A Master of Wine can be a sommelier, but not all sommeliers can be Masters of Wine, according to Tan Ying Hsien — who holds the esteemed title as Singapore’s only Master of Wine, and one of two Asians amongst 419 in the world.
Taking at least three gruelling years to complete (most candidates take several more), this prestigious certification is not for the faint-hearted. Acquiring the title did not come easy for Tan. “I ran 28 marathons in seven years. That was a piece of cake compared to qualifying as a Master of Wine,” reflects the 60-year-old.
He explains: “The process of becoming a Master of Wine has some overlap with that of becoming a qualified sommelier insofar as a knowledge of wine, where and how it is made and how it tastes, but the academic knowledge required on wine production, the wine business and general social and cultural aspects of wine is deeper. The final stage of qualifying as a Master of Wine after passing closed-book theory and blind tasting examinations is the successful production of a research paper on an original topic selected by the candidate.
“There is no formal educational course and candidates are expected to work on theory and tastings on their own, although the Institute has a syllabus that sets out the areas that students are expected to have mastery of. The blind tasting (where the wines are presented anonymously) examinations can be brutally exhausting, with three consecutive mornings tasting 12 wines each morning.”
Professionally, Tan has been in the wine business for the last 12 years, but his passion for vino started in 1983 while studying law in the UK where he picked up tasting and studying wine as a hobby.
“What initially drew me to wine when I was a university student was simply getting an affordable alcoholic fix. Wine merchants were putting on interesting wine tastings and tutorials at very affordable prices (even for an impoverished student). I was never a very attentive student but somehow something that the speakers said at those tastings penetrated my consciousness. I started appreciating how human sensory faculties could be used to appreciate all the nuances of a wine — whether sight, smell or touch,” he shares.
A corporate and banking lawyer for over 20 years, Tan made a career switch in 2009 to become a wine journalist, speaker and educator. He then established Taberna Wine Academy in 2010 to create a space where he could share wines and knowledge with other wine enthusiasts. Subsequently, he enrolled in the Master of Wine programme and became the first Singaporean Master of Wine in 2015. With this title, one is allowed to give wine talks, publish wine books, conduct masterclasses, judge at international wine competitions, and be a wine consultant.
As a wine consultant, Tan currently oversees two-Michelin-starred French restaurant Saint Pierre’s wine programme. Working closely with chef-owner Emmanuel Stroobant, Tan will be curating a wine list of over 2,300 bottles and ensuring the currency of the wines by the glass and half-bottle selections. He will also provide regular staff training through blind tastings and thematic tutorials, building up the team’s knowledge and tasting skills to deliver a more nuanced approach to guests’ needs.
Tan, who describes Stroobant’s cuisine as “inventive, thoughtful and precise”, says that working together was a natural decision as they share a common philosophical approach to food and wine. “I have had the pleasure of following chef Emmanuel’s culinary trajectory for over 20 years. He is a chef who loves to work with wine, which makes for a mutually fruitful collaboration. There is a lot of thinking and knowledge behind what he’s doing in his cooking and that is reflected in the way he adapts to his customer’s needs. My goal is to work within the fringes of the restaurant’s largely classical European wine list to find the best fit with the modern French, Asian accented cuisine,” Tan says.
We find out why Tan left his high-paying job as a banking regulatory lawyer — taking a huge pay cut — to become a wine specialist.
What is it about wine that you love?
Through wine tastings and workshops, I was applying all my sensory faculties to appreciating and fully understanding a glass of wine. It opened my eyes, nostrils and fingers to a much greater appreciation of the world around me. The sheer sensual pleasure of inhaling the aromas and feeling the texture of wine in the mouth combined with the alcoholic high made for an addictive experience. I was hooked for life!
Also, I’m a geeky person who likes to read. Although at that time there were only a handful of books on wine, I read them cover to cover. Today, there are new wine books coming out every year and I can barely keep up with them. But I have built up a considerable library of wine books now which is a joy to use when I’m researching a topic on wine.
Does being a Master of Wine make you the “Yoda” of all sommeliers?
