South Africa on world sommelier stage

I witnessed the perfect theme for a TV reality show this weekend: MasterSommelier South Africa.

If anything as hilarious as the ‘performance’ of both ‘guests’ (read, judges) and contestants in WOSA’s Sommelier Cup last Saturday, it would be an absolute hit.

This was the second sommelier competition I had attended last week, a far more rigorous and tricky affair than the Bollinger award for local sommeliers.

L to R Christopher Bates MS, Morgan Harris USA, Will Predhomme Canada, Anna Sviridenko Russa, Ronan Sayburn MS
L to R Christopher Bates MS, Morgan Harris USA, Will Predhomme Canada, Anna Sviridenko Russa, Ronan Sayburn MS

The original 12 finalists, themselves winners in their own countries, had been whittled down to three: Russian Anna Sviridenko from the Stroganoff Steak House (who, I believe, had made her way here early to practise her English; bravo, Anna!); Will Predhomme from Oliver and Bonacini’s in Canada (the overall winner) and Morgan Harris from Corkbuzz in the USA.

This was the order in which they carried out their 20 minute wine service tasks. The first was to select a wine from a stocked cabinet, decant and serve it to judge Gareth Ferreira and guest, while telling them about the wine. Quite coincidentally, all three selected Shannon Mount Bullet 2011.

Judges Neil Grant of SASA (left) & Christopher Bates MS
Judges Neil Grant of SASA (left) & Christopher Bates MS

Judges Neil Grant, SASA chair and Master Sommelier, Christopher Bates, from the USA, who won the inaugural WOSA sommelier cup in 2010, gave a wonderful performance at Table two, (pictured) where contestants had to recommend wines to go with the menu and an aperitif. ‘No, we don’t want wine, can you recommend another South African aperitif?’ quizzed Bates.

The audience packed up when two of the contestants initially suggested Amarula, especially as Siobhan Thompson, WOSA CEO in waiting and ex-Marketing Manager for Amarula, was in the audience. Bates proved a tricky customer, refusing chardonnay and chenin from two judges, requesting other suggestions.

Then both judges were confused by the contents of two glasses, asking each contestant to identify them. No problem with what turned out to be a Van Ryn 12 year old brandy, but the other, a Wilderer herb infused grappa, proved more difficult.

Their task from English Master Sommelier, Ronan Sayburn at Table three, was to taste and identify a red wine (Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 2009) and give a training speech to ‘staff’ (us audience) on how to sell it.

At the same time, they were supposed to ensure the diners at Table one had wine in their glasses; judge and Sommelier at The Saxon in Johannesburg, Gareth Ferreira seemed to empty his with remarkable rapidity. I think he went thirsty for the rest of the evening!

If all that wasn’t enough, the final task all three had to complete at the same time was to open and pour a magnum of Cap Classique into 16 flutes. Pourings had to be equal, with no returning to the glass once poured and with an empty magnum at the end.

Will Predhomme, overall winner from Canada, pouring Cap Classique
Will Predhomme, overall winner from Canada, pouring Cap Classique

But the real winner of this wonderful marketing initiative is South Africa. The 12 finalists represent only a small number of sommeliers who have been brought into contact with South African wines: over 400 spread across the 12 participating countries are now more aware of the country and its wines.

The finalists themselves were flown here and spent a week touring the winelands, tasting with producers and putting their accumulated knowledge to good use in the competiton but, more importantly, when they return to their own countries, they will be ambassadors for South African wine.

Morgan Harris USA & Anna Sviridenko Russia trying hard to share a magnum of MCC equally between 16 flutes.
Morgan Harris USA & Anna Sviridenko Russia trying hard to share a magnum of MCC equally between 16 flutes.

There is plenty of room to grow this competition to other countries. As WOSA’s out-going CEO, Su Birch explained to me, participating countries are limited to those where WOSA has staff in place to give the event proper credibility. A country such as India, where very little South African wine is exported, has no WOSA office, so isn’t represented. Then there’s also the question of where there are sommeliers of any level of knowledge. Sadly, in Africa, Birch says only one ‘proper’ sommelier has been identified, in Angola; he visited the Cape as a guest of WOSA earlier this year.

So, there’s plenty of scope for growth. How the competition does evolve will now by up to Thompson and the WOSA team but judging by the enthusiasm from the international contestants and judges – Sayburn says it’s the only competition of its kind run by a generic body – as well as local producers, the event has an assured future – if not as a reality show!

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