Passion knows no borders: the Gaggenau Sommelier Awards 2016

November 2016

German manufacturer of high-quality professional-grade domestic appliances, Gaggenau, having celebrated its 333rd birthday this year, has just held the second edition of its highly acclaimed Sommelier Awards, this time in Vienna. Five candidates demonstrated their craft in what proved to be a close contest. 

“Over the decades, we, as a brand, have been awarded many times, so we thought it was time to give something back”, says Sven Schnee, Head of Global Brand Gaggenau and one of the jurors. While many other acclaimed brands focus on chefs, designers, architects, and other makers with star quality, Gaggenau chose to put sommeliers in the spotlight – those dedicated, skilled professionals who explain to us which wine would best complement our meal, and who – despite their curial role – usually operate in the chef’s shadow. “Whereas, he or she is a person of reference when it comes to our dining experience. With this award, we want to encourage gifted up-and-coming sommeliers. We consider them top professionals and excellent cultural ambassadors of wine culture that contribute to a sophisticated lifestyle”, says Schnee, who himself is quite familiar with the world of wine – as a kid he used to accompany his wine-loving father to tastings and was thus drawn into this wonderland of tradition, craft, savoir-vivre, taste, and friendship at an early stage. “I remember great moments with great wines – those tastings were gatherings of marvellous people that very much enjoyed introducing the youngest participant into their world. There I learned how wine is produced and was given a fair notion of what fine wine is like – a good education!”, says Schnee, who developed through these experiences his genuine passion for wine. And genuine passion is exactly what Gaggenau excels at in its concept of a high-quality lifestyle with like-minded people. “Our Sommelier Awards highlight the importance of sommeliers, and we see this as part of Gaggenau’s brand and culture philosophy.”

The Sommelier Awards 2016 challenged the candidates’ knowledge of cuisine, wine, and coffee. During two full days, five international applicants (who were pre-selected in through a qualification process or a sommelier competition in their country) competed in front of an expert jury and members of the international press. The contest involved blind tests in wine tasting and coffee tasting, plus exams in professional competencies and attitude toward the duties and responsibilities of a sommelier, and there was also an evening presentation of each candidate’s personal beverage selection for a five-course dinner taking place in the baroque Palais Liechtenstein. This exquisite dinner was served after a private piano recital by jury member Zhao Yinyin. “There is rarely an award of such high calibre”, Schnee enthuses: “A combination of very skilled and dedicated international candidates, an emerging top chef, a seriously professional jury, an audience of international journalists and connoisseurs, a fabulous venue in the heart of a European Cultural Capital, and a recital by a world-class pianist. All of supreme quality, just as we like it. Moreover, this is a global award, which means that for the winners and candidates it is paramount.” The jury was headed by Annemarie Foidl, president of the Austrian Sommelier Association and member of the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI), and the other members were: Serge Dubs, ASI vice president for Europe and head sommelier at Marc Haeberlin’s Michelin three-star restaurant Auberge de l’Ill in Alsace and former World and European Champion of Sommeliers; Zhao Yinyin, who besides being an acclaimed pianist is also a gastronome and wine connoisseur; and Sven Schnee.

It turned out to be a tight race. “The candidates were more or less on the same level”, Schnee asserts. The 25-year-old German sommelier Marc Almert won the Gold trophy, followed by Tansy Zhao from China and Norbert Dudziński from Poland, who received the Silver and Bronze, respectively. “Almert was much appreciated for his empathy and humble attitude despite having a profound knowledge of wine and a personal opinion. He was the youngest candidate, but what maturity! Almert will become our global cultural ambassador and will receive a mentoring session at one of Europe’s best vineyards, Fattorie dei Dolfi in Tuscany.”

The chef with whom the five candidates worked also deserves attention. Harald Irka is a steadily rising culinary star. In spite of his young age, he has already received three Gault Millau toques. “We had a perfect match with Irka in Vienna. He has a passion for what he does, something we very much relate to. And he really wanted to work with us too”, informs Schnee. “Irka’s approach is inspiring, in the way he composes his dishes. At Palais Liechtenstein, he used a specific focal ingredient for each dish in the five courses, a balanced composition of genuine, traditional ingredients. It is really avant-garde what this chef does!” Which is exactly what Gaggenau, with a history dating back to 1683 and a devoted attention to innovation, cherishes. “We call our design philosophy “Traditional Avant-garde”, as it is ahead of its time while remaining true to its essence – technical perfection paired with aesthetic maturity.”

The plan is to host the next Sommelier Awards in China. “They have been into wine for a couple of centuries now, but the sommelier culture is not yet established there. These Awards are part of our ambition to shape conditions and educate wine aficionados all over the world; therefore, holding the next edition in China makes perfect sense. We will merge the precious viniculture with the impressive millennia-long cultural richness of China. Craftsmanship is very important there, so we will give the country a platform in order to encourage this. It’s all about passion and about amazing individuals who make it happen. There are no limits to that.”

all images © VECCHI & DI NOZZI for Gaggenau

Already winner of three Gault-Millau toques, young chef Harald Irka (third from left) created five courses of contemporary and forward-thinking cuisine to which the finalists selected wines to pair with.
Chef Harald Irka busy designing a balanced composition of genuine, traditional ingredients on each plate.
The five-course dinner in the baroque Palais Liechtenstein in Vienna.
Aris Sklavenitis and Tansy Zhao taking time out to reflect on the challenging competition tasks.
All five finalists competed in front of an expert judging panel and international media in the Gaggenau’s new flagship showroom in Vienna. Left to right: Marc Almert from Germany; Norbert Dudziński from Poland; Benjamin Robinson from UK; Aristotelis Sklavenitis from Greece and Tansy Zhao from China.
The illustrious judging panel that put the sommeliers skills and knowledge to the test. Left to right: Serge Dubs, Vice President for European Continent of the International Sommellerie Association; Annemarie Foidl, President of the Austrian Sommelier Association; Zhao Yinyin, acclaimed international pianist and wine connoisseur; Sven Schnee, Head of Global Brand Gaggenau.
The new Gaggenau flagship showroom in Vienna accommodated the comprehensive wine tests that include a blind tasting on the first competition day. Here pictured: Mark Almert presenting in front of the jury.
Piano recital by jury member Zhao Yinyin.
25-year-old German sommelier Marc Almert won the Gold trophy (middle), followed by Tansy Zhao from China and Norbert Dudziński from Poland, who received the Silver and Bronze, respectively.