Last night some of Britain’s best and most competitive sommeliers battled it out for the title of Best UK Sommelier Villa Sandi at Le Méridien Hotel in London’s Piccadilly.
After a long day of trying tests, recently promoted head sommelier Matteo Furlan of The Ritz was awarded the coveted title, ahead of runners up Salvatore Castano of Mash and Noemie Favrat of The Dorchester Hotel.
Furlan could hardly contain his excitement as he spoke to Imbibe, who was present at the event and took part in the final judging: ‘When I first arrived this morning I opened the questionnaire and said “what’s going on here guys?”. I wouldn’t say the mind behind [the tasks] was evil but it was certainly somebody really tough,’ commented Furlan.
The final wasn’t for the faint-hearted. The three somms had to survive 30 nerve-wracking minutes of nonstop onstage activity before two very demanding acting guests and a lineup of intimidating judges watching from the front lines.
‘Going on the stage was a bomb of adrenaline,’ admitted Furlan, ‘but I was lucky enough to be mentored and have people that helped me to handle high pressure. Plus, I work for a very stressful, busy environment, which also helped me.’
The first task involved a blind tasting of three wines: an oaked Vernaccia di San Giminiano Riserva that sent pretty much everyone to Burgundy, a Friulano, and a red from Armenia (yes, we think this was a bit harsh too).
The second task required the contestants to serve a bottle of prosecco and suggest a cocktail made using it as the main ingredient; this couldn't be a spritz, nor could it involve fruit-based ingredients (such as purées, liqueurs or fruit spirits). Wisely, they all went for a twist on a classic Champagne Cocktail.
‘When I was opening the sparkler I was shaking and I couldn’t cut the foil. So I just pretended that everyone was naked to chill out a bit.’
I just pretended that everyone was naked to chill out a bit
The third test was a food-and-drink pairing challenge. The contestants had to match a four-course Asian-style menu with wines – of course – but also beer, and even tea. Then they had to perform a flawless decanting service, involving a bottle of 1985 Lynch-Bages, while entertaining the guests with the story behind the label.
By this point they were only a little over halfway through.
They were, once again, given three glasses to blind taste, this time containing spirits (a grappa, a rhum agricole and an armagnac), followed by a short, six-bin wine list. For this, they had to briefly describe the characteristics of each wine – likely the easiest part of the whole competition. Featured labels were, for instance, a fino sherry, a passito from Italy and a banyul.
Finally, for the last test, the three somms had to talk through a producer (they were given the name, Ganevat) and a wine just by looking at pictures (see box, right).
After such a stressful competition, and with his recent promotion to head sommelier still pumping adrenaline, Furlan’s excitement was understandable. ‘Now I want to do more [competitions], that’s for sure. I haven’t focused on competitions much in the past, as I’ve always been too busy with work, but now I’m ready for it,’ he explained.
Next Thursday Furlan is taking his last WSET Diploma exam. ‘Fingers crossed for that,’ he said. Yes, fingers crossed. Next week there might be another reason to celebrate.