is obviously a big part of it, but it is also about so much more than that… it is also about coffee, tea, beer, cigars, distillates, juices, hospitality , etc… This also explains why they have to prepare themselves for years, as it a looooot of info to put in their brain.

A question I’ve heard a lot the last few years, was how the sommeliers actually got selected to compete. Every country will ask the winners from the local championship (sometimes also finalists) from the last 10 years who is up for it (as it takes a lot of sacrifices). For the remaining group, we organize a ‘mini’ competition and the winner from this competition can compete.

When William started talking 3 years ago about the championship and experiences he had from all the previous editions from both continental as the world contest that he was part of since the early ‘90’s  , one thing was sure, we wanted to make it an extra special edition. Extra special, as this edition would be exactly 50 years after the 1st edition that was held in 1969 in Brussels. It would also be the first urban edition, as unlike in previous editions we wouldn’t be visiting vineyards. Another important things was to try to take the dust off the image ‘sommeliers’ often have (which is also the mission of the ASI).

Quickly we noticed that we couldn’t manage an event of this size alone. First of all as besides the contest, you have to organize masterclasses, a program for people travelling along with the official delegations, meals, logistic movements, etc… for over 300 people that travel to Belgium for a whole week. But also that it is just a business we don’t know that much about. That’s when our friend Mich Van Aerde and his event company Balthazar came in the picture. They have done an outstanding job in the last 3 years, as some circumstances didn’t always make it easy  for them to wrap their heads around the whole event (also because of constant changes, etc…) and get the work done.

Now that we had that, the next very important thing, was gathering the money to be able to actually organize the event 🙂 this is where our path crossed the path of Claire Berticat. She took in charge all the negotiations with all potential partners (of who many became actually became a partner).

From time to time It has been a bumpy ride, it took blood, sweat and tears… but we (or at least that’s how I experienced it) were a team headed for the same goal, making the 2019 Best Sommelier of the World a World class event where they would talk about for many years to come … and I modestly think we succeeded?!!  Funny enough the week of the contest felt a bit like a wedding party, you are present, but did you actually got to fully enjoy  it? 🙂 I’m exaggerating, I enjoyed it very much 😉 😉

I did get to see a bit of the contest itself here and there, but there were so many things going on behind the scenes, so basically I got to experience it less then I had hoped.

What I will always treasure is all the wonderful people I got to meet  and things I got to experience during the 3 year adventure and I hope to see many again in the future.  It was also wonderful hearing from so many people from around the globe that we did a great job and receiving many compliments… this makes all the hard work worth it!

I wish I could have freed up more time to help, but nevertheless I hope my little contribution to this event made a bit of difference. If you want to know how the week went, please check out the below footage from the whole week!! As it will give you a better view then when I would explain it 🙂

I want to thank all the great people I was fortunate enough to work with and from who I’ve learned a lot: William Wouters, Mich van Aerde, Claire Berticat, Sofie Van der Poel, Tania Asselberghs, Niels Goyvaerts, Domien Van Aerde, Bob van Giel, Amandine Vandeputte (PR/Communication)  and Katrin Bilmeyer for their devotion and outstanding work.  Also thank you to all the people behind the ASI, not to forget all the previous winners of the World title who were present at the finals (even Armand Melkonian who won in 1969)

But this event wouldn’t have been as good without the many many volunteers that travelled from far to help us a hand like Filipa Pato, William Wouters (there are 2 William’s in the Belgian Sommelier Association, this is the other one 🙂 ), Katia Wouters, Marijke Bilmeyer, Bart Sap, Gerard Devos, Kris Lismont, Els De Brucker, Douglas Wouters, Hanne Lesage, Lucas Delforge, Steven Wullaert Bram van der aa, David Hsaio, Jean-Marc BrasseurEllen Franzen, Karim Hayoun, Yiannis Stefanides, Giannis Papachristoforou , Ketil Sauer, Saskia Schurink, Guillaume Coret, Allard Sieburgh, Nelson Guerreiro, Pedro Noguiera, Sergio Pires, Tomas Carreira, Adrian Jipa, Ivan Nikolic, Nenad Nedimovic, Anika Manojlo, Milena Zakaric, Milica Papic, …

Not to forget Belgian helpers and students from hotel school PIVA who helped during the gala dinner. I do hope I didn’t forget anybody!

Last but not least I do want to thank all the AMAZING partners that believed in our project and have kept supporting us until the very end. Thank you Austrian Wines, Inter Rhône, Le Wine, TorresPerrin, Bellavista, Zonin, Gusbourne, Bairrada, Grahams, Vinventions, Port of Antwerp, city of Antwerp,  Flemish Government, Clarence Dillon, Malartic Lagravier, Duvel, Gerard Bertrand, Farnese, Carlos Ruben, M’as tu vu, Decanter, etc… and obviously mostly the people behind these brands 🙂

 

Without all of the above mentioned people (and I hope I didn’t forget anybody, but if I did I apologies as we are of course also thankful to them) there would have not been a 16th Edition of best Sommelier of the world.

