With almost magical qualities, sommeliers can taste a wine and tell you the type of wine it is, from which region it is from and when it was produced. But make no mistake, Sommeliers are not the wizards of the wine world; they are dedicated professionals who spend years training and studying every aspect of wine growing and wine making, for relatively few impressive moments when they demonstrate their skills at a tasting. How do they do it? Well for starters, they taste a lot of wine in a very formal way, they study relentlessly and attend trainings. While anyone can claim to be a sommelier, becoming a professional certified sommelier requires adhering to the guidelines of a certifying body that certifies the type of training and skills sommeliers need throughout their careers.
Certifying bodies are not new, and they exist in
almost all wine growing regions on the planet, from France to Australia. While each certifying body has
different levels and different requirements, they ensure that sommeliers have
training and experience so they can describe wines, create wine lists, suggest
wines to pair with food, write about wine and assist vineyards and vintners
with wine grape growing and wine making. It makes sense that Sommeliers study
and train extensively, as they have great influence over our perceptions of the
wines we chose to drink. If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to a sommelier,
we’re going to give you a rundown of the education, training and experience it
takes to be one.
Sommeliers Train to Taste Wine
At wine events, sommeliers can taste dozens of wines in a very short period of time, they can be at the event to rate the wine or to choose wines for vendors so they adhere to a routine of tasting and making notes. We know that tasting and drinking wine are two different things and the differences are especially important for sommeliers, as their ratings can make or break a wine, stock their shelves with a winner or a dud and determine the experience people have when enjoying the wine. Much like the same routine accomplished wine drinkers follow when they taste a wine, they will visually inspect the wine, sniff the aroma, swish the wine in their mouth and draw conclusions. However, unlike informal tasting, during each of these steps they will look for specific characteristics, both those that are present and not present in the wine and make notes about them.
What Sommeliers Note During Tasting
During the aroma and flavor assessment they are tasting both for:
- Fruit Descriptors: Apple/Pear, Stone Fruit, Citrus, Tropical
- Non Fruit Descriptors: Floral, Spice, Herbs
- Earth/Mineral Descriptors: None/Little, Stone Minerals, Earth/Mushroom
- Oak: No Oak, Matured in Oak
As they swish, they are assessing the structure of the wine:
- Sugar: Dry, Off Dry, Medium Sweet, Sweet, Dessert
- Acid: Low, Medium minus, Medium, Medium Plus, High
- Alcohol: Low, Medium minus, Medium, Medium Plus, High
- Finish: Short, Medium minus, Medium, Medium Plus, Long
Then they will summarize their initial and final assumptions and conclusions about the wine:
- Climate: Cool, Moderate, Warm
- Style: Old World, New World
- Grape Variety (ie): Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Viogner, Pinot Gris/Grigio
- Country: United States, France, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, etc…
- Vintage: The year the grapes were grown.
While many of the aroma and flavor characteristics of wine are sensory, learning how to accurately make assumptions and conclusions about wine requires extensive study.
Sommeliers Study Hard
In order to understand what the flavor characteristics of the wine, i.e.; climate, style, grape varietal, country and vintage, sommeliers in training need to study the history of wine grape growing and viticulture. Sommeliers need to have a broad knowledge and understanding of viticulture and viticulture practices, so they know how climate, climate change, growing conditions and disease affect each varietal of grape. While they don’t have to grow grapes themselves, they do have to know the basics of what goes on in a vineyard. They also need to thoroughly comprehend the wine making process and the many variables that will affect the grapes as they are being made into wine. As winemakers can add yeasts, blend multiple varietals and use different processes to make different wines, having this fundamental knowledge is an important part of the job. They have to know the climate and geography of wine growing regions and learn how these elements affect the vintage.
Sommelier's Major Study is Experience
Sommeliers are made through years of experience, whether it’s at the vineyard, in restaurants or retail or through personal study; it doesn’t happen overnight. Internships are an important part of a sommeliers training, as it allows them to put together all the different components of their study. Not only does their knowledge have to be extensive, their presentation and wine service has to be flawless and is a part of the testing and certifying process.
Where do Sommeliers Work?
Sommeliers often retain employment in medium to high level restaurants that carry a quality wine list. In this aspect, a sommelier's primary job is to recommend wine to diners that will pair well with items on the menu, for this, they have to know how each wine will pair with each individual menu item. In other roles, sommeliers can assist private clients with stocking their cellars, work with event planners, work in hotels guiding diners on wine pairings or in an executive position guiding the hotel with stocking their cellars.
The job of a Sommelier is just as dynamic as wine itself, it constantly evolves and changes. sommeliers will gain hands-on experience in viticulture and wine making as well as in retail and dining settings. Sommeliers do not work alone, they are bridges between the vineyard/winemaker and everyday people who enjoy wine. Sommeliers need to be able to articulate the experience of a wine to everyone they speak to, from winemaker, to Chef, to client; they gain this experience by hosting tastings, working in tasting rooms and interacting with everyone all along the way.