The first thing to correct is that Masters of Wine are not sommeliers. Some Masters of Wine are indeed sommeliers, but the large majority are not. Sommeliers are wine professionals who specialise in the selection, advice and service of wines in food and beverage establishments. A Master of Wine may be a wine merchant, wine consultant, wine journalist, wine educator, wine producer, or wine academic, and the qualification does not require a candidate to go through the specialist skills of serving wine in a restaurant.
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The Master of Wine process made me appreciate how the technical aspects of what climate, vineyard practice and winery techniques intervened to produce the specific style and quality of wine the glass before me. Even more, it also made me think and read into some of the cultural and historical influences that have made an impact on the wine we appreciate today and where the wine profession and industry are going today. I’m researching a book on champagne now that I hope will look sensibly at not only the sensory and technical aspects of champagne but also the historical, cultural and economic drivers of what champagne is today.
You must have quite an impressive wine collection. Do you have favourites?
It’s not small but it’s also not enormous. I do have enough to keep me comfortably lubricated for another 15–20 years.
Right now, generically I’m into champagne, German Riesling and claret. If it comes to individual bottles of wines, that will change over time as new experiences supplant old ones. For the longest time, my most memorable bottle of dry red wine was 1961 Hermitage, La Chapelle from Paul Jaboulet, which I tasted in the late 1980s. That wine was recently knocked off its perch by a bottle of 1985 Sassicaia I tasted a few months ago. And my all-time top wine was a 1955 Krug champagne tasted in 1984.
How did you get into a wine consulting partnership with Saint Pierre?
I have known Emmanuel Stroobant and Edina Hong since they launched Saint Pierre in 2000. During one of my chats with Edina, we spoke about how I could help with refining the skills and knowledge of the wait staff and sommeliers at Saint Pierre as well as reviewing the wine list and advising on food-wine pairings. Being an admirer of Emmanuel’s cooking (he has cooked at private wine dinner functions at Taberna Wine Academy), it was a natural decision.
This is your first consulting job with a Michelin-starred restaurant — feel any pressure?
No. The approach to providing a professional service to a client like Saint Pierre is unvarying. The training is always based on three building blocks: understanding the technicalities of wine characteristics, quality levels and styles from different origins; using that knowledge to understand how the wine will enhance or complement the restaurant's food; and to use the former two to respond incisively to customers' needs, taking into account different tastes and preferences.
Have you seen any new wine trends emerging?
More consumers, more new wines made traditionally or in new ways, rediscovered grape varieties, new regions of wine making and increasing prices of wines – all of this is reflected in a larger variety of consumer preferences and higher per capita production and consumption in more countries of the world than ever before.
The interest in wine consumption and some of the price increases have also been fed by an explosion of literature and information on wine including the almost slavish pursuit of point scores of wine reviewers and critics the world over.
Over the years, I have developed a coyness about commenting on wine trends mainly because I’m usually wrong! More philosophically, an emerging wine trend today, is old news tomorrow.
Can you imagine a world without wine?
Wine gives me enormous pleasure and delight as do many other things. But if for some reason, it did not exist anymore or I lost my senses of smell and taste, I would like to think that I could adapt to something else that would give me the same sort of pleasure that wine has provided for the past 40 years. And assuming I could still taste and smell, and alcoholic drinks were available, I’d probably revert to my initial poison of choice – gin and tonic. And if it was a totally alcohol-free world…well, I enjoy my coconut water.
Tan’s essential wine reading list
The Great Vintage Wine Book by Michael Broadbent MW
“Originally published in 1980 with successor volumes published subsequently, this was a seminal book by the late Michael Broadbent which viewed classic wines in the context of their vintages and evolution over time, but what made it memorable was Broadbent’s beautiful command of the English language that made dry tasting notes come to life in a way that is a far cry from today’s reviews. Out of date now but still a lovely read and a model for wannabe wine critics.”
The Oxford Companion to Wine, edited by Jancis Robinson MW
“Now in its 4th edition, this is indispensable to the wine geek (and those with more than a passing interest in the vinous liquid cascading down their gullets) providing pithy entries on just about every aspect of the wine world.”
The World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson
“Originally written by Hugh Johnson in 1971 and now in its eighth edition in collaboration with Jancis Robinson MW, this provides a global exposition of where wines are made, their stylistic expression and more, alongside maps which visually reproduce that sense of place so integral to understanding wine.”