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Latvian winner causes a stir at world sommelier championships

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Raimonds Tomsons from non-wine producing Latvia has been named the world's best sommelier at the championships in Paris./AFP
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Feb 13, 2023 - 10:26 AM

PARIS, FRANCE — A competitor from non-wine producing Latvia has caused a stir at this year’s Best Sommelier in the World contest, trouncing the entrant from France and claiming the top prize with his dizzying “thirst for knowledge”.

Raimonds Tomsons beat another contestant from northern Europe, Denmark’s Nina Jensen who was runner-up for the second consecutive edition of the triennial competition.

Reeze Choi from Hong Kong finished third.

“I can’t believe it,” said Tomsons on the stage after the final, which took place in public Sunday at the La Defense Arena just outside Paris.

To the presenter who asked him, in a joking tone, if there were vineyards in his country which he confused with Lithuania, the neighbouring Baltic country, Tomsons replied: “Let’s rather enjoy Latvian beers”.

Less artistic and relaxed, but more precise, Tomsons beat Jensen who had impressed spectators with her confidence, in the online comments of the competition which was broadcast live.

At the semi-final on Friday, Tomsons told AFP that not growing up in a wine-making culture had been “an advantage”.

“We don’t have a history and our minds are freer,” he said.

“In Latin America or classic countries like Spain and Portugal, they find it harder to open up to the wines of the world, because they are very proud of their own,” he said.

French competitor Pascaline Lepeltier failed to qualify for the final and came fourth.

“In France, we are spoiled children. The new countries that discover wine have such a thirst to learn and share — they have this incredible enthusiasm and they go very fast,” she told AFP after the semi-final.

‘Hipster’ workshops 

The final rounds consisted of identifying wines blind, pairing wines with dishes, finding errors in a price list or guessing the bottle from a series of pictures.

But to get to this point contestants had to go through more “hipster” workshops in the semi-final — identify five non-alcoholic drinks from around the world and imagine a vegan menu to accompany them.

The correct answers were not revealed until after the final and everyone, including jurors, agreed that it had been almost mission impossible.

“I’m very happy not to have had to do that,” said Swede Andreas Larsson, best sommelier in the world in 2007 and a member of the jury.

In another workshop, candidates had to mix classic cocktails — Aviation and Sazerac — with deliberately missing ingredients for which they had to find alternatives.

For Philippe Faure-Brac, president of the Union of French Sommeliers and winner of the competition in 1992, having skills “in all drinks” around the world is now essential.

Compared to the first edition of the competition in 1969, consumers have “much more information than before” and the profiles of sommeliers “who can travel and train in different places” are diversifying, he told AFP.

As for the “nolo”, these alcohol-free or low-alcohol drinks, very popular in the English-speaking world and Scandinavian countries and also gaining ground in France, “we cannot fight against the evolution of things and give up along the way on people who want to enjoy things differently,” he added.

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