Though he has never visited the country before, Paolo Basso has had a taste of India, most crucially in 2013. “It was the World Sommelier Championship and one of the final wines was an Indian Chenin Blanc,” says Basso with a smile, sitting at the Kempinski Ambience Hotel in New Delhi. In India, Basso is on his first trip for a World Gourmet Summit as the wine ambassador for Kempinski hotels worldwide. The Swiss-Italian sommelier identified the wine and several others to win the World’s Best Sommelier in 2013. He’s also one of a handful of sommeliers in the world to have won both the European and global titles for “Best Sommelier” as well as to have reached the final level of an international competition eight times, having hit his first benchmark when he was declared the Best Sommelier in Switzerland way back in 1997.
A graduate of hotel management, it was while he was in culinary school that he found wine. Or rather, as he puts it, “Wine found me and I was completely seduced by this mysterious drink. I decided this was the most interesting thing in the hotel industry and I’ve been pursuing it professionally ever since.”
This journey first led to the Association Suisse des Sommeliers Professionnels in Switzerland from where he gained a professional sommelier diploma, which was followed by several stints at Michelin-starred restaurants across the Continent as a sommelier apart from consulting at various leading wine producers and selectors. Participating in professional-level competitions happened as a matter of course. “Competition is a great motivator, it spurs you to keep challenging and bettering yourself,” says Basso, who adds that being a good sommelier is 20 per cent palate and 80 per cent knowledge. “These competitions expose you to wines and varietals from around the world, leading you to constantly expand your repertoire,” he says.
Like an ideal parent, Basso doesn’t play favourites. “A sommelier needs to keep an open mind. He or she can’t promote a particular region or varietal. The point is to recommend wines which are subjective to the guests’ tastes as well as the food accompanying it. You can’t make them have an esoteric experience. Wine is meant to be enjoyed,” he says firmly.
As for his own wine preferences, Basso admits to being somewhat partial to wines from Tuscany and Switzerland. “But again, this is merely psychological, because these were the regions I grew up in and now stay in. I won’t try and push them on a guest”, he says.
This talk of preferences naturally leads to the question of terroir, perhaps the cornerstone of oenology. According to Basso, the terroir comprises four elements — soil, climate, vines and humans, the last of which he believes to be the most crucial. “A wine producer has to be far-sighted and well-versed in the entire process and should be able to adapt according to the moment. You can put an intelligent man in a middling wine region and he’s still likely to produce a great wine because of his capacity to understand and adjust; but if you put a stupid man in the world’s best wine region, he’ll produce nothing but a mediocre product,” says Basso, who himself has his own vineyard in the south of Switzerland, producing a red wine named after his red-haired daughter, “II Rosso di Chiara”, a classic Bordeaux-blend.
About Indian wines he is still reserved, remarking “The wines here have a basic promising quality. I think it’s more the experts who are watching the Indian wine industry with great curiosity, but a layman in Europe or the US is probably still not going to be having an Indian wine with his food.” One can’t whine about that. At least for now.