A frequently asked question is: “What is a sommelier, and what is it exactly that they do?” The answer is simple. In a nutshell, a sommelier is someone who works in fine restaurants and is trained and knowledgeable in all aspects of wine, wine service, and wine and food pairing. You will recognize a sommelier by his or her encyclopaedic knowledge of wines, and by his or her Google Map-like accuracy of the geography (and indeed topography) of a particular varietal, but more about varietals and appellations later.
Can anyone, including you, be a sommelier?
Not necessarily. Not without giving up your day job, that is, and taking a tutelage under the Union des Sommeliers in France, or the Associazione Italiana Sommelier in Italy, or one of the many such esteemed organizations. But you can become an amateur sommelier of some renown, a legend of your neighbourhood, a dilettante of the dining room, the talk of the town, albeit a small town. At the very least, with some work, you will be able to hold court in your kitchen, dazzle guests with your insights, and pass muster at your Lapa or in your dining room.
The Wine List
So what are the responsibilities of this distinguished individual, and do you qualify? Well, let’s see. A Sommelier has several responsibilities. For one, he or she creates and updates wine lists in accordance with the wants and needs of the chef (in your house, that would be you) and the food and beverage manager (you, again). They recommend food and wine pairings, and inform guests about the different varieties of wines. In addition, they ensure that wines are served at the right temperature and within the proper glassware. But that’s not all, they ensure that the cellar is fully stocked, and organize wine tasting days or ‘wine of the month events’.
Tools of the trade
The tools of the sommelier trade are no longer all necessary. But a true sommelier will insist on having these on hand. The first of these is a sommelier knife. A sommelier knife – waiter’s friend or wine key – is a corkscrew with a folding body similar to a pocket knife. Originally conceived in Germany in 1882, by a certain Karl Wienke, the objet du vin was later patented in Germany, England, and America. The second tool is the ‘tastevin’, a small, shallow, silver cup or saucer traditionally used when judging the maturity and taste of a wine. The ‘tastevin’ was originally created with the purpose of judging the clarity and colour of wines that were stored in dim candle-lit cellars. Wine glasses of the day were too deep to allow for accurate judging of the wine’s colour in such faint light, which made the ‘tastevin’ the perfect tool. Thanks to electricity and well-lit cellars, ‘tastevins’ are no longer used. However, they can still be seen dangling around the necks of most sommeliers in honour of the profession.
On The Map
Knowledge is a prerequisite to becoming a sommelier. Appellations, varieties, terroirs, and food pairings, are just some of the concepts necessary to think of oneself as a sommelier. An appellation, to begin with, is a legally defined and protected geographical indication primarily used to identify where the grapes for a wine were grown. Appellations are as old as the hills on which they are grown, the oldest mentions are to be found in the bible. One needs only think of the wine of Samaria, or the wine of Carmel. But, in more modern terms, the world’s first exclusive and protected vineyard zone was introduced in Chianti in Italy in 1716. It is good for a sommelier to know and understand wine appellations. In fact, a good sommelier will know the front of his map like the back of his hand.
Varieties, and varietals for that matter, are another must-know. Indeed, just the answer to the question of what is a varietal (a wine made primarily from a single named grape variety) versus what is a blend (wines that display the name of two or more varieties on their label) will stand you in good stead.
Knowledge of the terroir, on the other hand, will put you on safe ground. Terroir, for the uninitiated, is the French term used to describe the environmental factors that affect a crop’s phenotype, including unique environment contexts, farming practices and a crop’s specific growth habitat. Collectively, these circumstantial characteristics are said to have a character, and terroir also refers to this character.
The last area of expertise, if one is to call oneself an amateur sommelier, is the ability to suggest food pairings. The idea here is that texture and flavour in both food and wine interact with each other. Thus, finding the right combination of these elements will enhance the dining experience. Understanding the balance between the weight of the food, and the weight (body) of the wine, is another plus.
The Right Wine
Of course, any holes in your sommelier knowledge of wines are sure to be covered over by your expert selection (from your well-curated pantry, no doubt) of any one of De Toren’s exceptional Bordeaux blends. Their appellations and food pairing potential are, if not something to write home about, then definitely something to boast about. An experienced sommelier, even an up-and-coming one such as yourself, can, and should, wax lyrical about the opulent Book XVII (crème de-cassis, fruitcake and fig scented bouquet with an ostentatious palate), the De Toren Z (a soft, approachable ruby-hued beauty) and not to mention the De Toren Délicate (redolent of roses and ripe-for-the-picking strawberries). And if that doesn’t seal the deal when it comes to your sommelier aspirations, there’s also the iconic Left Bank-based blend, the De Toren Fusion V (complex flavours of liquorice, black cherry, cedar, and dark berries) and not to mention the bold and powerful The Black Lion (arguably the most luxurious 100% Shiraz ever produced in South Africa, and a prime example of a true varietal).