Tips on leaning on the sommelier, from the world’s best one

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Paolo Basso on a 1996 Mi-coteau Chasselas from the Kursner winery in Féchy: robe of deep gold tones, a nose of sage, oregano and other herbs at first, then exotic fruits, notably papaya, spices in mouth and a surprisingly dynamic finish for a 17-year-old Chasselas.

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND / AMONG THE VINES – Paolo Basso was named the World’s Best Sommelier 2013 in Tokyo 29 March, in front of an excited crowd of 4,000. “We’ve never had so much attention – the media coverage there was huge!” the sommelier from canton Ticino says.

He was in Féchy Friday 31 May for a family winery celebration, 20 years of the Kursner brothers running the business they took over from their father. Basso was the “godfather” of the event.

See slide show at the end of article

On the stage in Tokyo

The three finalists out of 12 from the previous round were named just as the tough, on-stage final tests were about to begin: Basso, Véronique Rivest from Canada and Aristide Spies from Belgium. The contest is held every three years, with more than 1,000 entrants worldwide.

Basso, who trained at the renowned Swiss Sommelier Association school, is a familiar name to connaisseurs of the sommelier business. He was twice runner-up in the competition and he was also named European Sommelier of the Year in 2010.

His stage display of knowledge and skills in Tokyo was a far cry from a sommelier’s typically more intimate work with individual diners in a restaurant.

Basso has a ready smile and confident manner. Despite the title he is not intimidating: he comes across as friendly, down to Earth, sophisticated yet approachable.

A sommelier’s job: it’s all about earning the client’s trust

If I knew nothing about his title and his impressive background, I would still trust him on meeting him, if I wanted to order the right wine to go with my meal in a restaurant. And that’s what it comes down to, when working with a sommelier he says.

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Hamming it up with the guests: Paolo Basso in the Kursner barrel room

In the chilly cellar where the Kursner wines are made, he takes a group through a vertical (several vintages) tasting of eight Kursner Chasselas wines, starting with a 1995. Afterwards, coats off and waiting for lunch where he will again comment on the wines, I ask him about how restaurant guests can benefit from the presence of a sommelier.

I give  him a hypothetical situation: how can a sommelier can help guests who would like to order a good Swiss bottle in order to learn more about wines from Switzerland or perhaps from the region. The country may be small, but it has an extraordinary diversity of grape varieties and wines.

The joy of this range is that the wines can all express their terroirs very well, but they can thus be very different, which is daunting if you’re not a Swiss wine specialist.

Suppose you love your local Morges Pinot Noir but you see three Pinot Noirs on a good wine card, from Neuchatel, Salgesch/Salquenen in canton Valais and Malens in canton Graubuenden, how will you know what to expect, or whether it’s right for the meal you’d like to order?

If you’re visiting Switzerland, and all these wines are new to you, where do you begin?

“That’s very easy,” he says quickly. “Leave it to the sommelier. Introduce yourselves. Then put a little pressure on him,” he smiles.

“Tell him you trust him, you have confidence in him because you know he’s passionate about wine and knows a lot about it. Give him a little budget spread [after looking at the wine card, so you know the price range].

“Don’t be afraid to do that. Buying wine is like buying any other product or service. It’s like asking for an estimate.”

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Paolo Basso, lunch at the Kursner winery

It can also be helpful to give the sommelier an idea of your general preferences, he says. Do you like classic wines or big fat reds? Do you want to try something  completely new? Tell the sommelier; it will help him select something suitable for you.

I share this over lunch with Jean-Luc Kursner, the brother who handles the dynamic commercial side for Kursner wines, developing partnerships with Jean-Claude Biver for the 2010 America’s Cup in Valence, presenting the winery’s products at the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco and on Austrian ski slopes, and most recently building a presence in China.

“He’s so right!” Kursner laughs, recalling the first time he himself left it completely up to a sommelier, in Monaco. He and a friend decided on a whim to eat at a fine restaurant high above the principality, when they’d gone to check out the view. They were dressed a bit too shabbily for the place and probably looked like they couldn’t pay for the meal, he says, an impression reinforced by the friend, who was tired, insisting they get only a half bottle of wine.

But the half bottle was gone before the first course arrived, and the sommelier, without putting any pressure on them, wondered if they might like another. At this point Kursner decided it was easiest to just let the man do his work. The result: great wine, a wonderful discussion with the sommelier who, it turned out, had worked at the Richemond in Geneva, and such a good time had by all that they all hugged at the door before the pair headed back down to Monaco. Kursner says he spent more than planned at the outset but it was such a memorable time that he has never regretted it.

Basso’s new obligations and fame as the world’s best have him traveling and doing speaking stints plus additional consulting work, he says. “I’ll have to share more of the work with a colleague,” he says of his wine consulting and retail business, Ceresio Vini in Lugano. Note: the online catalogue includes an excellent selection of wines from Ticino and northern Italy.

Basso also organizes wine events with restaurant Conca Bella in the Muggio Valley in Switzerland, 1km from Chiasso and close to Lake Como, where he continues to work as the wine director.

The future of wine and tasting notes in Féchy – remarks by Paolo Basso

Basso’s overall comments for the Chasselas vertical tasting of eight wines was that their dynamic capacity is impressive, a clear sign of quality.

Swiss winemakers are concerned that their home market as well as the international one is shrinking, with consumption figures slipping each year. For Basso, this points to a market where quality is increasingly important. “What I see in the years ahead is that we must put the accent on quality winemakers, but also on the fact that these products are local specialties. Why? Because as countries like China develop a wine culture and knowledge, quality that is specific to a place will matter more. Wine is all that – quality and terroir.”

Some of his remarks on the wines. Notes of yeast and toast are common to the older vintages, often with beeswax.

1999 – Vanel (from several vine parcels), discreet character, a nose of hazelnuts and almonds, finish has hints of white chocolate, good length in mouth

2002 – Mi-coteau, from vines above Féchy, nose of yeast with mature cooked fruits, grape jelly, in mouth a good structure, mouth filling and round, lovely finish with delicate touch of ripe apple, puff pastry and with white pepper at the end

2008 – Mi-coteau, remarkably fresh for a five-year-old Chasselas, nose of light lemon, peach, fleur de vigne (grapevine flowers), apple as it evolves in mouth and a touch of white pepper in the finish

2010 – Mi-coteau, difference from the 2008 is apparent, with lemon jam, hints of melon and yeast, a wine that is rich and buttery in mouth.

My favourite of the younger wines was the 2008, which is dry and concentrated, a wine that gradually unveils a platter of fruits as it evolves beautifully in mouth. Pierre-Yves Kursner, who oversees the winemaking side of the business, says that 2008 was a year when the grapes were smaller so there was more skin contact, which accounts for the concentration. It’s a fine example of how the same good terroir, in the hands of very skilled winemakers, maintains a recognizable line but varies from one year to the next due to weather conditions, giving each vintage its own special character.

 

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