Battle of the somms

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Alex Fréguin concentrates on the final hurdle to becoming UK Sommelier of the Year

The sip-slurping masters of our wine lists do much more than just pour wine. We sent Sophie Thorpe to watch Britain’s finest sommeliers pitched against one another and to find out just what it takes to become the best

As slurping fills the room, my stomach turns. A nervous-looking man, sporting an apron and suit jacket, buries his nose deep in the glass in front of him, his hair slicked back, his glasses slipping slowly down his nose. “I think it is…” he sniffs again, takes a mouthful, swishing it from side to side, and the audience holds its breath, watching the clock count down – just 20 seconds to go.

A suave and continental crowd had gathered at The Savoy, an oasis of cool in mid-heatwave London – not that you’d know it from the contestants’ brows – to watch Britain’s best sommeliers battle it out for the title of UK Sommelier of the Year. In the hotel’s ornate ballroom, one lone table stood on a stage, its virginal white table cloth the court on which the afternoon’s fierce challenge would play out.

It seems almost ludicrous, a parody of itself, this comical combat of the perfect pour – yet from the very beginning, I was hooked, sucked into the nail-biting competition in front of me. This year our very own Nicolas Clerc MS (and a recipient of the prestigious title in 2007) was running the show – both on and off stage. A competition that has been going since 1980, it is a “celebration of the profession”, he declared. The judges, he said, are looking not just for someone who is calm, confident and in control – but someone who is also “a bit of a showman”.

Twelve sharp-suited somms had been selected for the finals, whittled down to three over the course of the day: after six hours testing their skills, Tamas Czinki from Northcote, Pierre Brunelli from L’Enclume and Alex Fréguin of Moor Hall had made it through to the final round, facing a further four hours of challenges.

The trials are gruelling: each and every one undertaken in front of a live and critical audience, with a strict time limit. First up was a test of their wine knowledge – spotting errors on fictional wine lists; next came the blind tasting – identifying 10 mystery liquids, six wines and four spirits, being asked to describe each in a different way, from strictly organoleptic to a customer-friendly pitch, or recommending a classic cocktail for one of the spirits (and woe betide them if they have confused their Armagnac with their Cognac).

After this tortuous tasting comes a practical challenge, with the judges taking on the roles of guests (“guests from hell”, as one speaker put it) at a restaurant. The contestants must provide perfect service to the most difficult clients and advise on wine pairings for a tasting menu, taking into consideration the customers’ interests, preferences and budget.

Finally – after a quick-fire quiz round which puts their knowledge to the test once more, Nicolas Clerc announces, “One more task, messieurs…” It is the moment the audience has been waiting for. Each contestant is faced with 20 glass flutes and a magnum of Champagne, their challenge to pour the entire contents of the bottle evenly into 20 flutes, without returning to a single glass, in under eight minutes.

Pierre nips up and down from table level anxiously, bobbing in and out of sight, Alex appears to keep his cool – casually concentrating on one glass at a time, while Tamas takes an almost overly-measured, painstaking drip-pour approach. It’s hard to turn a blind eye to the almost absurdity of this event, yet the tension in the room – and the sheer knowledge expected of these sommeliers – is testament to how much effort goes into good wine service.

In the blind tastings Alex Fréguin – a cheery, boyish, almost Billy Eliot-esque character – shocked the audience, totally changing his answers in the last 30 seconds of his nine-minute allowance. There was an audible gasp and the judging panel frantically shuffled papers in response to his U-turn. We, the stunned onlookers, feared it was the end of his journey.

Another of the trio – Tamas – provides one set of answers to three mystery wines and, as the time ticks down, he jabbers on about food pairings – concocting an elaborate option of roast pigeon with girolles, turnip purée and thyme jus. At the last moment, he questions whether glass number three is a Cabernet Franc, not a Pinot Noir after all… there is more tannin than he would expect, perhaps… Nicolas yelps “TIME”, and his indecision hangs in the air, pangs of pity reaching out to him as he looks crushed by his own hesitancy.

It was the young, happy-go-lucky Alex Fréguin – the comic of the group – who won the title in the end; for all three, the show – and their exceptional service is nothing if not the finest theatre – must go on.

Category: Miscellaneous

Heading for the hills

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Photograph: Joe Woodhouse

As a nation, we’ve wholeheartedly embraced Prosecco, but the resulting glut of cheap, uninteresting wines has wreaked havoc with its reputation. Here, Davy Żyw tells us where to find the region’s best bottles

The first reference to “Prosecco” the wine was in 1754, by Italian poet Aureliano Acanti: “And now I would like to wet my mouth with that Prosecco with its apple bouquet”. Almost 300 years on, Prosecco’s apple bouquet is the reason it sells over 400 million bottles a year, almost a quarter of them here in the UK (the wine’s largest export market).

