Last time Richelle van Gemert travelled to South Africa it was with a group of fellow sommeliers in the search for good food, great wine and to discover for themselves what the fuss is all about South African wines. When she returns in September it will be for an all more serious reason. She will be there to compete. For having won the UK competition of Wines of South Africa’s international Sommelier Cup she will now be taking part in the finals. Here she explains to The Buyer how and why she became a sommelier and how she is preparing for the Sommelier Cup final.
Richelle van Gemert has already enjoyed a busy career working for a number of different high profile restaurants, experiences that will all have helped her prepare to compete in the 2019 Wines of South Africa Sommelier Cup.
It’s hard to keep up with our top sommeliers. Not only are the very best forever on the move, looking to advance their careers by mixing up their own experience and knowledge by testing themselves in different restaurants, they do so whilst taking part in serious sommelier competitions that look even more demanding than heading up the wine team at a prestigious restaurant.
Richelle van Gemert certainly fits into both those categories. She has, for example recently moved from the Adam Handling Group to take up an assistant sommelier role at Core by Clare Smyth and will next month represent the UK in Wines of South Africa’s Sommelier Cup finals in Cape Town.
Van Gemert faces stiff competition. All the other finalists have now been named and include top sommeliers from all over the world including: Martien Marcelissen, The Netherlands; Maja Hempel, Sweden; Samuel Ndichu, Kenya; Takura Makadzange, Zimbabwe; Adam Knoerzer, the US; Andrew Forsyth, Canada; Taku Iguro, Japan; Derek Li Greater, China; Chek Wong Singapore; and Maximilian Wilm from Germany. They will also compete in Cape Town in the final on September 21.
Here she explains why she wanted to be a sommelier and put herself through such tests as the Sommelier Cup.
Tell us about your background and how you got into wine?
I remember the nice times when I was a child and I was with my grandparents where there always was a lot of food. One of my grandfathers was a chef at Hotel Royal, Chalet Royal and Groot Warnsborn in the Netherlands, so he always cooked a lovely dinner. Then on the other side of the family, my grandmother also cooked great meals that came from the fresh vegetables and fruit that they grew in their own gardens. So I grew up to love food.
When I went to hospitality school I then had the chance to get to know wines as well. I love combining food and wine together and discovering perfect combinations. And then sharing it with others is even better!
How and why did you become a sommelier?
The more I learned about wine at hospitality school the more I loved it and wanted to find out more. To extend my knowledge. I then went and did the sommelier course at the Academie of Gastronomy of Peter Klosse which is very focused on understanding wine in conjunction with food. Every morning we would look at different wines and the kind of food they best paired with. We learnt about which components in food and wine best balance each other. From there I passed my Dutch sommelier diploma and also my wine and food specialist diploma.
What was your first experience and how have you grown to your current position?
I was working in a fine dining restaurant where the sommelier was very good in guiding me. She was able to show me what it is a sommelier does. When she left the restaurant after a few years I was able to take her role. But whilst I had my diploma it did not mean I was a good sommelier, after all it’s just a piece of paper. What I found working in the restaurant was how much I love interacting with customers and finding their perfect wine.
I can remember one pair of guests who asked me what was the difference between two old vintages of Chateau Palmer and I said I honestly couldn’t tell them as I hadn’t had the chance to experience them for myself. They left me a glass of the ’86 afterwards, I was so happy.
I knew I needed to learn more so at one point, after working at a few more restaurants, I took the decision to work at restaurant Cordial* with Roy Pelgrim. He is known as one of the best mentors for young sommeliers in the Netherlands. I can confirm he is. It was working with him that I realised there was so much more to learn as a sommelier.
I started to take part in sommelier competitions and he helped me to train for them. I also started to follow the Court of Master Sommeliers, studied and trained more. After four years it was time to ‘fly out’. 67 Pall Mall in London was the perfect next challenge. Working with so many great sommeliers and being able to taste wines that I otherwise would never have tasted in my life was an amazing experience.
I then moved to at restaurant Adam Handling Chelsea where I learned about the challenges of opening a new restaurant. Recently I started at Core by Clare Smyth which I am very excited about and will be another great experience to develop myself.
What do you like most about being a sommelier?
Besides being a hostess and giving people a great experience in the restaurant, I like to surprise people with wines they have never heard of before. Wines that are both very good but affordable. That way I can hopefully help them broaden their view on the wine world.
A good example is related to South Africa. If a customer says they like wines from Burgundy, I will suggest a Chardonnay from the Hemel en Aarde Valley. Or do they like white Bordeaux? Then go for a Bordeaux blend from Stellenbosch or Elgin.Beaujolais? Go for a nice chilled Cinsault from Swartland.
What are the biggest challenges of being a sommelier?
Finding out the taste of your guests. To understand what they are saying. Sometimes when they say they do not like sweet wines they just mean they do not like the creamy, round full bodied and jammy wines that actually still are dry on the palate. It is for us to find out and ask more questions, the right questions.
Why did you apply for the Sommelier Cup?
I am always looking for challenges to become a better sommelier. With every competition there is a new experience to gain, new things to learn. And I love South-African wines.
How did you find the competition?
The competition was fun, I like it when they use maps to point out locations. Learning about regions and there grapes is one thing, but actually knowing where it is located is a very important part to understanding it. Also I find blind tasting always one of the hardest parts to do.
What do you think about competing in the finals in Cape Town?
I am looking forward to it! It would be nice to meet all the other sommeliers that have won in their countries. And, of course, I am a bit nervous, but I will give it all in the competition.
Have you been to South Africa before?
I once went with a small group of very enthusiastic sommeliers which was great. It is a beautiful country with wonderful people and great food.
What do you like most about South African wines?
Their diversity and the fact you can find wines for every palate.
What styles and regions really stand out to you?
Swartland, Elgin and Walkerbay and Malgas in Swellendam.
What advice would you give to other sommeliers taking part in sommelier competitions?
To train and study hard. You will never be finished learning, accept that and take in everything you can. Step by step. Do not compare yourself with others. Be humble. Never give up!
Are you looking to take part in other competitions now?
For now all my focus is on this competition.