And the next question some of you may ask is: What on earth is a sommelier? It seems these days everybody is one, wants to be one or knows one, yet few can put their finger on what they actually do – other than dress smartly and drink wine that is.
This Masterclass series is not a flamboyantly written verbose account on the intricacies of sommellerie but rather a series of short articles to detail key aspects of the sommelier profession so people can benefit from it, get inspired by it or find opportunities in it. The articles are all based on our Somm 101 educational course material.
How do we best look at what a sommelier’s job entails? And what sets the profession apart from other professions in the wine or hospitality sectors? To answer these questions we thought it would be useful to follow the journey of a wine bottle, starting with the first point of contact between a sommelier and probably a sales representative or winemaker, and the initial tasting and wine assessment.
Joakim: You’d be surprised how often sales representatives ask if they can borrow your corkscrew when they arrive to present their wines to you as a customer/sommelier. It’s quite awkward when someone is trying to sell you their product and comes unprepared. So a word of advice: First impressions matter so do your homework.
How does a sommelier taste wine? Well, all sommeliers need two different techniques for assessing wine: one formal, the other fast.
The formal methodology is an integral part of a sommelier’s repertoire. There are many methodologies out there but they all follow roughly the same format and are often shortened to acronyms we memorise religiously in an effort to not forget them in an exam or competition.
The most important ones are IC, IA, SATABFFOF and QB. IC (Intensity, Colour) relates to appearance; IA (Intensity, Aromas) relates to nose; and SATABFFOF (Sweetness, Acidity, Tannin, Alcohol, Body, Flavour Intensity, Flavour Characteristics, Other Observations, Finish) relates to palate. Finally QB (Quality, Bottle Aging) relates to Conclusion.
These acronyms are part of the WSET Level 4 Diploma’s assessment of wine. Each element is scrutinised and meticulously analysed while benchmarking wines, and comparing regions and various levels of maturation.
Slowly the tangled myriad of elements start making sense, until eventually you can tell a Sancerre from a Marlborough Sauvignon by just taking a quick sniff. Why? Because how else do you explain South African wine to an international audience if you don’t know their benchmarks and your own?
But it doesn’t stop there. Being able to accurately assess a wine’s intrinsic value is an invaluable skill as a wine professional but being a sommelier you need to translate that to a restaurant environment. After years of real-world stress testing, the South African Sommelier Association has developed a methodology that takes the assessment one step further by looking at serving temperature, suitability for decantation, recommended glassware and of course recommended food and wine combinations.
Ah, the mythical food and wine pairing! It’s a near-mystical skill possessed by few, revered by many and reduced to mockery on the back of wine labels with descriptions such as: “Goes well with white meat and pasta dishes.” How dare they! What we’re more interested in is the weight, cooking method, flavour spectrums and tactile heat. Let’s make one thing clear: You can’t be a sommelier without an in-depth understanding of food. It’s simply not possible.
In a certified sommelier exam a hopeful candidate could be presented with any commercially relevant wine from anywhere in the world, and given less than 15 minutes to assess every minute detail listed above, identify where it’s from, who made it and how, and provide a complete commercial applicable recommendation. There’s also a strong argument from the International Sommelier Association (ASI) that candidates should take all that jargon and turn it into a short, concise, layman's tasting note which can be presented to a guest in a restaurant.
Practising this skill is a crucial part of remaining relevant as a sommelier and only once you can successfully navigate these requirements can you start developing your own style and shorthand.
The Fast Way
Barry: When teaching young sommeliers I always recall what Joakim said to me years ago; “Remember, there are more good wines out there than what you have space for on your wine list.”
On any given day most sommeliers taste at least two or three new wines. On a good day it could be 50. So best you learn to taste fast and take notes!
When doing a fast analysis of wine there are a few key metrics that must be kept in mind. A common one is BLICC: Balance, Length, Intensity, Complexity And Concentration. The whole exercise is also somewhat backwards in its application. Obviously the search is on for quality but to a greater degree we have to look for even the smallest flaws and warning signs, essentially finding reasons to not list the wine.
The criteria we most often home in on are:
Balance is probably the single most important factor and assessing it is always in relation to the fruit of the wine. The best examples usually express finesse, elegance and purity from considerate winemaking, while heavy-handed use of sulphur, extraction, pressing and wood are often the biggest culprits for creating disharmony.
Style Does the wine taste as expected? Does it show the characteristics and typicity of the grape and production area? High-alcohol wines from overripe grapes tend to have the least distinctly discernible characteristics and are often the least interesting. There’s no point in putting a Cabernet, Merlot and Pinotage on the wine list if they all taste like stewed black fruit.
Evolution Has the wine evolved enough to drink with food or is it too primary? Young wines mostly lack the viscosity and smoothness that a wine with a little bit of age has, aiding it in pairings with food. It could also be too mature, which would in turn affect the balance. Then there are the commercial implications pertaining to buying youthful or mature wines, a topic to be discussed at length in a future article.
Purpose Every wine a sommelier buys needs a customer. They must listen to their audience and not only go by their own preferences. A wine by the glass intended for everyday drinking in the sun has a completely different profile to a wine intended for pairing with a serious meal. This too is a topic all on its own.
Price This is the deciding factor although without the preceding parameters it would have no context for evaluation.