Zim somms take on the world – again


At last weekend's global test of blind wine tasting, 'our' team did really rather well. 

Many of you were kind enough to help a team of Zimbabwean sommeliers working in South Africa compete in the World Wine Tasting Championships in Burgundy a year ago. This was the most fabulous experience for them but, although they beat the Italian team, they ended up very close to the bottom scorers (see this report).

Last Saturday, thanks to a couple of sponsors in the Netherlands, exactly the same team – captain Joseph T Dhafana (La Colombe), Marlvin Gwese (Cape Grace), Tinashe Nyamudoka (The Test Kitchen) and Pardon Taguzu (now at African Wines in The Hague) – competed again at this year's championships held in the Languedoc. This year they managed to cover themselves with glory, beating Spain, Brazil, Italy (again), England, Monaco, Japan, the Netherlands, Belarus and the American team. Overall the Zimbabwean team was judged fourteenth best out of 23, just a notch below China (who had performed brilliantly in a previous version of this annual competition, orgnised by the French wine magazine Revue du Vin de France).

This year’s winner, quite decisively, was Belgium, followed by Finland, France and then Taiwan, competing for the first time, but from a country which already has a very developed wine culture. See full listing below, with scores.

As Tam and I learnt when attending last year’s competition, the teams are given wines that can and do come from all over the world. The Zimbabweans are at quite a disadvantage. Their native land has no wine culture. Their access to imported wines in Cape Town is relatively limited. They have very demanding full-time jobs in Cape Town's most celebrated restaurants. And one of the team, Pardon Taguzu, now works in The Hague with the team's sponsors Belinda and Damiano D’Alba, restaurateurs and partners with Pardon in the new African Wines import venture. So the Zimbabwean team had no chance for the repetitive training sessions that would have been the ideal preparation for the tasting competition.

This year, however, the team was helped considerably by the intensive four-day training they received from Master of Wine Andrew Caillard (involved with the film that is being made about the Zim Somms to be launched next year) once they arrived in the Languedoc. Jean-Paul Mas kindly let them use his premises for this and Caillard had classic wines shipped over for their training sessions. He reports:

‘Well that was quite a thrilling result considering the odds. As every country was read out, the Zims celebrated as if they had won the competition! After the highs and lows of last year, this was in every way a major boost to their confidence and sense of identity.

‘The first day revealed that they needed real focus and preparation. Using wines donated by some of our suppliers (to Endeavour Drinks Group Australia including Schloss Vollrads, Domaine Paul Mas, Gonnet, Santa Margherita, Zonin, Borsao, Sancho Garces, Grand Chais de France, etc) the Zims tasted through around 60 wines prior to the competition.

‘They are relatively good tasters, but in some respects are compromised by availability in South Africa. But this narrow frame of reference might have helped in the end, because the plan of attack was to get them working as a team and to stick to the classics. The rest was a question of discipline and teamwork.

‘The discipline of tasting was enforced by a simple grid system, a clock(!) and the obligation for all to write their conclusion in silence before discussion. The teamwork bit was all about showing them how to negotiate an outcome using those facts and listening to each other.

‘If they had just identified one extra wine perhaps they could have beaten South Africa and reached the top ten. So although the Zims had luck on their side, a few cards did not fall their way!

‘We are all really pleased with the result. This experience has been quite wonderful. The Zims are such lovely characters and their story is quite moving. When one considers where they come from, this result – a seemingly inconsequential middle ranking – is quite phenomenal. Their faces just told it all. And of course the Zimsomm sing song that went with it melted everyone’s hearts.’

Captain Joseph T Dhafana emailed me and Zimbabwean-born Tam just after the results were announced, 'We are elated with our position this year. What an achievement! Andrew really helped us very much and we genuinely appreciate it. We tasted so many wines in a short period of time and we learnt a lot. Hope next year will be even better.'

Here’s the complete list of (ascending) scores:

51 Spain
61 Brazil
62 Italy
63 England
67 Monaco
69 Japan
73 Netherlands
83 Belarus
85 USA
86 Zimbabwe
90 China
102 Poland
103 Luxembourg
105 South Africa
108 Sweden
109 Russia
110 Denmark
111 Switzerland
112 Hungary
114 Taiwan
115 France
123 Finland
144 Belgium