Bastien Debono, director of the sommellerie of Relais & Châteaux Yoann Conte (Lake Annecy, Haute-Savoie) won Monday, November 8 at just 29 years old, the title of Master of Port, which rewards the best expert sommelier in wines of Port.
Organized by the Syndicat des Grandes Marques de Porto (SGMP), the Institute of Douro and Port Wines (IVDP) and the Union de la Sommellerie Française (UDSF), the Master of Port is a biennial competition. Launched in France in 1988, it is the only one to celebrate a controlled designation of origin, Port wine, which stands out by being the oldest in the world (1756).
« The real enemy of a competition is not the jury, it is yourself », Bastien Debono.
Initially, they were 47 candidates for the competition, of which around 30 took part in the first selection tests (11 theoretical and practical tests) in June at the Institut Paul Bocuse. The 8 best candidates, aged 29 on average - an almost unprecedented fact demonstrating the high level of preparation of these professionals - faced each other on November 7 at the Cercle National des Armées, in Paris, in the semi-final.
The next day, in the final, there were only 3 left to compete for the coveted title: Antoine Lehebel, 39, head sommelier at the Bon-Bon restaurant (Woluwe-Saint-Pierre, Belgium), Maxim Plumier, 22, apprentice sommelier at the restaurant La Palme d'Or of the Martinez hotel, in Cannes, and Bastien Debono.
To win the title of Master of Port, the candidates had to demonstrate a vast culture in Port wines during the theoretical and practical tests: concentration, capacity for analysis and argumentation, passion for the product, richness of expression or even mastery of prestige catering codes were measured in a final round of tests.
1 / Give the order and serving temperatures of 6 Ports and suggest a food pairing for each (6 minutes)
2 / Serve as an aperitif at a table of 6 guests a 1/2 bottle of white Port and offer them some Port (to be identified and chosen in a cellar) for each course of a prescribed meal, including dessert (10 minutes)
3 / Sensory analysis and identification of 3 wines, including the second to be expressed in English (10 minutes)
4 / Orally answer the question from the President of the IVDP: what is the date of creation of the Port Wine Institute? (answer: 1933)
5 / Decanting of a bottle of Port and serving of 12 glasses (test carried out by the 3 finalists at the same time; 5 minutes)
6 / Respond in writing to the question from the President of the UDSF: what is the geographical highest point of Portugal (continental), name and altitude? (answer: the serra da Estrela, culminating at 1993 meters)
What was the motivation for your enrollment in the Master of Port?
Having already taken part in 4 competitions, I have noticed that the level is getting higher and higher, which is a very good thing for sommellerie in general. Through these competitions, I like to perform of course, but above all to question myself. We quickly get passionate. And I always take the positive from everything, even when I fail. This is where I am progressing the most. Failures are also part of the victories.
What qualities are needed to succeed in such a competition?
This competition is less generalist than the others, since it focuses on the Porto region and its wines. It is essential to go there, to feel the atmosphere, the culture. You have to master the legislation, the history (I had to learn more than 100 dates for example), but also the local gastronomy. Finally, you have to know how to convey passion - here to the jury - this is essential. Technique is no longer enough, you have to know how to communicate. The real enemy of a competition is not the jury, it is yourself.
What are your tips for young sommeliers who would like to compete in the MOP?
Always have fun, especially in learning. Transcribe with simplicity and passion. Get out of your comfort zone, to better surpass yourself.
Your next title to conquer?
The very international Master Sommelier, with a lot of tasting, is my next challenge. The competitions for Meilleur Ouvrier de France en Sommellerie and Meilleur Sommelier de France also make me dream.
How do you live your role of port wine ambassador?
I take this role very seriously. Two years ago, after my first semi-final lost at the Master of Port, I created a fortified wine trolley at the restaurant to highlight the dessert and Port pairings. There is also a card to play on the dry wines of the appellation, which I also offer by the glass. The mixology aspect is also very interesting. The place of Porto is not yet fully perceived in France. We need more ambassadors. Word of mouth will do the rest.
Any original pairings to suggest with Port wines?
Port wines generally pair well with cheeses, especially blue cheeses, and low-sweet desserts. But the possibilities are endless. In salty dishes, we can make sublime pairings around Asian cuisine, and sweet and sour sauce in particular, which goes very well with tawnys (1) for example. On the vintages (2), we had imagined with chef Yoann Conte scallops seared with black Malabar pepper, accompanied by scallops and a hollandaise sauce with turmeric and curry. A delight. The hare à la royale, too, can be sublimated by a vintage: the power, the melting structure and the strength of the tannins of the wine respond in unison with the power and the melting texture of the dish. Finally, bottarga goes very well with a 10 or 20 year old dry white Port.
"Where wine does not always succeed, Port opens all the doors of gastronomy", he concluded. This offers good prospects for Port wines, for which France remains the leading export market.
(1) TAWNY : Port style made from red grape varieties aged in wooden barrels. Their regular exposure to air ripens the colors, which turn from ruby to amber. The aromas are concentrated and evolve towards complex and subtle flavors of dried fruits, vanilla and caramel.
(2) PORTO VINTAGE : considered the jewel in the crown of Port wines, it is made from exceptional quality grapes from the harvest of a single year. Bottled two or three years after harvest, it evolves for decades.