Sommelier. It’s a career discussed in articles and a position found in South African restaurants with increasing frequency. Thanks to South African Sommeliers Association and other educators, there’s greater interest notably from younger people in learning about this profession.

Few young sommeliers have achieved as much as Marc Almert, who was 25 when he won the WOSA Sommelier Cup in 2016 and, earlier this year took the coveted title of the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale Best Sommelier in the World, beating 66 other sommeliers from 63 countries.

When he was in South Africa last month to judge on this year’s WOSA Sommelier Cup, I chatted to Marc about why he became a sommelier and the life it involves.

Born in Cologne, he attended a British school in Germany, where he learnt (impeccable) English and French; German, of course, is his mother tongue. Language skills are not only valuable for a sommelier but also required in competitions.

He saw the hospitality industry as a route to pursue his love of travel, instilled as a child when touring Europe with his parents.

It was working in Michelin star establishments, with their quality wine programmes, where his fascination with wine began. Naturally competitive he was soon entering and winning competitions. His next goal is to become a Master Sommelier; with the service component under his belt, tasting and theory are the two remaining hurdles which need to be passed within three years.

Are competitions relevant to his daily work? ‘Yes and no.’ He expands; ‘At competitions, sommeliers who work alone in a restaurant have the opportunity to meet and learn from other sommeliers. I also enter with the aim of becoming a better sommelier and to become more resilient to stress.’

Marc’s performance both at the WOSA Sommelier Cup 2016 and at the ASI Best Sommelier of the World clearly showed the sense of calm he has achieved through breath control, modulating speech and hours of practice.

He concedes work also has its pressures and challenges, such as many guests arriving simultaneously, ‘ but that disappears when they leave happy.’ For a job which requires energy and long hours – around eight to ten daily – fitness is all-important. Cycling to work in summer and some indoor swimming other seasons keeps this self-confessed non-sporty young man in trim.

Despite a busy work schedule, I enquired about Marc’s other interests.  From choice he’ll go somewhere new, taste new wines and eat at a new restaurant. The Best Sommelier in the World is unwavering in his enthusiasm for his career, though, when pressed says he does read political thrillers!

So what makes a good sommelier? ‘Being a great host with the ability to be both casual and professional,’ is Marc’s first thought. ‘Knowledge of a wide range of beverages, some non-alcohol, and how they interract with food. You have to respect guests and look at alternatives if they don’t drink alcohol, as many are these days. Many find wine unapproachable; it needs to be demystified. Give guests what they enjoy; if they want fruity wine, give them that.’

Richelle van Gemert, winner of the 2019 edition of the Wines of South Africa Sommelier Cup.

Before he leaves for an Old Vine Project tasting, Marc praises WOSA for the work put in to this competition. ‘South Africa is still in a transition period; with this event they are creating a group of ambassadors, important and great for your future.’

- Angela Lloyd