The finalists carefully handling Champagne. Photo by Chris Clemente
Food & Drink Features

We met Southeast Asia’s champion sommeliers and watched them outdo each other

The top “somms” of Southeast Asia test their wine knowledge and service skills as they vie to become champion sommelier of the year
Marilen Fontanilla | Jan 03 2020

Most diners likely don’t give a thought as to how their wine gets served at a restaurant. But for those who appreciate wine, the simple act of recommending a bottle, opening it and pouring the chosen wine into a glass does make a difference. That’s where a sommelier—properly trained and passionate about wine—comes in to make sure that the experience is a flawless one.

It takes serious skills to be a world class sommelier: 1) in-depth wine knowledge in order to manage a wine inventory, put together a wine list, and guide customers through that list; 2) well-honed technique to properly decant and pour wine; as well as the 3) confidence and proper demeanor to pull it all off.

 

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A sommelier competitor demonstrating proper form and technique

So it was understandably intimidating and grueling when competitors from around Southeast Asia converged for the Southeast Asian Sommelier Competition held for the first time in Manila last December 6 and 7. Created by the Southeast Asia Sommelier Alliance, the competition was brought to Manila by the Philippine Sommelier Association, in conjunction with the annual Manila Uncorked, a gathering of the country’s top wine suppliers, held at the dusitD2 The Fort Manila.

At Manila Uncorked with more than 300 wines for the tasting

 

Vying for the best

The 8th edition of the Southeast Asian Sommelier Competition kicked off with 14 champion sommeliers from Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. They were greeted with blind tastings, and practical and theoretical exams under the watchful eyes of the judging panel, led by Filipino Master Sommelier Luis de Santos.

Luis de Santos at the judges’ table

On the second day of the competition, the semi-finalists had already been whittled down to six, hailing from Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Unfortunately, the Philippines’ bets Ian Santos and Odie Pineda did not make it, but the two were still in exuberant spirits when I caught up with them right before the finals. They both admitted that joining the competition helped rekindle their passion for their profession, as they reviewed the exam questions to prepare themselves for the competition next year.

It was quite apparent that the profession is a male-dominated field, with just one lone female sommelier from Thailand, but there was a celebratory cheer for her as she made it to the semi-finals. Perhaps future competitions will yield more women candidates from the region. The jubilation then shifted, as the three finalists were announced: Mason Ng and Lucas Liu from Singapore and Ervin Ong from Malaysia.

The finalists, from left, Ervin Ong, Lucas Liu, and Mason Ng

We anticipated the more demanding round of tests prepared by the guest judges, as the candidates individually faced the practical assessments while also performing in front of a live audience—complete with cameras clicking in the background—within the designated time limit. It was a nerve-wracking situation for anyone, but the three finalists rose to the occasion admirably, with some faring better than the others.

Mason Ng at the blind tasting

Dealing with the pressure while also presenting a confident aura, and tackling the various tasks were what would ultimately decide in favor of certain candidates. The exams began with a round of drink orders, which included a lager, a Negroni, and white wine. Service skills and cocktail preparations were on display in this round. The next task was the service of a prized 1989 Château Haut-Brion, which required some very careful decanting. Mason Ng performed well in this stage as he served the wine while also offering some food pairing suggestions and adeptly describing the wine to the guests.

Lucas Liu showing his pouring skills to the judges

Additional tasks tested the sommeliers on their wine knowledge as they recommended food pairings while displaying a cool demeanor during the wine service. The blind tasting was equally impressive as they had to identify three “masked” wines, describing and guessing their vintage, varietal, and origin. It was a chance for the sommeliers to showcase their comprehensive wine vocabulary, as they waxed lyrical on the color and taste of each wine. The last exam required rapid wine recall as they had to spot mistakes in a wine menu, with three minutes to note their corrections while scrolling through the list.

Ervin Ong assessing the wine

Everyone could feel the finalists’ palpable sighs of relief once the tests were over, as they took a break before the final announcement. In the end, Mason Ng of Singapore emerged as the ultimate winner.

Mason Ng crowned as 2019’s best sommelier in Southeast Asia

 

Winning as one

The Filipino contestants Santos and Pineda admit that candidates usually spend years preparing for the competition, with training and studying taking up majority of their work hours. While the Filipino pair were able to take review classes prior to the competition, unfortunately their work encroached on the hours that they could have spent training.

Bel Castro, a technical judge for the service aspect of the competition, noted that judges have to observe service sequences where the smallest error can incur a deduction. “How you approach the table, how the bottle is selected, presented, and opened, and poured...we watch everything,” she describes.

Bel Castro with fellow judges

Having seen Pineda and Santos perform in competitions earlier this year, Castro believes that they could have handled the service aspects of the finals at the same, or even at a higher level. “The way sommelier competitions are designed though, the initial elimination is a theory exam and that is where we have a long way to go. Only a few of our sommeliers are certified and those who are not certified can study on their own but don’t,” she laments.

Pineda and Santos would like to see more local support for the sommelier or “somm” profession, and to improve the quality found in the country. Castro notes, “Our somms are just like athletes. They can train on their own but need resources to train and venues and events to direct their training efforts towards. I would like to see more local competitions with industry sponsoring more aggressively, with more blind tasting competitions.”

Members of the Philippine Sommelier Association, from left, Pierre Addison, Cyril Addison, guest judge Luis de Santos, Charmaine Wang, and Eric Wang

The road to be recognized as the best sommelier in the region (let alone the world) may not be easy, but with the advent of local and regional competitions focused on the sommelier profession, perhaps we will one day see a Filipino sommelier as a finalist, or even a winner. As an avid wine lover, I am definitely raising my glass to that.

 

Visit the Philippine Sommelier Association on Facebook and Instagram

Photos by Chris Clemente