Singapore put on its own “reality wine show” competition to select the National Sommelier Champion. It was sort of a “Masterchef meets a corkscrew” competition complete with judging panels, mystery wine challenges, and technical wine service quizzes.
Ten Singapore Sommelier started out in this National competition, but only three skilled wine waiters made it to the finals. Finalists Ryan Gan of the American Club, Alvin Gho of No 1 WaitanYuan (Peninsula Hotel, Shanghai), and Matthew Chan of Verre Wine Bar.
The challenges of the competition mirror the real-life work challenges facing a top sommelier. Under the pressure of a limited time, they had to demonstrate ability in recommending and mixing an aperitif, correct a mistake-ridden wine list, describe the wines in a list and recommend appropriate food pairings, decant a pricy wine, and identify two wines and three spirits in a blind tasting.
As a finale they must estimate the number of pours in a magnum sparkling, and poured them.
It may not seem difficult but tasks like correcting errors require a fair bit of specific wine knowledge. So, not only do they need to know their geography – Neudorf in Nelson, not Marlborough, NZ – but also how a spell foreign places! It’s Nuits-Saint-Georges, thank you very much -damn those silent “S’es. The South African from Klein Constantia is Vin de Constance, not Vin de Constantia. And a “Riesling Château Egon Müller, Sturovo region, Muzla, Czech Republic”? Who knows how to write it correctly off the top of your head? Moi non plus!
Then comes the food matching exercise – how would you pair a 2009 Raveneau Chablis 1er Cru, a 2007 Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2006 Kracher Trocken Beerenauslese (TBA)?
Nevermind just being able to pronounce these wine names - Ryan and Matthew stuck to fish with a Chablis, recommending a pan-seared snapper with lemon butter sauce and sea bass en papillote, but Alvin thought that oysters baked with cheddar cheese would be more interesting – wine would go with the savouriness and has acidity to cut through the fat.
Steak is favourite pairing with the Cab Sav, with black peppers to complement the wine’s spicy notes. Although Matthew’s suggestion of lamb rack baked with yogurt mint sauce on a bed of couscous sounds good, too! Personally, I’d have one of those...
Then the desserts - Ryan would serve you a tiramisù, because the TBA’s acid would lift up the Venetian pick-me-up. Alvin chooses a crème brûlée to harness the secondary flavours from bottle age for a perfect marriage. Matthew also likes the crème caramel idea, but with a twist of banana.
Five minutes up – next table!
The next challenge was table service. The judge ordered a Cosmopolitan for the ladies at the table, and seeks recommendation of sherries. Here we can see the finalists’ aperitif preferences.
Ryan mixed a cosmo so intricate that he didn’t have time to recommend a sherry. Matthew shared his encyclopaedic knowledge of sherry in such detail that the judges had to remind him to mix the cosmo. Alvin mixed the cosmo whilst he listed the different sherry styles, recommended a Fino sherry, and served all in the nick of time!
Next challenge is to decant a Vega Sicilia Unico from Ribiera del Duero, and answer questions from Master Judge Franck Moreau cum customer having a business dinner with an imaginary “lovely lady”. They had six minutes - no more. Again the finalists showed different levels of knowledge in the celebrated drop, with Alvin notably most fluent, answering customers’ questions as one would in service, not in an exam room, and even recommending perhaps a 1991 vintage.
With barely time to wipe off their sweat, the next task arrived – a blind tasting, no less, of two wines and three spirits. All three “nosed” the wine and detected citrus, tropical fruit and wetstone minerality in the white, also reflected in the palate, which Ryan and Matthew concur to be a Californian chardonnay, but Alvin thought it was Riesling, potentially Clare Valley. Later, this mystery wine was revealed to be a 2009 Huber Gruner Veltliner Obere Steigen. Indeed that is a curve ball in any blind tasting!
The red is medium-bodied, with cherries on the nose. This was about the only agreement between the contestants. Ryan also smelled liquorice and cigar box, and tasted tea leaves, Matthew said he noted smokey oak, ripe red currents and sweet spices, and Alvin detected coffee, cocoa and eucalyptus. The first two guess the wine to be a right bank Bordeaux, but Alvin thought it was a Brunello! Well, he is only a wee bit too far north – the wine in question was a Rosso di Montalcino from San Filippo lo Scanto – pretty bloody good!
Being bourbon and dark rum, the first and third spirits were more or less correctly guessed, but the second one was a curve ball! Nobody would have imagined having a Shaoxing Chinese wine on the line-up. Nobody got that right, and unsurprisingly so.
But wait, there’s more! In the last round, the sommeliers had to pour a magnum bottle of sparkling onto glasses for a party. So they have to estimate the number of glasses for a presentable serving, instructed their waiters (i.e., past champions) to collect and arrange glasses, and pour the sparkling on upright glasses. That’s right, no tilting. Indeed a round that everyone looked forward to, full of laughs, and a glass of sparkling to be had at the end! And a delicious one at that, too.
Now is the moment, and the winner is… drum roll….. Alvin Gho! First-timer Matthew gets runner-up and Ryan third place. Not surprising results – being a repeat contestant, indeed Alvin presented confidently and decanted elegantly. He admits to not having prepared, as he just wanted to have fun. But being the only Singaporean with an advanced certificate sommelier, the know-how just comes with the turf. But the battle’s not done yet.
In March, Alvin will compete against all past champions for a place to represent Singapore in the Best Sommelier of the World competition in Tokyo. Singapore’s Sommelier Association is currently an observing member of the Association de la Sommelerie Internationale, and will be a full member in June. A step forward in the recognition of our sommeliers globally. Good luck Alvin, and go Singapore!
Contributed by Lucia Santoso, TLN Event Manager
Photos courtesy of Gerard Zhang of Stellezvine