A prestigious sommelier contest was held on the island this week, won by a Sicilian who now works in London

What a great week it has been for the wine world in Cyprus! The 14th Contest for the prestigious ASI (Association de la Sommellerie Internationale) Best Sommelier of Europe and Africa concluded on Friday afternoon at the Rialto Theatre in Limassol, in a very tense final. A live audience watched as Salvatore Castano, from Italy, named the Best Sommelier of Europe and Africa, beating Nina Jensen from Denmark, who came second, and Suvad Zlatic from Austria, who came third.

“I have never won anything before!” the new ASI Best Sommelier of Europe and Africa said. However, he has been a close runner-up in previous international sommelier competitions. In 2018, he scored the highest mark for any student passing his advanced exams at the Court of Master Sommeliers. Castano is originally from Sicily but, today, works in London at the wine company Friarwood Fine Wines.

The 34 candidates from Europe and Africa who had started at the beginning of the week were reduced to just 10 semi-finalists on Tuesday night. This was decided through blind tastings, practical and written tests, when all the candidates were closely examined on their service, tasting and theory.

During the live final in front of a packed house, the three sommeliers were tasked with several practical actions performed in a staged restaurant setting. The judges played the role of the diners to experience first-hand the competitors’ skill and knowledge. The ASI Technical Committee was led by Oliver Poussier, a World Champion in 2000. The other judges included past World Champions, Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine. Castano drew the short straw and had to go first through a series of role-playing actions each of which was strictly timed.

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Winner Salvatore Castano

First, the candidates had to make and serve a cocktail from a provided list for a table of three, within four minutes. Next, they had to identify a selected wine and offer a full audible tasting to the audience. For the following task, they had to choose a red wine from a provided cellar to pair with Sole Meunière. The selected wine had to be decanted and served to the guests at the dinner table on stage, with the previous winner of the title playing the role of the host. After this seven-minute exercise, the finalists were asked to identify five wines and place them in order from the driest to the sweetest. They were then asked to suggest a four-course menu to pair with four of the five wines. The final parts of the mammoth test included identifying three beverages and correcting a wine list with many errors and invented pieces of information. Throughout their exercises, all the finalists demonstrated a vast knowledge of their subject to an audience of dignitaries, contestants and the general public including via a live YouTube link.

Castano now automatically qualifies as a Continental winner and will participate in the ASI Best Sommelier of the World contest, which will take place in Paris in 2023.

The final concluded the week-long contest, which began on Monday with the arrival of contestants, Presidents of the European and African Sommelier Associations, journalists and dignitaries. Throughout the week, the visiting delegates enjoyed Cypriot hospitality from dining in some of the island’s leading restaurants, wine masterclasses and touring the local wineries. The contest has undoubtedly placed Cypriot wine on the world wine map and was even filmed by a visiting BBC crew as part of a series they are currently producing about sommeliers.

“This last week in Cyprus has been wonderful,” President of ASI William Wouters said. “After having postponed the competition twice due to the pandemic, the Cypriot team, led by George Kassianos, finally made it happen. They showed a fantastic sense of flexibility and goodwill. The organisation in beautiful Limassol, the hospitality, the unique welcome, the exceptional food and the very interesting local wines will be engraved in our memories for a long time to come”.

It was a massive task of organisation and skill to look after all the delegates and run such a successful competition.

“We have proudly showcased the gastronomy, wine culture and the legendary hospitality of Cyprus and introduced the world to our island,” President of the Cyprus Sommeliers Association Kassianos said.