From lawyer to MW, Ying Hsien Tan on what made him pursue wine professionally, why we should look to Valpolicella, and what is a fine pairing for Peranakan food
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 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.
For more than two decades, Singaporean Ying Hsien Tan worked as a lawyer. Although wine was something he developed a keen interest in while studying at university in the UK, he never considered it as a career.
However, serendipity intervened, and a meeting with a fellow wine enthusiast and recently qualified Master of Wine in 2009 changed all of that. Before long Tan was on course to become the first Singaporean MW, a title he achieved in 2015.
He now runs Taberna Wine Academy in Singapore, and as well as being an educator, he writes about wine, reviews it and judges it in various competitions. Here, he reveals more about his career change, picks out an unusual pairing he rates and reveals what his last glass would be.
Do you have any early wine memories that were significant / impacted your decision to pursue a career in wine? If not, what made you want to pursue a career in wine?
I never intended to pursue a career in wine. I developed a geeky interest during my university studies in the UK in the early 1980s, helped by the emergence of tutored wine tastings by independent wine merchants there. I initially attended because it was a cost-efficient way to get my alcohol fix, but what the wine merchants or wine producers said at these tastings piqued my interest.
By a matter of chance and serendipity, in 2009 I met Lisa Perrotti-Brown, a then newly qualified Master of Wine, who encouraged and supported me to join the MW education programme. The rest, as they say, is history. I established a wine bar that evolved into a wine school and started conducting wine talks and tastings professionally from 2010.
Why did you decide to attain your Master of Wine and what were the greatest challenges for you in achieving it?
I never in my wildest dreams thought I would ever become a Master of Wine. I was a lawyer working in the financial industry, so when Lisa Perrotti-Brown suggested it, I was incredulous. I had no prior professional wine experience and had never even attended a formal wine course. With a lot of nudging and encouragement, I eventually decided that there was nothing to lose apart from a bruised ego and made the application. To my surprise, I was accepted! It was a life-changing moment.
The challenges were significant. I had no prior professional experience. My range of tasting experience, although wider than the average consumer, was by no means as wide as it needed to be to succeed (though who was I to complain about an excuse to taste more?). My theoretical knowledge on matters of viticultural practice was close to zero; there was a lot more technical knowledge to be acquired. The hurdle in this respect was simply finding the time to do it as I was still consulting in the banking regulatory world. I eventually moved out of that completely in 2011.
What characteristics / qualities do you think you need to have to become a Master of Wine?
Focus, perseverance, a willingness to work hard…and a big dose of humility. Most candidates do not pass on the first attempt. It took me four attempts to pass the tasting examination. But with a little directed guidance from some MWs, in particular John Hoskins MW and Annette Scarfe MW, I worked out where I was going wrong and got through.
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?
Usually, what is involved in the examination? By the time I get to describing Theory Paper 2 on production of wine, their eyes are glazed over and hands are desperately clutching an empty wine glass begging to be refilled.
What are the most overlooked wines/regions/grapes in your opinion and why?
The answer changes with time. For instance, I would have said that champagne was one of the most significant high quality styles being overlooked about 20 years ago, but in the past 10 to 12 years there’s been an increased focus on it—especially in the last 12 months or so.
Currently, I would say that the wines of Valpolicella are not getting the recognition they deserve. Famous producers such as Quintarelli and Dal Forno are recognised and their wines fetch handsome prices, but there are a host of other excellent producers. Within Valpolicella, the Amarone wines are sought after but again, there are other styles worthy of consideration, not least Recioto della Valpolicella, which may be out of favour because it is sweet (it is an interesting reflection of our times that there is market preference for dry wines today—a hundred years ago, sweet wines were much more sought after). The principal variety—corvina—is not known much outside the region, but the same could have been said of sangiovese (of Tuscany) and nebbiolo (of Piedmont) 40 years ago, yet look at where the market and demand for those varieties and their wines is now.
What are the some of the most over-rated wines/grapes/wine regions in your opinion and why?
I don’t believe that there are any really overrated wines. I think that generally the quality of most wines is correctly assessed. For me the more pertinent question is what wines are overpriced? From that perspective, I would say that Burgundy and some of the wines of highly rated producers are wildly overpriced. There are multiple reasons – principally limited supply of a relatively small region exacerbated by reduced production because of recent weather conditions, consistently favourable quality assessments by wine merchants and reviewers, and a FOMO obsession amongst consumers fed by hyperbole on social media.
Related: What Is The Future Of Champagne?
What is the most unusual wine-food pairing that you enjoy?
Pinot noir with uni. It doesn’t seem an obvious pairing but the red/dark berry character, soft tannins and relatively high acid make a surprisingly complementary match with the saline notes of uni.
