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Vinisud 2014: Best of the Best- Basso and Basset

Posted: Monday, 31 March 2014 11:45

Vinisud 2014: Best of the Best- Basso and Basset

Mar 31: One of the big privileges of attending the Vinisud biennial Wine Show in Montpellier is that one gets to meet top sommeliers of the world, like Paolo Basso who was selected the Best Sommelier of the World in 2013 and Gerard Basset MW,MS,MBA,OBE , awarded the title earlier in 2010, writes Subhash Arora who attended all their Master-classes about Mediterranean wines and later interviewed them

Click For Large View‘Cool climate, balanced, richer, gives freshness and sapidity, lots of sun, great, red granite colour, it has started to evolve. Notes are floral and spicy, black pepper, strawberries, black current, 90% Nerello Mascalese- 10% Nerello Cappuccio, taste is simply seductive in attack on the palate, high acidity like in the north of Europe, evolution on the mid palate is simplicity, pleasant, non invasive, slightly salty and sapidity, comes from volcanic sand in the soil. Tannins well integrated into the wine, fine texture, very soave throughout the finish, mid level intensity.’

If you saw the movie ‘Somm’ which featured four sommelier students working towards MS (Master Sommelier) you would think this was part of the script from the movie with one of the students in the zone, describing a red wine from Etna . Wrong! These are the tasting notes actually rattled out by Paolo Basso while tasting one of the 12 wines from the Red Appellations of Mediterranean-a Scamacca del Murgo Etna Rosso 2011 from Sicily. He was one of the two presenters conducting a Masterclass in Vinisud -the Mediterranean Wine Show held every two years in Montpellier. He was accompanied by Gerard Basset MW, MS, OBE who is also the Best Sommelier of the World in 2010-the most qualified wine expert in the world. Thus the Best of the World’s Best were at the dais showcasing the wines to an overflowing house.

Paolo Basso is the ruling Best Sommelier of the World, a title he was awarded in Japan in March 2013. In an exclusive interview, the Italo-Suisse sommelier confessed he was seduced by wine rather late in life, at the age of 25 though he had starting drinking sparingly when he was 18. Born in Varese, 40 km north of Milan but only 3 km from the well –known Piemontese wine region of Gattinara, he grew up in a family of non wine-producers. But he says as wine was a tradition in Italy, one bottle of wine was always left at the table and on Sundays it was consumed in the house when he was growing up. But travelling to Switzerland after finishing his hotel management school in the prestigious enology school Sondalo in Valtellina , changed all that.  

‘Do you go back to those pictures and have memories from that time,' Pallavi Vatsa from Bordeaux who was also attending Vinisud, asked Basso. “Absolutely. The capacity to sense and recognise flavours of cherries and other fruits and flowers as I grew up in a village in the countryside, was really helpful,’ he says.

Where do the wines from South of France stand internationally in terms of price and quality? ‘Except for a few producers who have very expensive prices, others have very, very, very affordable wine,’ he says with emphasis on ‘very’. But in India we think of Chateau-Neuf-du-Pape (CNP) and Rhone wines of good quality but VDP wines from Languedoc are considered cheap and from the wine lakes, I tell him. ‘I don’t agree at all. It used to be like this but has changed a lot in the last 10-15 years. We have a great variety of wine. Viticulture and enology has changed. They are today very close to quality wines. In Rhone you have the best Syrah in the world. Lot of CNP cuvée are excellent though expensive,’ he retorts.

Enter the World Stage

Click For Large ViewHow did he get into the World competitions? ‘In 1995 I was working in Geneva.  My Chief Sommelier told me I had passion for wine and exhorted me to enter competitions to know where I stood compared to others. So I started taking part in 1995 and took part in national competitions every year.’ ‘When you started to try were their any obstacles?’

‘Starting In 1995 I started entering national competition every year. You have to cross each hurdle and level though.  I became national champion in 1997, 2 years later.  In 1999 in Geneva there was a selection and I was selected in the final round to represent Switzerland in Montreal for the event in 2000. I worked hard to win but didn’t do so well and the Frenchman Olivier Poussier became the World Champion (Poussier was also present at Vinisud 2014 at a Masterclass). It was next held next in 2004 and 2007 when both Gerard and a French sommelier were in the finals-there were four including me. Of course, you know Gerard became the champion in 2010 when I was a runner up.