Prosecco is a synonym for the grape, Glera, which has become inextricably associated with the region, as well as the wine. Produced in the Veneto and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the majority of Glera grapes grow on the pianura – the flat, fertile plains between Venice and Udine, where the climate is generally warm and wet. The hills just to the north are lush and green, with a rolling medley of patchwork vines, hilltop towns and breath-taking Alpine views, broken only by the arrow-like silhouettes of church spires; no wonder this area has just attained UNESCO World Heritage status.

The bubbles here are captured using the tank or Martinotti method, producing a fresh and fruity style, rather than the savoury, complex notes you find in bottle-fermented sparkling, like Champagne. (Read more about how sparkling wine is made here.) Champagne needs a minimum 15 months’ ageing before release, which means all Champagnes on the market are at least two years old before they reach our shelves or, indeed, glasses.

While top-quality examples take longer, Prosecco grapes can be harvested, processed and bottled ready for drinking within 60 days of being picked. This is the main reason that Prosecco is generally a fraction of the cost of Champagne and other bottle-fermented sparkling wines. Its lower price has helped introduce a whole wave of people to the joys of sparkling wine, but it has also caused a flood of industrial, soulless styles. But, a change is coming, as people seek out better wines, with more personality – and, to find these, we head to the hills.

When you drive toward the Alps, the air cools, the soils change, the mountains loom and you will find the styles of Prosecco alter. The beating heart of the area, where the best grapes are grown, is between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, a short drive north of Venice. In this undulating landscape, with cooler hills of calcareous and limestone soils, more defined examples are produced. The wines here are lighter, more mineral and have real identity, a vital character often blended away from wines produced on the pianura (the plain).

Because of the additional labour, hand harvesting and longer production methods, these hilltop Proseccos are more expensive than your supermarket trolley-fillers, but are well worth the extra money. Take Trevisiol’s wine: Paolo and his two sons run a winery in the heart of Valdobbiadene, working with 50-year-old vines at 300 to 400 metres above sea-level. The mineral soils offer painfully small yields of intensely flavoured grapes. Small batches of this prised fruit undergo long, slow fermentations, allowing Paolo to blend parcels and create the best possible wine. He proves just how good Prosecco can be – setting the benchmark high. Gleaming and energetic, with a foaming palate of yellow orchard fruit, mineral flashes and the famous apple bouquet, it’s anything but sickly-sweet, anodyne fizz.

As the region permitted to make Prosecco expands, and the market for these wines grows, we’ll see many more bottles appearing on our shelves, but it’s worth seeking out those which offer true quality and value.

Trevisiol’s Prosecco is our Wine of the Week; find out more here.

Category: Champagne and Sparkling Wine

Island life: tracking indigenous varieties in Crete

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Katherine Dart and Lenka Sedlackova – two intrepid MWs from our Buying team – have just returned from Crete, where they walked and talked amongst the vines at Domaine Lyrarakis – a producer determined to protect the island’s indigenous grapes

Crete – with its secluded beaches, archaeological wonders and delicious food – is in many ways the perfect holiday destination, but it’s also a viticultural treasure trove of indigenous grapes. As we drove to the easternmost part of the island, Nikos (the viticulturalist for Lyrarakis) talked passionately about the history and current developments of the wine industry here. Much of the viticultural landscape that we see today was shaped by decisions made centuries ago. Though some incredibly old vines remain, many of the plantings are more recent; and, of the 60 or so producers based on the island, Domaine Lyrarakis has been at the forefront of encouraging the replanting, resurrection and viticultural rebirth of almost extinct and heirloom varieties.

We were going to meet Yiannis, one of the passionate and animated growers with whom Bart Lyrarakis and his team work. He farms vines on the Ziros plateau and has been instrumental in helping to identify and cultivate lost varieties. Plots of Assyrtiko, Vidiano, Vilana, Thrapsathiri and Liatiko sit alongside a few more familiar faces like Chardonnay and Syrah; but there are also a few mystery varieties, yet to be identified.

Nikos has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the ampelography of Crete’s indigenous varieties – so much so that we have more pictures of grape clusters, leaves, trunks and tendrils than the Handbook of Enology. In amongst the vines, it’s hard not to sense the historical importance of field blends, particularly the co-planting of the white Plytó with the red variety Liatiko.

While Lyrarakis uses the grape to make a pale salmon-pink vinous rosé, it uses their oldest Liatiko parcels for a red. Concentrated and elegant, with layers of violet, wild herbs and cherry fruit; it nods towards noble Italian varieties structurally, while retaining a unique character all of its own. The presence of Plytó in the blend (approximately 10 percent) enhances the aromatics, retains freshness and increases complexity. It proves how beautifully these two grapes can meld together, something we hope to see more widely in the future.