It was fun and I met lots of people, but I’ll be honest that I’m also very glad it is over 😉 😉  it literally will be a once in a lifetime!!  Once again congratulations to the new Best Sommelier of the World Marc Almert!! Also To the 2 runners up Raimonds Tomsons & Nina Højgaard Jensen  and of course to our very own Antoine Lehebel who became 10th. Very proud of you all.

Austria meets South America

When I saw our friends from Young Charly were doing  a wine & dine evening with Salomon wines at a South American restaurant (A’sur), I must say I was intrigued to try it. Basically another excuse for a night out with friends 🙂 🙂 .  The Salomon Undhof winery is one the most famous names in Austria as they did many important contributions in the Austrian viticulture history. They were one of the first ones  to export Austrian wines to the EU and the USA (to give one example). The winery is situated along the Danube River around the twin medieval towns of Krems and Stein, the Kremstal region is right next to the Wachau and the same latitude as Burgundy in fact, Krems is a sister city to Beaune. Not that this is of high importance, but just a nice to know 🙂  Today it is already the 7th generation of the Salomon family who is running the winery and the next generation is ready to continue in their parents’ food steps as it was Fanny-Marie (daughter of current owner) who came to Belgium to present their wines.  What is also nice to know is that besides the vineyards in Austria, the family also has vineyards in Australia and New Zealand. The reason why they also have vineyards at the other side of the world, is because the current owner Dr. Bert Salomon had moved there with his family many years ago . But when taking over the reins of  the Austrian vineyard from his older brother the family decided to move back to Austria.  Although technically speaking they follow the sun as first they do the harvest in Austria and in January/February they do the harvest in Australia and they all move there to help 🙂  That maybe also explains Fanny-Marie’s sunny smile 😉

At the Salomon Undhof winery they only produce 2 types of wine (but of TOP level) Riesling and Grüner Veltliner. The famous Riesling of the estate groes on the top sites of Kögl and Pfaffenberg. The Grüner Veltliner Von Stein comes from the steep terraced hills behind the old town of Stein. The best “loess” soils provide the Lindberg and Wachtberg Grüner Veltliner. All the grapes are harvested traditionally by hand only… so you can imagine the time and effort it takes to produce the wines.  At the winery they only use stainless steel tanks, so no wooden barrels that results in intriguing, pure, honest and complex wines that can be drunk immediately.

We started our journey through the Salomon winery with ¨their Grüner Veltliners, the 2016 ‘Wieden’ and 2015 ‘Krems’ that got served with and appetizer with pork belly  followed by one of my favorite dishes ever a ceviche from gilt-head bream.  The 2016 had a nose of ripe yellow plum. The palate brings more Grüner Veltliner savoriness, with hints of yeast and a bit herby. It is dry in mouthfeel, it refreshes with a lovely herbal citrus tang on the finish.  The 2015 (that gets my preference) is juicier with a herbal touch reminiscent of fresh sage and a very savory finish. For the dish the 2016 seemed like a better fit (to me) as it added that extra bit of freshness. Basically wines that ask for sunny weather (just like today… so guess what I’ll be having tonight 😉 )

As a surprise Fanny-Marie had brought a 2009 Krems-Stein Grüner Veltliner. Personally it wasn’t 100% my taste, but for my table guest it was (so it was just me 🙂 ). It was a rich wine with a almost oily texture. In the mouth you notice the intense flavor of  ripe fruit with the yellow fruit flavors dominating acidity and peppery taste.  Nevertheless my personal opinion, it was a great pleasure to have tasted it. This wine was served with Brussels sprouts South American style 🙂 I didn’t see that one coming .

Now we change our path and move towards the Rieslings, the wines the winery is famous for:-)  here we were served the 2016 Riesling ‘Stein a. d. Donau’ and 2015  Pfaffenberg and here again Fanny-Marie had a 1996 Pfaffenberg as a surprise for us. The 2016 Citrus (orangy zest) with a touch of exotic (mango I think it was). Juicy, pleasant fruit sweetness with fine acidity and honey on the finish. With the smell of the 2015 you get an instant feel of happiness in the package 🙂 That and fresh lemon zest notes (aka spring). The palate is so precise, so much tension that you can almost feel the citrus flavors exploding in your mouth. A beautiful aromatic Riesling that can described with words like glorious, long, ripe and freshness.  For the 1996 it was more intense apple and mineral flavors that are accented of salt/ peppery notes. A powerful finish though.  Wines that went very nice with the seabass we were served.

As I’m not a big cheese fan I skipped the cheese, but got a lovely pineapple dessert to match one of my favorites, the Niepoort Colheita. There were some jealous people around me, I can tell you that 😉

A very nice introduction of wines I didn’t know too much about. Athough you notice that Austrian wines are finding their way more and more towards Belgium… both in restaurants and homes. I can’t wait to discover more of their wines or Austrian wines in general… I think a wine trip to Austria needs to be done!! And who new South America and Austria could walk hand in hand. Thank you to the A’sur team, Young Charly and Fanny-Marie for making this evening possible!!