The best sommelier in the world debunks cork-sniffing

7 March 2019 We're republishing this 14-year-old article in response to a plea from a fellow Master of Wine, Cassidy Dart, to 'please publish something about cork-sniffing'. It seems particularly appropriate and poignant because if you click on the second 'reporting' link, you can read about the late Gerard Basset's (just) unsuccessful attempt to become the best sommelier in the world. 

30 March 2005 See also The best sommelier in Britain also debunks cork-sniffing!

Last October, you may remember my practically live reporting of the Athens Olympics, the real ones, the wine-waiting ones. I felt rather sad that my old friend and fellow Master of Wine Gerard Basset had been pipped at the post by a young Italian working in Paris, Enrico Bernardo (not, as I initially reported, Bernardeau).

Well last weekend I had the pleasure of meeting the Meilleur Sommelier du Monde 2004 and very charming he is too. All of 28, I should think, with a refreshingly open and enthusiastic attitude to wine. I have met a few Meilleurs Sommeliers du Whatsit in my time and some of them can be a bit stiff, perhaps atrophied by the awesome responsibility, but Enrico gives the impression of knowing that he, like us all, still has a great deal to learn.

He combines French polish with Italian warmth – great tailoring with lots of chuckles and arm-grabbing – which is not a bad combination, you have to admit. A Milanese, he started off training to be a chef all over Europe, including a stint at Troisgros but not in London – too little sun. Then he was exposed to a sommelier and the intriguing notion of balance in a wine. That lit the flame, which obviously burns brightly every day.

What particularly impressed the judges in the Athens final apparently was how he handled serving a wine they had deliberately injected with TCA, left out in the sun for a day or so, then bottled with a synthetic cork. It had been labelled with the name of a Patras domaine that, impressively, he knew did not exist so he already smelt a rat. Then the TCA presumably. And was not fazed by the fact that it had a plastic stopper but managed to analyse its faults correctly.

He invited us to his cellar beneath the quite stunningly beautiful dining room of Le Cinq in the Hotel George V in Paris, where the food is said to be on top form thanks to ex-Taillevent Philippe Legendre, and had laid on a tasting of some of his new purchases – none of them French, or Greek.  A third of the wines on his list are non-French but they can be difficult to sell. His clients typically go for white burgundy and mature red bordeaux. They like his use of port tongs when opening un vintage in the dining room.

We tasted a big, bold, sweet Ridge Lytton Springs 1997; Henschke Hill of Grace from the same year, which seemed rather more sophisticated if characteristically minty; La Spinetta’s Starderi Barbaresco 2001, which is still extremely closed and oaky; and, best of all, a surprisingly accessible Wehlener Sonnenuhr Auslese 1996 from J J Prüm – all with some extremely superior pâté de foie gras, parmesan and salami. Waiters whisked around us in that invisible way that really well-trained waiting staff have about them. Meanwhile we prattled merrily about wine and the wines of the world.

Enrico wanted to know how I tasted wine? What was my attitude to wine when I was tasting? I think he was trying to establish that we shared the view that humility is an essential attribute in a wine taster.

I had far more questions – though, sorry, I forgot to ask about screwcaps.

Q: What percentage of the bottles opened in Le Cinq are corked?

A: About 2.5%, double that in champagne, which shows it more obviously.

Q: What were his feelings on serving wines with sediment from the horizontal as opposed to vertical?

A: If a wine is older than about seven years old, he, like several fastidious collectors I know, prefers to transfer bottles from the rack to a decanting cradle or basket so as to pour the wine off the fine sediment on the side of the bottle rather than standing them upright and risking retaining some of the sediment in the wine.

Q: Do you always sniff the cork after you’ve pulled it out?

A: Yes, it was instilled in us all during training.

Q: Is that sniff a sure guide to the condition of the wine?

A: No.

Then a laugh. Very Enrico Bernardo.

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