It was an evening full of excitement, suspense and trepidation yesterday at The Savoy in London, where Romain Bourger, head sommelier at The Vineyard Hotel in Berkshire, scooped the coveted title of Taittinger UK Sommelier of the Year 2019. He made it to the final after succeeding at the regional heats earlier this year.
Yesterday morning Bourger took part in the initial tests along with 14 other semi-finalists; as the number of contestants was narrowed down to three finalists, he unleashed a nearly impeccable on-stage performance against the two runners-up, Gareth Ferreira and Alan Bednarski, head somms at Clare Smyth and Texture respectively.
‘I feel amazing,’ Bourger told Imbibe, ‘I’ve done [the competition] for a few years and it’s my second time on stage, so now it’s such a great feeling.’
Despite a bumpy start, when stage fright seemed close to taking its toll, Bourger managed to nail all the challenges with confidence and savoir faire, finishing all tasks with plenty of time to spare. ‘I was really really stressed,’ Bourger explained, ‘but somehow I managed to keep it inside.’
First, they had to spot mistakes on a wine list. Eight slides (see above) featured three wines each and at least one mistake, which had to be highlighted within 30 seconds.
For the following test the finalists were given three wines to taste blind and were expected to name the region, grape variety, appellation and vintage of each. Then, they had to suggest a menu to match the wines and advice on correct service – such as glassware and temperature – and cellaring potential.
At this point the finalists had to demonstrate good spirits and cocktail knowledge too. They were given four spirits and liqueurs to blind taste and they also had to suggest a classic cocktail for one of the spirits, an agave distillate (Bourger aptly outlined the recipe for a Margarita). Further drinks knowledge was tested at the next stage, with some basic bar service.
- Heirloom tomato tartare and basil, olive oil garnish
- Jellied native lobster and caviar
- Cornish turbot, acidulated pear, watercress butter and espelette pepper
- Scottish fillet of beef cooked in hay, with braised carrots and fennel
- Pistachio parfait, dark chocolate shell, roasted peanuts & mint
Next on was table service. The three somms were presented with a food menu (see right) and for each course they had to give a wine or drinks pairing ‘from different countries outside the EU’.
While Bednarski missed the ‘outside the EU’ part completely and Ferreira ran out of time before the last two dishes, Bourger completed the task suggesting plausible pairings well within the allotted time.
To round up the service part of the competition, the candidates were tested on their decanting and champagne pouring skills, for which they had to pour the entirety of a Taittinger Brut Prestige Rosé magnum into 19 glasses in equal measures.
Finally, the three sommeliers gathered on stage for a series of quick-fire questions that involved naming chateaux and winemaking and vinegrowing practices simply by looking at pictures.
Across the entire competition, Bourger showed a profound understanding of the subjects, good time management skills, professionalism, poise and dedication.
‘I am excited to bring the title to the countryside,’ commented Bourger. ‘Now I’m going to carry on training and having fun with my guests. I’m going to focus on studies for the Court of Master Sommeliers and preparing for the Best Sommelier of Europe competition.’