That said, it will take time before this is possible, as there are only four hectares of Plytó in existence. It produces gloriously mineral wines from compact bunches that benefit from the windy conditions which characterise Crete’s vineyards. Because Plytó yields exceptionally clear juice (fining almost happens inside the berry, thanks to its high tannin content), these wines are completely vegan.

In the Psarades vineyard, near the Lyrarikis winery and cellar door, Plytó happily grows alongside another Cretan native, Dafni. This bay and rosemary-scented grape makes one of the most unique and aromatically complex wines. As such, Lyrarakis leave this grape unclad by oak, so the distinctive aromas can shine. While aromas of such specific herbs may sound extreme, this is an incredibly versatile wine that will match effortlessly with notoriously difficult foods, like artichoke, tomato and asparagus (move aside Sauvignon Blanc!).

Meanwhile Vidiano (also native to Crete), is quietly challenging Assyrtiko’s crown as the signature white grape of Greece. This may sound like a bold claim; but Vidiano has the texture, structure and natural acidity to stand out from the crowd, being able to shine on its own or gain further complexity from barrel fermentation and élevage in oak.

There are still many more grapes to discover, though; Lyrarakis is also trying to revive varieties like Mandilari, Kotsifali (the Cretan answer to Cinsault), Vilana, Thrapsathiri and Melissaki (the first and only vineyard was planted in 2010 by Lyrarakis, from vines found scattered in the foothills of Mount Psiloritis). These varieties don’t merely offer diversity, but can help growers facing rising temperatures and increasingly scarce water supplies. There is a reason why these varieties survived and evolved in the region’s harsh, hot, dry and windy conditions.

After two whirlwind days in Lyrarakis’s varied vineyards, we were overwhelmed by not only Bart Lyrarakis’s noble quest to protect these extraordinary grapes, but also the quality and variety they offer. We can’t wait to taste more.

If you’re ever in Crete, the Lyrarakis winery and cellar door is just a 30-minute drive from the island’s capital Heraklion, where Bart and his family would be delighted to welcome you. We can’t recommend it enough.

Browse the Lyrarakis range on bbr.com, or find a selection in both of our shops.

Category: Miscellaneous,Old World

Sir Lunchalot: keeping it cool

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In the fourth instalment of our advice column, our in-house Agony Uncle advises on how to keep one’s cool in the heatwave – with tips on chilling bottles to perfection

Dear Sir,

It is unquestionably, unbearably, un-English-ly hot. I know we shouldn’t complain, but London transport is seething with very damp bodies; the fridge is packed with anything and everything so that it doesn’t compost on the counter – and I am left with not a drop of anything cold to drink when I need it most. Warm Sancerre offers little refreshment; nor indeed does gently cooked Malbec, for that matter. Please, I beg of you, can you help?

Yours, uncomfortably bothered and rather parched,

Ms White

Dear Ms White,

I feel your pain; particularly for the more portly among us, this weather is most disagreeable. In many ways, a trip to a conveniently close, and ideally air-conditioned, pub (if it isn’t one of the many establishments struggling with the same issues) is altogether more inviting.

The priority, at least for me, is a plentiful supply of ice for G&Ts (if you have the freezer space, pop the glasses in there too to “frost”, offering maximum chill-factor) – because quite frankly there is little that is more refreshing after a ride on the sweltering Central Line than the bite of gin.

If anything needs urgently chilling down, the best thing to do is this: take an ice bucket (or any large receptacle – even the sink or bath, with sufficient ice supplies), fill it with ice cubes, top it up with water and chuck in a couple of handfuls of salt. The water is essential, meaning the surface area of the bottle is actually in contact with something cold, and ice will keep it cooler longer (bringing the water temperature to below 0°C) Chuck a (still sealed) bottle of wine in, and – provided it is nothing too delicate, an old wine, for example – give the bottle a shake intermittently (this will mean not only the liquid closest to the glass, and thus the ice, gets cold, so the whole bottle will chill more quickly).

Unless you have an actual cellar or fancy Eurocave, pretty much any reds will need chilling down in this weather. The old fashioned “room temperature” is much lower than homes that have soaked up the day’s rays (or one that benefits from central heating, for that matter). Twenty minutes in the fridge should bring a red down sufficiently (a little less, the more structured the wine); remember it will warm up quickly once on the table (or when a glass is cupped by your possibly sweaty palms).

In absolute emergencies, there is another option (although not one we at Berry Bros. & Rudd could possibly recommend): the freezer. It’s rather dangerous (especially with sparkling wine), as pressure can build in the bottle and cause it to explode – far from ideal for that Montrachet you were looking forward to with your Dover sole. But, I’ll leave that in your judicious hands…

Should you have a question of your own for Sir Lunchalot, please do email us or leave it in the comments section below.

Category: Miscellaneous