Less than 500 people have passed the Master of Wine exams since 1953, and there are currently just 420 Masters of Wine in the world. That’s fewer people with MW after their name than have been to space. This is partly because the exams to achieve the coveted qualification from the UK-based Institute of Masters of Wine—comprised of extensive theory learning, blind tastings and a 10,000-word research paper—are notoriously rigorous, taking a minimum of three years to complete with pass rates of around just 10%. In our latest series, Meet the Master, we talk to MWs about their journey to mastery, those formidable exams and what in the wine world is wowing them right now, from fun pairings to under-rated regions to the rapid developments taking place within wine in Asia.
Oenophiles in London may well be aware of 67 Pall Mall, a private members’ club founded by wine lovers, for wine lovers. Launched in December 2015, the club is not only home to extensive cellars with a well-priced and extremely comprehensive wine list, but also a top-notch restaurant, a team of star sommeliers and a strong programme of events, workshops and courses. It’s a concept that struck a chord with wine lovers and later this year a second outpost is due to be established in Singapore. At the helm of the club’s wine programme is Master of Wine Richard Hemming, who relocated to Singapore in 2019. Here, he connected with 67 Pall Mall founder Grant Ashton and was later appointed the Singapore club’s resident Master of Wine, a role that will see him look after a programme of wine events. It’s a slight departure from the 13 years prior spent as a wine writer, though Hemming’s various roles in the industry have also seen him work as a judge in international wine competitions, produce a celebrity wine podcast, and get his hands dirty, both as a cellarhand in McLaren Vale and as a viticultural assistant at Gusbourne Estate in the UK. Here, he shares a little more about his wine journey.
Do you have any early wine memories that were significant or impacted your decision to pursue a career in wine?
My earliest wine memory is buying two bottles of Spanish gutrot for £5 when I was a student at Leeds University in the UK––not the most auspicious start. But it was an advert in the back of the Leeds Student newspaper that led to my first job in wine, with the British retailer Majestic. I had no wine knowledge whatsoever––but they offered a great in-house training scheme, and that’s what started my career.
Why did you decide to attain your Master of Wine and what were the greatest challenges for you in achieving it?
My initial motivations to become an MW were entirely pragmatic. By then, I had become a full-time wine writer, and I needed to start a new series of articles. I thought MW studies would be a good subject ... little did I realise that series would continue for six years before I passed. For me, the greatest challenge was the Research Paper element, which is an original 10k word dissertation. Everyone thinks that is the easy part. Spoiler: it’s not.
What qualities do you think you need to have to become a Master of Wine?
Perseverance is the most important quality. Humility is the second. But anyone can achieve it––MWs don’t have super-senses, just lots of training.
What is the most common question you get asked when people find out you are a Master of Wine and how do you answer it?
Question: ‘How long did it take?’ Answer: ‘Six years’
What are the most overlooked wines/regions/grapes in your opinion and why?
There are several: niche styles such as Sauternes, port, sherry and sweet Riesling are perennially overlooked, which is such a shame because they are truly unique styles. I also think northern Rhône Syrah is relatively underpriced, but don’t tell anyone.
What are the some of the most overrated wines/regions/grapes in your opinion and why?
In my opinion, most red Burgundy is overrated, and certainly overpriced. But the market obviously thinks otherwise.
What is the most unusual wine-food pairing that you enjoy?
Krug on Coco Pops.
Do you have a favourite Asian food and wine combination, for example, dim sum and Blanc de Blancs?
Bak kwa and vintage rosé champagne is a brilliantly indulgent match: lots of umami and sweet spices in both.
How often do you drink wine––for work and for pleasure? Is it challenging to stay healthy working in the wine industry and do you have any tips for those that do?
I drink wine most days, and there is definitely a risk of over-consumption in any F&B job. The first tip is to know your limit. The second is to take Milk Thistle supplements.
How has wine in Asia––its status and perception––changed during your career, particularly where you are located but also more widely in the region?
When Hong Kong abolished wine taxes in 2008, Asia became a focal point for wine. Next came a sudden wave of extravagant spending from the Chinese mainland, although that has abated to a certain extent. Now, Asia is firmly established as the region with the highest growth potential for wine consumption––however, there’s a long way to go with consumer education, especially in countries such as India.