Best Sommelier Asia & Oceania 2022
Director of Park90, Singapore
Gerda: Could you please introduce your background and explain how your passion for wine has started?
Mason NG: I am originally from Malaysia and was supposed to work in finance after my scholarship. However, things took a different turn. I have an uncle who purchases En Primeur wines from Bordeaux every year, and thanks to him I got interested in wine at the early age of 15. It is a fascinating world. I made the decision to move to Singapore where I passed my Sommelier diploma. At the start of my career I worked as an assistant sommelier and now I proudly hold the position of Wine Director at Park90 here in Singapore.
G: What does a typical day look like for you as a renowned sommelier?
Mason NG: I think it looks like just ordinary people. However, maintaining good physical condition is essential in our job. I try to go to the gym at least twice a week. Concerning my responsibilities at Park90, we are working to expand our concept to other countries and cities, including Malaysia and Sydney. An important portion of my daily routine is also dedicated to developing new concepts and experiences for our members.
G: What are the most rewarding and demanding aspects of your daily work?
Mason NG: Difficult to mention one because there are many. However, if I had to choose, I would say that conducting blind tastings with my team of sommeliers and with our members is the most rewarding aspect of my daily work.
Additionally, hosting winemakers, arranging meetings with them, and organizing tastings and winemaker dinners here at Park90 is also incredibly rewarding. These interactions and events contribute to the richness of my role as a sommelier.
G: What do you owe your success to?
Mason NG: I would say many people because it is hard to mention just one person. Many of our guests have played a pivotal role by engaging in stimulating discussions. I must particularly mention Edward. He is like a father figure to me in Singapore. He has been very supportive since my beginning as an assistant sommelier. We travel together each year to various wine regions, doing blind tasting or just enjoying a nice bottle. It is important to have someone with whom you can share your feelings about wine.
Gerda: What are the most important factors for selecting the wines?
Mason NG: The important factors are the style and preferences of our members. Broadly speaking, we can categorize our members into two groups. Those who have clear preferences and know what they want. For them, Bordeaux is certainly at the top of the list. However, we observe an increasing demand for the second group of wines from artisanal wineries and small producers who are terroir-driven.
We are doing 70% of blind tasting. This allows us to surprise our members and introduce them to new and exciting wine experiences. For those members who are knowledgeable and have a desire to learn we present a selection of boutique wineries and Burgundy, as these wines offer a more exploratory experience. Bordeaux, being a well-established region, is less surprising to them.
The majority of the wines we feature on our list are medium-bodied and in a price range of 300 to 500 Singapore$ (210-345 €)
G: What are the most common expectations your customers have regarding wines and your expertise as a sommelier?
Mason NG: Our members have several expectations:
- Fine service: they look for a high level of professionalism and attention to detail.
- Hospitality: they want a warm welcome and atmosphere where they can enjoy their wine experience.
- Confidence: they rely on our expertise to curate a selection of wine that they will enjoy.
G: What is your opinion about Bordeaux wines?
Mason NG: Bordeaux is certainly my first love and it holds a special place in my heart. This connection was fostered by my uncle, who has been an En Primeur buyer for many years.
In the realm of wine, Bordeaux and Burgundy often provoked different preferences. While Bordeaux is known for structured and powerful wines, Burgundy offers a different experience with its intricate patchwork of terroirs. It can be quite technical to navigate but this makes it also very interesting for our more knowledgeable members.
For Burgundy, we have a high demand even though it is very technical due to the patchwork of its terroir but that makes it also very interesting for our knowledgeable members.
It is interesting to note that generally speaking Burgundy fans do not drink Bordeaux wines as it is often all about perception and taste. However not so long time ago one of our members after enjoying a series of the greatest Burgundy wines with her friends, asked me to surprise her with the last bottle of wine. I served a Château Lafite Rothschild 1985. They were all very pleasantly surprised by the wonderful complexity and finesse of this great wine. This kind of cross-exploration can be a delightful moment, and it is very important to keep an open mind.
G: How do you choose Bordeaux wines for your wine list, and how do you present them?
Mason NG: Classified wines continue to hold significance; therefore, we must have them on our wine list. We are increasing the selection of second wines as entry points for our customers. It is challenging to include wines from lesser-known appellations like Côtes de Castillon, we are not that open-minded to those wines. Appellations like Pauillac, on the other hand, enjoy higher brand recognition.
