December 6, 2014

Best Wine Guy

On a recent Monday afternoon in Burgundy, the Best Sommelier in France contest was concluding in Beaune. Figuring that, as far as spectator sports in France go, this had to be better than handball or fencing, I hopped in the car.

A grape vibe asserted itself from the very beginning: the finals took place in a wine cellar more than a century old, retrofitted for stadium seating. On the stage, experts were assembled, ready to judge four contestants. The finalists had been winnowed down from a larger group of 10 semi-finalists from all over the country, all of whom had passed a preliminary exam in Paris in March. The four, all in their twenties, were dressed in black suits and white shirts of service. They looked more likely to discuss prom dates than Chardonnay, and one had to wonder how they were competing for the title of “best in France” when they had only had the right to drink wine for a few years. Surely a more experienced master could run away with the title?

A contestant considers his first wine
The contest was divided into several parts. First, the sommeliers did a blind tasting of five wines, one white and four reds. Each young man took a full two or three minutes with the white, offering an avalanche of adjectives to describe its appearance, smell, and taste. That is a long time to talk about a few ounces of liquid, but these were pros, and they had no difficulty finding words. The vocabulary was beautiful and rich, helping to bring the 500 audience members inside the wineglass. The white had harmony, structure, maturity, elegance, finesse, suppleness, and pronounced acidity. It was golden, thick, intense, expressive, ephemeral, luxurious, and spicy, with hints of apricots, pears, and peaches.

Frankly, it sounded like a woman every man would like to meet.

The four men each had a different conclusion: a 1995 Alsatian Pinot gris, a Vouvray from 2001, a 2000 Alsatian Grand Cru Reisling, a Chenin Blanc from 1988. This being the contest for the best sommelier in France, surely one of them would have it approximately right. If a Frenchman fighting to be the preeminent sommelier in the Land of Vines and Corkscrews doesn’t know, who would?

The finalists awaiting the Big Announcement
Well, they weren’t even close. The wine was a Vouvray Demi-Sec from 1971, a bottle that most likely no one in the audience had ever tasted or ever would. The guys did better identifying the pinot noir grape in three of the four reds, but all were tricked by a Gamay masquerading as pinot. The reds were from Burgundy, which, in this region of maniacally prideful oenophiles, was far from shocking. (Many a local has explained that Burgundy people drink Burgundy wines “because, well, ours are the best in the world. Why look elsewhere?”)

The second test was to serve three different sets of “customers” (really expert judges) who were assembled at tables on the stage. A couple of gentlemen greeted each contestant in heavily French-accented English (I was tempted to offer my skills to provide a more authentic experience), asking to be served a bottle of Burgundy crémant, the local sparkling wine. The sommelier served and discussed the wine in English, a mandatory talent in today’s high-end restaurant world.

Next, back in their native tongue, they poured a half bottle (about 12 ounces) of red 1996 Pommard to a group of six diners who were on their cheese course. Here, the eventual winner (Jonathan Bauer-Monneret, a 29-year-old sommelier at Spring, a Parisian restaurant owned by -- gasp! -- an American chef!) put the bottle in a wire basket, and, in a neat little display of cinema, used a long match to light a tall candle, which he placed under the bottle while he decanted the wine. This is a traditional sommelier tactic to illuminate the sediment in the bottle so it doesn’t get poured into the decanter. The audience later learned that the main challenge of this stage was to assess the candidates’ ability to pour six equal glasses from a half bottle, no easy feat.

Maman! Papa! I am really good at sniffing wine!
At the last table, the men answered questions about the difference between two local digestifs, marc de Bourgogne and fine de Bourgogne, the former made by distilling liquid made from the skins and stems left over from the grape pressing; the latter made from distilling the wine itself.

Finally, the contestants sat with a family to help match wines with their elaborate wedding menu featuring dishes by some of the most famous chefs in Burgundy: oysters in gelée; frog legs in garlic cream sauce (the French are not called “Frogs” by accident); beef with foie gras; and a cassis dessert. The candidates suggested wines to accompany each course, and provided estimates of quantity and price for the family. When one candidate suggested 15 bottles of Champagne at 130 euros a pop -- about $160 -- the heretofore silent and respectful crowd let forth a tidal wave of gasps and chatter, clearly appalled at the mere thought of pouring that much money down their guests’ throats. (He didn’t win.)

Throughout the examinations, the young men vividly demonstrated the intricate relationship between wine and food in France. They laid an audible table in front of us, conjuring aromas and tastes of gougères (a local cheese puff), or a sea bass tartar, that would marry the crémant; suggesting the Vouvray go with either roasted foie gras in lychee syrup or a veal chop; and musing that perhaps the Pommard would accompany a powerful blue cheese with a raisin fig bread. Occasionally, the public sighed in appreciation of the imaginary feast in front of them.

What did you think the prize would be?
After the winner was announced -- he raised his fist in emphatic satisfaction -- the spectators made their way to a tasting of the different climates of Burgundy, which are currently being considered for inclusion on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. Naively, I thought perhaps we would be entitled to a glass of red or a splash of white. Instead, eight tables greeted us, each groaning under dozens of bottles. In all, there were more than 300 wines from every corner of the region for us to taste: humble Aligoté mingled with grand crus from Corton, Vougeout, and Gevrey-Chambertin. Beaune premier cru hung out respectfully with Pommard, Nuits Saint Georges, Saint Aubain, and Chassagne-Montrachet. After I gulped my first taste of mineral-laden Chablis, I recognized that everyone in the room was swirling and swishing and…spitting. This was not a crowd looking for a buzz, but rather looking to thrill their taste buds. I joined them in the theater, coating my tongue, cheeks, and gums with some of the finest wines in the world and then leaning over a barrel to spit down the hole. It is a wonderful combination of sophistication and vulgarity.

What I had thought was a wine tasting competition was in fact a quintessential display of French pride. One can mistakenly think that the French only brag about their food and wine talents in front of foreigners, but their passion is day-to-day, interwoven into their discussions, rituals, and stories. These shows of Gallic DNA happen all over the country, in moments extraordinary and banal, and, when one witnesses them, one cannot help but feel lucky and enchanted in this land.

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