Do you have a favourite Asian food and wine pairing combinations, for example, dim sum and Blanc de Blancs. What is it/are they and why?
Oloroso and Palo Cortado sherry with Peranakan food. The flavours and textures of Peranakan food are very complex. Often very spicy, sometimes sour, sometimes sweet, there are very few wines with the strength of flavour and structure to match those flavours, let alone complement them. I find that the rich oxidative flavours of Oloroso and Palo Cortado are a good complement and the high alcohol and glycerol content of the wines are often a match for the sweetness and chilli hotness of some of the dishes. Indeed, Oloroso is the only wine I know that can comfortably pair with a dish cooked with sambal belachan.
How often do you drink wine—for work and for pleasure? Is it challenging to stay healthy working in an industry like wine and do you have any tips for those who do?
Oddly enough, I drink hardly any wine! Almost every wine I taste, I spit. The joy for me is in getting the most out of the flavour, texture and aromatics of the wine without the sluggish morning-after sensation from too much alcohol the evening before.
As for frequency, I pick up a few glasses of wine almost every day as part of the job. And it is a challenge to stay healthy if all that wine is drunk, hence my discipline of spitting everything out. For those who like to enjoy the elation of alcohol, my advice is to consume in moderation and with food as much as possible, which is what most wine is designed for.
How has wine in Asia—its status and perception—changed during your career, particularly in Singapore?
When I first started getting interested in wine in the early 1980s, wine appreciation was in its infancy in Asia. There was a handful of wine enthusiasts in Singapore, but there was also a pioneering group of wine importers who helped this embryonic group learn about wine. Wine collectors such as the late Dr NK Yong organised wine tastings where many a fine bottle of wine was shared and from his group the reach of wine consumption and appreciation spread, with a little help from returning Singaporeans after studies abroad.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s most of the fine wine offering was limited to classic regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy but with the growth in the number of wine enthusiasts came a commensurate growth in new wine merchants bringing in new producers and labels. This coincided with a rejuvenated global wine world where new regions, new styles and new or evolving approaches to production were emerging. When I returned to Singapore after nearly 14 years studying and working in the UK, I was pleasantly surprised by the range and quality of wines available. And the sophistication of the wine trade and sommeliers developed apace with these changes.
Today, in Singapore, I do not want for any label, style or vintage of wine—so much so that I dare say the range offered in Singapore is a match for some of the leading wine consumption cities of the world, such as London, New York and Hong Kong, as is the level of connoisseurship and sophistication of both consumers and wine professionals. And from the time of my return to Asia in 1996, places like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan were also showing a level of knowledge and appreciation that seemed aligned to my experience in Singapore.
What do you think of wines produced in Asia itself – are there any wines/grapes/producers/regions that you would like to highlight that you believe should be on people’s radar?
It is still early days for wines produced in Asia but rapid progress is being made. Certainly there is potential from a climatic and geological perspective as significant parts of Asia fall within the latitudes that are associated with fine wine. There has been increasing attention on wines from China, and Ao Yun, which is an LVMH project, made an impressive debut with its 2013 vintage, but let’s not ignore places such as India, which is making creditable wines from places such as Nashik, and Japan, which has its very own indigenous wine grape variety, koshu, producing delicately perfumed and flavoured wines that have won awards at international wine competitions.
Has Covid-19 and the global pandemic affected your work in wine and if so, how?
As an educator and wine speaker it’s been more difficult to conduct in-person physical tastings. Whilst it is possible to hold virtual classes, organising the delivery of tasting portions of wine is not easy and the wines sometimes don’t show as well because of the travel. Most of all, personal interaction with students and wine enthusiasts, which is one of the most rewarding aspects of being in the business, is absent. The other significant difference has been the curtailment of travel to wine regions, competitions and fairs. There is again no real substitute to physically visiting a vineyard or winery and interacting with a producer, while the absence of wine fairs where one has the opportunity to taste a wide range of wines has meant a reduced ability to make new discoveries and assess first hand possible changes in wine trends.
If you had to choose your last bottle of wine, and price/availability were not a factor, what would it be and why?
2008 Cristal. Because it will probably last as long as I will and for the very personal reason that I had a tiny influence on the final decision of the dosage of the champagne.
What do you love most about working in wine?
I enjoy savouring wine—its aromas, flavours and textures—so there is a pure hedonistic pleasure that will always continue to draw me to it. But beyond that is the fascination wine holds because of its place in human history, culture and commerce. From a pure financial perspective it offers me less than my previous occupation as a lawyer and banking regulatory specialist, but the joy of working in wine with other wonderful human beings who produce, trade and write about it far outstrips any financial reward and I’ve not looked back since I made the decision to move into wine full time just over a decade ago.