The Sommelier World Cup: USA vs. South Africa

America's best sommeliers will be sparring at Astor Center next Tuesday. There are still press seats available for those wanting to watch.

Smack Down: America’s best sommeliers will be sparring at Astor Center next Tuesday over South African Wines. There are only press seats available to this industry-only event, but you can always read our report.

“I know Chenin Blanc, sir—and this is no Chenin Blanc!”

Well, maybe the dialogue won’t be as dramatic as that, but next Tuesday, May 25th, at the Astor Center, some of NYC’s top sommeliers will gather to face off to see how well they know the syrahs, sauvignon blancs, cabernets, pinotages, and chenin blancs of South Africa’s vines in the first annual Sommelier World Cup.

It’s a challenge that riffs on the other World Cup, of course, and that kicked off in the Netherlands last March and has been working its way the globe ‘round, seeking out the finest noses and palates the wine world has to offer.

Next week, it’s New York’s turn to show what we’ve got: Stay tuned for a report on the final results for the industry-only event next Tuesday.

“We wanted to draw attention to the super high caliber of American sommeliers, including those based in NYC,” says Stephen Munshin, our esteeemd publisher, who partnered with WOSA (Wines of South Africa) to shine a light on the event. And indeed, the competition in NYC is stiff, with wine pros like Olivier Dufeu of Bouley, Jared Fischer, Le Bernardin, Hiromi Kiyama of Nobu 57, Robert Hamilton of Porterhouse New York, and Nick Robinson of Tocqueville signed up to compete for a chance to swirl-off against the best sommeliers in the world in mid-October, where the finals will take place.

What do they have to do to get there? Oh, just sit through a tough written-theory and multiple-choice exam, followed by a blind tasting of South African wines, during which contestants will be asked to describe the wines in detail—and by detail, they don’t just mean, “Mmmm, this smells lemony!” Contestants will have to pin-point the varietal, the vintage, the region of origin within South Africa, as well as the producer. Oh, and make spot-on wine and food pairing suggestions, too.

Add to that a seriously intimidating panel of judges standing sentry at the competition–the legendary Master Sommelier Roger Dagorn, formerly of the dearly departed Chanterelle and now serving as beverage director at Porter House, Andrew Bell, President of the American Sommelier Association (huzzah!), and Bernie Sun of the Jean-Georges Group—and this is no easy free ride to tour the vineyards of South Africa—although certainly one worth fighting for, as the advances in their wine industry since the fall of apartheid in 1990 has lead to a virtual blossoming of the industry.

Who will win? We’ll release the final results next week. If you’re lucky enough to be a member of the wine press, meanwhile, you are welcome to attend, and should RSVP to [email protected] or 212.505.1616.

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Amy Zavatto is the daughter of an old school Italian butcher who used to sell bay scallops alongside steaks, and is also the former Deputy Editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She holds her Level III Certification in Wine and Spirits from the WSET, and contributes to Imbibe, Whisky Advocate, SOMMJournal, Liquor.com, and others. She is the author of Forager's Cocktails: Botanical Mixology with Fresh, Natural Ingredients and The Architecture of the Cocktail. She's stomped around vineyards from the Finger Lakes to the Loire Valley and toured distilleries everywhere from Kentucky to Jalisco to the Highlands of Scotland. When not doing all those other things, Amy is the Director of the Long Island Merlot Alliance.