While being organic, biodynamic or natural might appeal to certain customers, it is not our primary focus.
G: What should we do in Bordeaux to increase our wines on wine lists?
Mason NG: Several steps can be taken:
- Education about grape varieties and blending: Bordeaux should better explain the grape varieties used in their wines and the reason behind blending. This can help consumers better understand the complexity and diversity of Bordeaux wines.
- Taste preferences of Consumers: Bordeaux should make wines that align more with the modern consumer taste: more finesse, balance and lesser oak.
- Promote Wine Tourism: Bordeaux should actively encourage people to visit the region. Many consumers believe they can find all Bordeaux wines with no need to go to Bordeaux itself. Secondly, they have the feeling that visiting those wonderful Classified Châteaux is only for the rich Tycoon. Bordeaux should do more to show that it can offer a lovely bottle at 40 € and village food. It is culturally very different from Burgundy. In the consumer’s mind, Burgundy is cool and relaxed whereas Bordeaux is all about business.
- Limited production: Bordeaux wineries can focus on producing small quantities of wine specific vineyard plots or micro-cuvées. This limited production can create a sense of exclusivity and scarcity, driving up interest and demand. Give the feeling to a consumer that they are valued and that they have priority access to these exceptional products; enhance the consumer experience. Bordeaux should offer more than just a commercial perspective.
G: Could you share a memorable food and Bordeaux wine pairing with us?
Mason NG: Not so long ago, I opened a bottle of Château Duhart Milon 1985 at my home. I enjoyed it with an Angus steak, and it was an unforgettable food pairing. The freshness and almost minty flavors of this Pauillac didn’t overwhelm the beef, creating a fantastic combination. The old-style cabernet sauvignon (never harvested too ripe) gave the wine a high drinkability.
Gerda: Are there current trends in the world of wine, and if so, what are the most popular trends right now?
Mason NG: Yes, certainly, the most popular trends are those wines with more freshness and minimal intervention during the winemaking process. In Singapore, natural wines are not as favored due to the preference for a cleaner style. We don’t like that fungi style which some natural wines may have. Instead, the focus is on lighter wines with lesser oak and more purity of fruit. The shift towards softer, more approachable wines is a positive move from wines that have too much of everything.
G: How do you stay up-to-date with the ever-changing trends in the wine industry, and how does this influence your wine choices?
Mason NG: I am reading a lot and a member of my team keeps us updated about wine-related matters through our WhatsApp group. I meet winemakers when they are in town and travel frequently to meet wine growers. This year alone, I have made 5 trips and have received invitations from producers in Hungary and Austria. I just came back from Burgundy. However, despite all my travels, I have yet to visit Bordeaux ….
I am constantly interested in what winemakers drink.
G: What advice would you give to young professionals aspiring to become high-level sommeliers like yourself?
Mason NG: Never stop learning, doing tastings, and keep meeting people, they are a source of interesting information. Doing more and more blind tastings is especially important as it sharpens your sensory skills and keeps your palate sharp. Avoid being lazy, tasting is like going to the gym, you have to train your abilities. The more you taste, the more you understand a wine’s style and are open to the product’s beauty.
Humility in front of a bottle and people are two other key points to becoming a high-level sommelier. If you are not confident in front of a label or you think it is a bad wine, stay humble before you judge. All lessons around wine are lessons of life.
G: What is your favorite grape variety?
Mason NG: Difficult question, but I would say at this moment … Pinot Noir from Burgundy. In the past it was Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling but as many aspects in life, our tastes evolve. But my relationship with Pinot Noir is stronger and I have more exposure to it which has deepened my appreciation for it.
G: What is your favorite wine?
Mason NG: It is hard to mention just one bottle but if it comes to Bordeaux, I would say Château Haut-Brion 1961.
G: What is the best way to taste?
Mason NG: It can vary, depending on the context and your personal preferences. The most enjoyable moment is after work with friends. For me, wine means to be shared, and if your mind is relaxed emotion around the bottle can go better out. To me, it is depressing to open a bottle on your own.
If it comes to a formal tasting, I prefer to taste in the morning when your palate is clean.
Gerda BEZIADE has an incredible passion for wine, and possesses a perfect knowledge of Bordeaux acquired within prestigious wine merchants for 25 years. Gerda joins Roland Coiffe & Associés in order to bring you, through “Inside La PLACE” more information about the estate we sell.