Thursday, 6 October 2011

From a Sommelier's Viewpoint

Wine lovers (myself included) very often get preoccupied with the analysis and discussion of wine and pay less attention to the network of people that support this industry. Without wine writers, wine educators and sommeliers in Singapore, our appreciation of wine would be severely hampered. To gain an insight into what motivates those in the wine trade, I had a chat with Mohamad Fazil, Operations Manager/Sommelier of Vintry Singapore.  

Fazil represents a new generation of sommeliers in Singapore who are young, energetic and passionate about wine. He has a long list of achievements to his name, including winning the 2010 World Gourmet Summit Cantino Marabino Wine Scholarship and being one out of two Singapore-based sommeliers sponsored for the E'Sensual Pinot Central 2011 event. He is also highly active in the Singapore wine scene organising wine talks and promoting wine education. 
What set you on the path to becoming a sommelier?
Ten years ago when I joined the industry managing the wine cellar for Oceana Restaurant, I looked at the markups and prices of wine and wondered why people would pay for something so expensive. This curiosity inspired me to learn more about wine, but back then it was all on the job training; reading books, inventory management and talking to customers. In 2008 as the Operations Manager for Brasserie Wolf, I had the opportunity to take up formal wine qualifications such as the WSET and CMS. These programs are good for anyone looking to be a sommelier, because firstly, your qualifications are internationally recognised, and secondly, your education becomes more structured. Learning about wine really is a never ending process, and we have to enjoy the journey rather the focusing on the destination.
You've visited many wine regions around the world, such as New Zealand, Portugal, Italy... which has captivated you the most?
Each of them has their own specialty; they produce different wines. I first went to Margaret River, which was very Bordeaux-style with its maritime climate and choice of varietals. At that time, I didn't ask many questions as I was still very new to the world of wine. When I went to Sicily and Portugal, I had completed the wine certifications, so I was very keen to see what I had learnt applied in real life, such as the pruning methods, the different soils, and why they planted Chardonnay here and Nero d'Avola there.
I would say that Central Otago was an eye opener, because being such a young wine industry they have already achieved so much. The potential of wines from that site is amazing, in terms of quality and ageability. If you tasted a Pinot Noir from Wanaka, you'd think that it is at least the standard of a Burgundy Premier Cru. But they are not competing with Burgundy, they know that they are different and are striving for an identity of their own. The people are wonderful too; they are extremely warm and kind.
Do you have a favourite wine?
That's a very tough question for any sommelier! Our palates change with time, and what I liked five years ago is not what I like now. I used to like wines that were sweet, soft and low in alcohol, then I changed to wines that were crisp, acidic and refreshing. Right now I'm into Barolos and Touriga Nacional... big, bold reds. I would say that I am a still fan of Spanish and Italian red wines, and for whites I love Gruner Veltliners and oaked Sauvignon Blancs.
What do you think about the wine scene in Singapore?
The wine scene has changed tremendously in the past five years. Consumers now have access to Google and Wikipedia and are much more knowledgeable. They are taking pictures of wines they have tried and coming here and asking "Do you have this wine?" They want to know the difference between a wine from 2007 and 2009, and why the prices are different. It's something that is very exciting, because now you have a conversation going on. In the past, people were intimidated by the wine list and worried about mispronouncing the name of the wine in case they embarrassed themselves in front of their guests. But now the consumers are much more open, especially the younger ones. They start with easy drinking stuff like Moscato and Riesling, and as they come back week after week you can start opening the door for them to try other wines. It's a new challenge for the sommelier, because the sommelier has to be able to read their palate and recommend wines that match their preference.
Are there certain styles of wine which are more popular in Singapore?
Australian red wines are still the number one selling wines, because they are approachable and at a good price point. However there are a lot more wines coming into Singapore now, and I'm seeing a greater balance of demand rather than just a focus on one particular country. The shift that I would like to see is consumers trying out wines from the Middle East like Lebanon and Israel. These are places which have been producing wines for thousands of years, and their wines offer great fruit concentration and quality. There are also a lot of European wineries going to countries like China and India and investing like what they did in Chile and Napa. It's still at a very early stage, but you've got to start from somewhere.
What skills does a sommelier need to have?
There are three things that I think a sommelier needs to have. A sommelier must be knowledgeable and approachable. A sommelier may know a lot, but if he is unable to share it then I think it is quite sad. The most important thing a sommelier should have is humility. There's no point in bragging about one's skills or saying that I am better than you.
How do you select the wines for the restaurant?
There are a few steps in the process. We begin by identifying the number of wines we want to carry, because there is a limit of how many wines can be stored in the cellar. Then we look at the food menu, and determine the types of wine that will suit it. After that we look at price lists from wine suppliers and agents in Singapore, and start selecting the wines based on region and price point. Usually when we design the wine list we will separate it into categories such as style (sparkling, white and red), then according to the varietal. It's important to have a variety in the wine list so that if a customer wants to have, for example a sparkling wine from Brazil, you have it or can suggest something similar to it.
Creating a wine list is not as difficult as maintaining it. Maintaining the list is an everyday process, because the vintage may change, or a wine may be out of stock. When guests open a wine list, they expect that whatever is listed there is available.
Lastly, do you have any advice for people who are looking to enter the wine trade?
This trade is a continual learning process. Whether you are talking to someone, or opening cartons, or looking at a label, you are always learning and it makes you stronger. You have to take pleasure in this learning process, and the enjoyment of the learning is the reward itself. As they say, if you enjoy your job you don't have to work a day.

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