What did he do to specialize as a sommelier?’ Sommelier education in Switzerland through the Association Suisse Sommeliers Professionnels has a good 2-year programme for sommeliers.  The programme made him earn the gold pin he wore as a professional sommelier when I interviewed him. ‘Do you plan to do your MS or MW, I ask? ‘As the Best Sommelier of the World I don’t need to do an MS or anything else in the field of sommeliers. But one of my dreams is to improve my English and do MW since it has a different approach. One day if I have time I would like to try for it. When I was young I didn’t have knowledge of English, time or the money!’ Today, he only lacks time to fulfill his dream.

And how did being the ‘Best Sommelier of the World change his lifestyle?’ ‘Oh, I have certainly become busier! I travel 10 times more than before and my plans have changed. I organise and host several corporate and special wine dinners where they want to share my experience with the wine loving guests and I present wines. I also have contract- a Mandato (mandate) for the Swiss Wine Promotion Board. I am also a consultant for a big hotel chain-Kempinski,’ he says.

What is his advice to others who want to be like him-maybe not necessarily the ‘Best Sommelier in the World’?  ‘It’s like how you were in school and your back ground,’ he says mystically. ‘There are 3 groups of students in a class. If you were the best of the 3 categories only then you can become a good sommelier. If you don’t have capacity to study, do not involve yourself being a good sommelier’. I assumed he was talking of the requirements for becoming a Master Sommelier and did not pursue his reasoning! But he did have a point when he said, ‘with passion you can balance but you must study hard. If your heart is not in it, you cannot be a good sommelier’, telling me being an engineer ‘as an engineer you will do very well because engineers have the capacity to analyse. They have good memory and that helps in researching the wines’.

As an attribute of a good sommelier, nosing is very important. A good sommelier should believe in sustainability.  You have to understand customers and figure out what he is looking for. You must be lover of cuture but must be sensible too’, was his piece advice to the budding sommeliers.

What was his impression of Vinisud?  ‘It is my first time in Vinisud. It is a great wine fair. Very chilled. One can walk around and meet people and not like other trade fairs. It will positively have a god impact for the Mediterranean wines. I may not be the Best Sommelier in the World, or even a Sommelier, but I would say Cheers to do that! I know it is a lot easier to interact with wine experts of his caliber only at shows like Vinisud.

Gerard Basset MBA, MS, MW, OBE

Gerard Basset who won the coveted title 3 years before Basso, in 2010 has been covered  extensively as I interviewed him in my extensive interview with him for delWine. The rather introverted and reserved Basset is more involved with his restaurant business now but like a Bollywood star comes really alive when he is on stage describing a wine. For details, please refer to  Gerard Basset Sommelier Restaurateur Extraordinaire Basset has important tips for good sommeliers. Obviously a Sommelier must be an excellent taster but he or she must also have a passion for food and wine in order to communicate with enthusiasm to the guests about the proper pairing recommendations and must be knowledgeable about many aspects of wine in order to talk with them,’ says Gerard Basset.

‘The role of a sommelier is to give maximum pleasure to the guests and make them want to come back again and again to his/her restaurant.  Of course, the sommelier is also there to make guests discover new wines and surprise them but must not impose the personal taste on them. He must not show off his knowledge to the clients and intimidate them but should make them feel comfortable instead. He should try to offer different choices to the customers- but only similar to their taste spectrum.

He does not agree with many sommeliers when they say what is in the glass is only important. ‘When you are selling wine to a customer you are not only selling what is in the glass but also emotions and inspirations. We have to make people dream. Some sommeliers feel that the points given by critics like Parker are irrelevant and it’s only what is in the glass that is important. I don’t agree with that. Some customers may want to know more about what the experts feel about a particular wine. They may like to ask whether a wine has won any wine competitions. Of course, the customer would generally have a limited experience –some may be more adventurous while others quite conservative; the sommelier must try to understand their taste,’ says the Master Sommelier who is already the Master of Wine- a dream yet to become a reality for Paolo Basso.

Best of the Best

Click For Large ViewBut both Basso and Basset know and relish the fact that they have earned the right to be Best Sommeliers of the World. The next Best of the Best would be decided 2 years from now, in 2016 and if history is any indication, the Best have been already working hard for the title for the last 12 years or more- just like any sportsman with an eye on the Olympic medal.  The only difference is knowing there is only one medal and there would be many who would be disappointed in 2016 but will carry on with their goal to wine the Olympics for Sommelier taking place every 3 years.

The finalists may be invited to participate in Vinisud 2016, a few months before the triennial event (once in 3 years)  is organised by the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (A.I.S.) in Mendoza, Argentina to select the 16th ‘Best Sommelier of the World’.

For another related article please also visit      Vinisud 2012: Tips for Sommeliers from Top Sommelier

Subhash Arora


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