It’s seriously good news that Gérard Basset has finally won the best sommelier in the world competition. Gérard has achieved much in Britain since he first worked here in 1983 after coming over to watch his football team St Etienne four years earlier, but the ambition that has propelled him forward since his first job here has always been to become the best sommelier in the world. Of course some of us already felt that he was, but he wanted the official seal of approval.
It seems like another era when I accompanied him to Paris over a decade ago for the Best Sommelier of Europe. He was competing with Europe’s finest but the competition was skewed towards France in the number and attitude of its judges. Having recently moved to England, he didn’t think he stood a chance. When he won, and God Save the Queen was duly played, a Frenchman standing behind him whispered bitterly and rather too loudly: ‘sing up you bastard, it’s YOUR national anthem now’.
I remember going to Chewton Glen when Gérard was sommelier there and then to Winchester when he co-founded the Hotel du Vin there in 1994 with Robin Hutson. I loved the informal Hotel du Vin concept with its emphasis on luxurious feather bedding and excellent wines, and stayed in the Birmingham, Tunbridge Wells and Brighton Hotels du Vin. I particularly liked the Brighton Hotel du Vin. I had given an after dinner talk in Birmingham and my reward was a night in a Hotel du Vin. I chose Brighton where Charmaine and I were given the ‘penthouse suite’ at the top, a giant 7-foot bed, two baths in front of it, a bar behind, an along-the-wall shower and a balcony with a seagull’s eye view of Brighton beach.
It was a shame when the Hotel du Vin chain was acquired by Malmaison. I haven’t been since, but rumours are that it’s not quite what it was. Not a shame for Gérard however, who in 2007 was able to set himself up on the proceeds with his own venture, a boutique hotel, TerraVina, in the New Forest. Gérard runs TerraVina with his wife Nina, a former AA hotel inspector, whom he met presumably while inspecting a bedroom together at Chewton Glen.
Despite a mouthwatering wine list with a mind-boggling 2300 bins, TerraVina’s list is not just eclectic and imaginative but easy to understand and practical too with categories such as ‘light & crisp’, ‘fresh and fruity’, suave and exuberant’, ‘smooth and nutty’, ‘supple and fragrant’, ‘rich and velvety’, ‘luscious and grapey’, etc. etc. Everyone I know who’s been to TerraVina, my wife included, loves it. I must go!
As for the competition itself, Gérard prevailed at his sixth attempt. He was so desperate to win it that he hectored his friends, myself included, to besiege him with difficult, exam-type questions to keep him on his toes. At the age of 52, he finally beat 53 sommeliers from 41 countries, including four women semi-finalists in the most gruelling competition of its kind.
After two days of written and practical exams, including blind tastings and service role-plays, each finalist had to complete a series of timed tasks including blind tasting and describing in detail four different wines and identifying eight spirits in three minutes. ‘It's the most difficult thing I've ever done’ he said afterwards. ‘I feel as if I am on another planet. Having been placed second three times I was determined to do well this year. Competing was exciting, nerve racking and thrilling. In the end I just thought I'm going to enjoy it and make the judges happy, even if I don't win’.
Some sommeliers are a bit puffed up with a sense of their own self-importance but Gérard isn’t one of them. He’s a charming man with a Gallic touch of the ‘allo, ‘allo about him. He’s inspired many others to become sommeliers and he’s a terrific advertisement for a profession that’s sometimes scorned and often misunderstood. Gérard Basset has worked all his life to win this title and for his hard work, his charm and his natural talent, he deserves every bit of it. He holds the title until 2013 when the next competition is held in Tokyo. Bravo Gérard!
The Best Sommelier in the World competition is organised by the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) and sponsored by Moët et Chandon.
Hotel TerraVina, 174 Woodlands Road, Woodlands, Netley Marsh,
Southampton, Hampshire SO40 7GL, United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)2380 293 784 Fax: +44 (0)23 80 293 62
Thanks to Charmaine Grieger for the images. www.charmainegrieger.co.uk