Gérard Basset, who left France to become a citizen of the UK after falling in love with England thirty years ago, has won this year’s prestigious World’s Best Sommelier title. Basset ‘s boutique hotel and restaurant located in the New Forest, near Southampton, combines the pleasures of wine and gourmet cuisine with an art de vivre and natural environment that are very British indeed.
Basset is a household name in England where he has lived for the past three decades, though in France only a handful of those in the know have heard of him. On April 16, Basset won the 13th World’s Best Sommelier Competition in Santiago, Chile - a contest of Olympian difficulty that requires years of intensive preparation. Oddly, the French media, usually keen to make a big fuss about trophies and prizes, did little to publicise the outcome. Could this be because Basset was representing England, his chosen homeland?
A great sommelier doesn’t have to be a great snob
A charming man, Gérard Basset rejects all forms of elitism. Despite having more than his fair share of diplomas, certificates and international titles, when Basset talks about wine, it’s completely without arrogance: for him, wine is all about pleasure and conviviality. We can only hope that more sommeliers - that proud breed so notoriously quick to intimidate mere amateurs like us - will follow his example!
We met Basset last summer in the boutique hotel which he recently established with wife Nina in the heart of the New Forest
. Just a few minutes from the sea and an hour and a half from London by car, Hotel TerraVina brings you to a unique corner of England where the science of wine and the quality of the food are a perfect match for the pastoral beauty of the countryside.
The journey of a self-made man
Born in St. Etienne, France, Basset comes from a working-class family far removed from the wine milieu. After leaving school at 16, he discovered England three years later when travelling to Liverpool to cheer on St. Etienne FC (in its glory days) in a European cup semi-final. “We lost the match,” Basset remembers, “ but the atmosphere in the stadium was fantastic - the singing, the red scarves and the enthusiastic warmth of the fans. I immediately knew that I would come here to live! “
Two years later, he went back to Liverpool and was offered a job as a dishwasher on the Isle of Man. Not the easiest of beginnings; a lesser man would have packed in and left town. But Basset hung on, learned the language and became a waiter in a good Southampton restaurant. With thoughts of a future position in the hotel industry, Basset went back to Lyon (the French gourmet capital at the time) and picked up different professional certificates as a cook, maître d ’hôtel and even - why not - sommelier! Two years later he returned to the UK and was offered a position as sommelier in one of the rare Michelin-starred restaurants in the south of England.
‘In any undertaking, 90% of a successful outcome is in the preparation.’
“When I was younger, I wasn’t really mad about wine; it was more like a way to make a place for myself, since England was short of sommeliers. One day, in any case, a customer who was a real enthusiast asked me a question I couldn’t answer. This bothered me, so I began to read all the books I could find on the subject and set my mind on becoming “the very best.”’
To pass the prestigious Master of Wine exam, applicants must present an original dissertation on the subject. The Frenchman, who never even got his Bac (the French equivalent of the A-level), learned to write English by studying the New Economist, whose articles, he says, showed him how to express his ideas in a clear and well-structured manner. Basset succeeded in becoming a Master of Wine in 1998; even today, the majority of members of the Institute of Masters of Wine are from the UK.
Eighteen years in the making
Gérard Basset loves a challenge. “I was eager to relive the emotions I had discovered with football, ” he says. Most of all, there was a humiliating past experience he needed to overcome. Basset took second place at the 1992 World’s Best Sommelier competition, losing to Philippe Faure-Brac. Finally, after six attempts, he took first place in 2010, earning esteem and fame in international wine circles for life.
“Master of Wine is a marathon, while World’s Best Sommelier is a 100-metre sprint - everything goes so quickly! You’ve got 90 minutes to answer 75 terrifying questions such as “in which districts is Tequila produced?” And only nine minutes to describe and identify several types of wine and brandy from the four corners of the world. There are also practical tests: you have to serve a bottle of champagne whose cork is stapled shut; decant a vintage red; put together a food-and-wine menu in a few seconds... And in front of a jury, psychological stress is at a peak - it’s so easy to lose control of the situation! ”
France no longer holds a monopoly on fine wines
Trained in Britain, Basset was able to delve into wine-making regions not so well-known in his native France such as California, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina.
“French sommeliers are generally not very familiar with these wines because they are rarely featured on wine lists across the Channel. In England, the market is more open and neutral; French wines are listed, but there’s also a strong demand for New World wines - you can’t miss them! The French may believe that the world’s best wines are invariably French but that is an illusion. There are many great terroirs in Tuscany, Moselle, Australia, California, Ribera de Duero and elsewhere. There is, however, at least one wine which no other vineyard anywhere in the world will ever be able to reproduce: pinot noir from Burgundy. Absolutely unique.”
A charming boutique hotel in the heart of the New Forest
Basset and his wife Nina, who had already created a chain of hotels dedicated to wine back in 1994 (the celebrated ‘Hotels du Vin,’ the best-known of which is in Winchester), opened a boutique hotel set in the heart of the forest in 2007. TerraVina is a luxury establishment which doesn’t only cater to wine enthusiasts - the wine cellar is gorgeous, of course, but essential points include the comfort of the rooms, the quiet beauty of the gardens and the nearby forest where ponies, deer and wild boar roam freely.
The genuine English breakfast served on the terrace is a moment of pure pleasure. Manning the kitchen, British cook Alan Haughie is one of England’s most promising young chefs. His fresh, precise and well-balanced cuisine showcases the excellent produce of Hampshire, including scallops, lamb, pork, poultry, cheese, vegetables and organic tomatoes and strawberries from a local farm. Another fine dish is the Aberdeen Angus beef brought in from Scotland: supremely tender and flavourful!
Double rooms starting at £ 125