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Desert Island Wines

Inside Marc Almert’s Quest to Become the World’s Best Somm

Plus, the bottles he’d choose if shipwrecked

Felicity Carter By August 5, 2022
Marc Almert photo collage with wines in foreground and island background
Marc Almert became ASI Best Sommelier of the World 2019 at age 27. Photo illustration by Pix.

The premise of Desert Island Wines is this: You’ve just been shipwrecked on a desert island and there’s no rescue coming. Worse, the only food the ship was carrying was a lifetime supply of canned soup and spaghetti. But when you boarded the ship, you brought along three cases of wine and — luckily! — they have all washed ashore safely. These are the wines you’ll be drinking until you’re rescued. What do you choose?

 

Marc Almert has done more than his fair share of dusting, bed-making, and luggage-carrying. This can-do attitude, along with his impressive knowledge of wine, makes him the ideal person to be stranded with on a desert island.

It’s also helped him become one of the world’s champion sommeliers.

From the ground up

Almert grew up in Cologne, one of Germany’s great beer cities, and graduated from school aged 16. “My original dream was to become a physicist to design airplanes and cars,” he says. After talking to engineers, however, he realized he didn’t have cutting-edge-level math skills.

But he did have a passion for travel, and it struck him that hospitality could take him places. He decided to study hotel management and undertook a three-year apprenticeship. “It did surprise many people when I didn’t go to university,” he says. “And when I told them I was going to spend the next couple of months doing the dishes and cleaning rooms, they were like, wow, that’s a real waste.”

But while training at the Excelsior Hotel in Cologne, “between McDonalds and the cathedral,” Almert had the chance to do some wine tasting ― and was hooked.

He got a job as a junior sommelier in Wiesbaden, in the ancient Rheingau wine region. “I was in contact with winemakers and could feel their stress when there was a hailstorm, and could understand the ups and downs of viticulture.”

His then boss also decided to sign 22-year-old Almert up for the 2015 National Jeunes Sommeliers Competition. Almert came in second.

“The judges told me that night that this was an annual competition,” where the final was always held somewhere different. The following year, the final would be held in Adelaide, Australia. “I was like, OK, that’s a nice incentive,” says Almert.

It helped that by then he was working in Hamburg at one of Germany’s best hotels, the Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, where it was possible to try a wide array of wines.

The next year, Almert won. “That was my first trip outside of Europe.”

He didn’t just have a great time ― he also caught the competition bug.

Becoming a wine champion

European sommeliers with a competitive streak have a full calendar of events they can enter, and Almert entered plenty, including the biggest of them all: the ASI Best Sommelier of the World, organized by the Association de la Sommellerie International. With written, tasting, and practical components, it’s the Olympics of the sommelier world, whose winners are often showered with trips and lucrative contracts.

It’s not easy. The late Gerard Basset, one of the greatest sommeliers ever, entered three times before he won, and enlisted the help of a drama coach, a business coach, and a team of sommeliers to help him train.

“It’s important you have a structure, you have some kind of discipline, and you look at what’s going to happen during the exam,” says Almert. “That means you taste as much as you can with different people. Some work on your speed, some work on the aroma, and then you practice, practice, practice.”

Almert says he’s glad he did drama at school, as it helped on stage. He also quizzed sports champions, who taught him the importance of visualization. “You see yourself going through the steps,” he explains. “A skier would see himself going down the slope, knowing when to do certain movements. So that when there’s a question coming, your mind already knows what to do.”

Next, he learned to tell himself positive things about his performance. Finally, he immersed himself in teaching, to take advantage of the protégé effect. “You can only excel if you start teaching, and passing on your knowledge,” he says. “For me, it was the right approach to say, OK, what can I do to help other sommeliers win a competition?”

When he finally got there, he found that many of the other 66 competitors were already friends. His goal had been to get to the semi-finals, and once he achieved that, he relaxed ― and won.

Aged just 27, Almert was named the ASI Best Sommelier of the World 2019.

