Author: Oleksandra Hryhorieva
On 12th of February at Paris La Défense Arena, after the high-level competition between three finalists, Raimonds Tomsons from Latvia became the ASI Best Sommelier of the World 2023. Oleksandra Hryhorieva, Drinks+ Editor and Project Lead at the Wine Travel Awards, was invited to the final to share the course of events with our readers.
The festive music is playing. The Defence Arena is welcoming the public: 4,000 wine professionals and wine lovers coming from different countries, as well as students involved in the wine programs accompanied by their professors from all over France. After the welcome words are said by ASI President William Wouters and USDF (L’Union de la Sommellerie Française) President, and event organizer, Philippe Faure-Brac, 68 candidates are appearing on the stage under the spotlight. Here is the moment when we get to know the names of three finalists. Nina Jensen (Denmark), Raimonds Tomsons (Latvia), and Reeze Choi (China) keep competing for the title of ASI Best Sommelier of the World 2023.
The first finalist Reeze Choi from China is ready to perform. To imitate true scenes at the restaurant, tables, a cocktail and wine bar are installed directly on the stage. Even a professional bartender is invited to assist. Who are the clients? Of course, they are members of the jury committee sitting at the tables and making their orders, meaning scrutinizing and evaluating every move and word of the sommelier.
The first table is ordering two cocktails, Margarita and Old fashioned, and sparkling wine for a big celebration. This is the first contest of such a prestigious level for Reeze Choi, so he is quite nervous. However, the public is very supportive. Within three minutes, Reeze helps the bartender to prepare cocktails and serves the champagne elaborating on the vintage. Moving to the other two tables, Reeze has 14 minutes for a service. The second table asks for Château D’Issan 2016 (Margaux, magnum) which needs to be decanted. At the same time, the third table goes for Dom Pérignon Brut 2013 served immediately. One of the judges also requests a sommelier’s professional opinion on a red wine from Beaujolais they would like to serve at the corporate evening. This is an incredible scene to observe which gives you an impression to be at the theater and watch a performance of professional actors.
In her turn, the second finalist Nina Jensen from Denmark serves confidently and gracefully. She uses every minute of her time in order to provide more details on wines and suggest possible pairings. We can say that she is juggling ideas. She is open and smiling. So, it is not surprising that the public immediately fell in love with her.
Raimonds Tomsons from Latvia is performing the third. He is pretty well put together. He is polite and attentive to his clients. He is the only one who apologizes to the second table for waiting in order he can immediately serve the champagne to the third table. To reduce the tension, he adds some hints of humor: “Yeah, what a night here!” or “This is a Macaron decanter, almost like Macron, but a bit different.”
Sommeliers do not have to be good bartenders, but they have to be able to work in the restaurant environment with colleagues and to collaborate together. The first task is designed to check exactly those skills, as well as knowledge of service and drinks, in particular cocktails for which a guest can have different preferences.
The second task is a blind tasting where the candidates need to identify four white wines for 4 minutes. This appears to be tough as the finalists confuse Riesling with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon with Chardonnay. The stress from a big responsibility reminds of itself. So, the four white wines are Nik Weis Goldtröpfchen G.G 2021 Mosel, Germany, Dom. Wachau Riesling Federspiel Loibenberg 2021 Wachau, Austria, Alheit Vineyards Monument Semillon 2021 Franschhoek, South Africa and Riccitelli Semillon 2021 Rio Negro, Patagonia, Argentina. Straight after the tasting, the finalists need to associate two pieces of rock with two of the wines in front of them.
The next task is a food pairing. Chef Anne-Sophie Pic asks candidates to pair the proposed wines with the menu at her 3-Michelin-starred restaurant in Valencia.
The fourth task concerns the knowledge of the wine market. In the list of 12 wines, there are mistakes to be identified. All three finalists spotted some mistakes in vintages. For example, Krug Clos du Mesnil 1978 Champagne, France (the first vintage was in 1979), Vega Sicilia Único 2001 Ribera del Duero, Castilla y Leon, Spain (2001 vintage was not released). Some prices also contained errors: Château Margaux 1983 Margaux, Bordeaux, France cannot cost €250 (there should be one more zero) and this wine should be more expensive than Château Margaux 1982 Margaux, Bordeaux, France with the price of €1600 in the list.
The fifth individual task is a blind tasting where the sommeliers should, firstly, provide full organoleptic characteristics of a proposed red wine on their left and, secondly, identify the vintage and sell to the audience a red wine on their right. What is interesting here is that the two wines are Château Pétrus Pomerol but of different vintages, 2012 and 2003 respectively. This fact is not noticed by the finalists, however they easily define that the second wine is older with aging potential.
As each of the finalists passes all the tasks within 45 minutes in their turn, they do not actually see the performance and do not hear the answers of each other. However, they are gathered together for the final task. They are shown a series of images due to which they have to guess the wine. The earlier they guess the more points they gain. There are 5 wines in total to guess. Some are not obvious as in the case of Jean Louis Chave Ermitage Cuvée Cathelin.
Now it is done, all the tasks are accomplished, the finalists did their best. The audience froze in anticipation of the announcement of the winner. And the ASI Best Sommelier of the World 2023 becomes Raimonds Tomsons from Latvia. What emotions and a large round of applause! Raimonds is thrilled: “I cannot believe! I am extremely happy!” In his speech, there are many words of gratitude to all his supporters, coaches, trainers and family.
Raimonds Tomsons is a Board member at the Latvian Sommelier association, wine director at Barents Wine collectors (Riga, Latvia) and owner of Wine Consulting Ltd. Raimonds Tomsons. He is A.S.I. 3rd Best Sommelier of the world 2019 (Belgium), A.S.I. Best Sommelier of Europe and Africa 2017 (Austria), 3 times Best Sommelier of the Baltics, Vana Tallinn Grand Prix competition, 3 times Best Sommelier of Latvia.
Of the competition, ASI President William Wouters says, “it took more than 30 years for this contest to return to Paris. It was worth the wait! From the first day candidates arrived, they were treated to the hospitality and amazing gastronomy of France. As for the contest itself, it honoured the commitment of our candidates by being both challenging and fair. It is with great pride that we announce Raimonds Tomsons as the winner. I have no doubts they will be a fantastic representative of ASI, and an inspiration to our global sommelier community.”
Nina Basset, FIH Hotelier, who must have watched dozens of competitions, but for the first time in Paris in the status of ASI General Secretary was also sitting at the table in the restaurant installed on the stage. In our conversation, she noted the high level of preparation of candidates despite the stress that they experienced while passing all the tasks. This year, Nina Basset joined the Jury Committee at the Wine Travel Awards where the winner of the Ambassador of the Year category will be awarded with the Gérard Basset Prize “Ambassador of the Year”. Sommeliers are more than welcome to participate.
Drinks+ and WTA express their congratulations and warmest wishes to all the candidates and to the winner Raimonds Tomsons. Sommeliers put a lot of effort, time and money in order to learn different angles of the profession, travel to different wine-producing regions, taste many wines and develop their receptors. It inspires respect and admiration. Bravo!
In the following material about this year’s contest, we will shed light on the participation of the Ukrainian candidate. In the interview with Maryna Revkova, you will learn about her preparation to the ASI Best Sommelier of the World 2023, her impressions and personal favorites, as well as plans for the future and projects she is involved in.
Photo: ASI & HRVPROD