Marc Almert walking through lavish restaurant dining room, carrying a bottle of wine

Marc Almert at Baur au Lac in Zurich. Photo courtesy of David Biedert.

Next on the menu

Since 2017, Almert has worked at the five-star Hotel Baur au Lac in Zurich, Switzerland, which has four different restaurants and bars. A city of bankers, “Zurich is far less trendy than New York or London,” says Almert. “But we import everything that’s classic. So from Argentina it’s mainly Mendoza, from the U.S. it’s mainly Napa, from Australia it’s mainly Barossa.”

In the U.S., a team of sommeliers would take care of such a significant property; in Europe, even the biggest places have only two or three sommeliers. “In Hamburg, I was in charge of the wine program of 12 different restaurants and bars,” he says, “and I was the only somm. So you need to make sure all of the staff are excited about wine.”

Almert is quietly spoken, and listens intently when people speak to him. He believes that good hospitality must come from the heart, and be offered to everyone. “The couple who has spent the year saving up for their first wedding anniversary will be super happy if you give them a great experience and recommend a very affordable bottle of wine,” he once said. “They will spread the word and maybe come for their wedding anniversaries for the next 40 years.”

As of this year, Almert has taken on more of a management role with the Baur au Lac’s wine distribution and wine store. “It might be helpful to study a little bit of economics,” he muses. “But we’ll see.”

bottle of Tarlant Champagne Brut Nature Zéro

Tarlant Champagne Brut Nature Zéro (~$59)

Almert says that anyone stuck on a desert island needs some sparkling wine to keep them company. “I tend to lean towards a slightly drier style from Champagne,” he says, “with red grapes and long lees aging. That’s something I really cherish.”

His choice is the flagship wine of Champagne Tarlant, a family-owned company that’s been making wines continuously in the Champagne region’s Marne Valley since 1687. Siblings Benoit and Melanie grow all seven permitted varieties and focus on zero dosage and long aging. Composed of one-third each of Pinot Noir, Meunier, and Chardonnay, this grower Champagne has attracted wide critical acclaim.

bottle of Joh. Jos. Prüm Mosel Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Auslese

Joh. Jos. Prüm Mosel Graacher Himmelreich Riesling Auslese (~$67)

“Being German, something I always have in my fridge is Germany Riesling, usually an off-dry,” says Almert. “You have a certain amount of sugar, but not as much sugar as some other styles. It’s low in alcohol, with high acidity and great minerality.” He says it’s easy to drink, in the best sense of the term.

While the Prüm (Proom) family has been in the Wehlen area of the Mosel region for more than 400 years, the estate itself was founded in 2011. It’s acknowledged to be one of the world’s greatest producers of Riesling, with critics lauding its wines for their racy acidity and long aging potential.

Auslese wines are those made from grapes that have been harvested later than usual, giving a hint of sweetness on the finish. In its youth, the wine will show lots of lemon and mineral notes, but as it ages, stone fruits, honey, and even creamy notes will emerge.

bottle of Luddite Wines Bot River Walker Bay Saboteur Red Blend

Luddite Wines Bot River Walker Bay Saboteur Red Blend (~$31)

“One country I carry close to my heart is South Africa,” says Almert. “There are many exciting wines.”

Founded in 1999 by Niels and Penny Verburg, Luddite Wines has become one of the most acclaimed producers of the Walker Bay region in the southwestern Western Cape, a place that Almert says produces elegant wines that can rival those from better-known regions. Penny is in charge of the vineyards, and Niels the winery, along with his daughter Alice, where the focus is on minimal intervention.  Almert says he appreciates their red wines for being “powerful but not overpowering.”

“The style is unashamedly New World, where we are going for crunchy, juicy fruit balanced by vibrant tannins,” according to the winery. “The red blend will always be Shiraz-driven with a Rhône slant. The buzzword for us is balance and therefore the blend percentages will change depending on the vintage.”