Honing the Profession

Sommeliers Malaysia – The Future of Wine Locally

Sommeliers Malaysia

Monica Tindall

Depending on who you ask, the wine industry in Malaysia is either booming or near bust thanks to COVID-19. The Yum List chats with four of Kuala Lumpur’s top somms to get their perspective on current circumstances and to find out what sommeliers in Malaysia get up to in their spare time.

Honing the Profession
Blind Tasting – Sommeliers Malaysia

Sommeliers Malaysia

The setting is poolside in a condo in KL’s city centre. It’s mid-afternoon and a group of sommeliers in Malaysia are gathered for a blind tasting. Organiser, Alison Christ, whose primary goal in life is to host non-sucky wine events, is presenting today’s get-together. It’s a blind-tasting designed to hone the skills of the city’s best.

Alison says she started arranging these gatherings as a form of camaraderie amongst members of the profession and an opportunity to continually learn from one another and grow the industry.

Blind Tasting

Today there are six wines wrapped so we can’t see the labels – three white and three red. We get the Court of Master Sommeliers’ deductive tasting grid to take notes. It’s divided into sight, nose, palate, pre-conclusion and final conclusion sections with 35 subcategories! Those taking the master somm test, however, would not have the fortune of having a note-taking sheet. They must have it memorized and need to get each tasting done in less than four minutes and 20 seconds per wine.

Mimicking the final exams, we get six wines to taste. Somms takes turns going through each section, detailing their observations before giving their final conclusion. The others look on, encouraging and noting similarities and questioning differences before the actual wine is revealed. Partially the learning stems from discovering the actual grape, country, region and year of each tasting, but even more fruitful is the discussion of why each sommelier came to a particular conclusion.

For non-pros like me, Alison suggests you can ask yourself two additional questions: Do you like it? What would you eat with it? Essentially, wine is about personal taste and experience. Some of my most memorable wine moments have been spent with friends and inexpensive wines. In the end, it’s all about what is enjoyable for you.

Sommeliers Malaysia – The Future of Wine KL
Blind Tasting – Sommeliers Malaysia
Sommeliers Malaysia – The Future of Wine KL
Some of the Wine Possibilities

I take advantage of the afternoon to quiz four of the sommeliers – Strauss, Justin, Ying and Alison – about their take on COVID-19 and how it has affected the wine industry in Malaysia.

How has COVID-19 affected the wine scene in Malaysia?

Strauss – It’s straightforward really. If you love wine, you’ll go for the highest standard that you can find. COVID-19, however, has uncovered more people who are okay to enjoy lower quality wines, at a better price.

Justin – I think the only thing it affected is that most customers can’t dine in at restaurants. Restaurant sales lessened but retail was boosted. I believe some clients bought three or four times the amount they usually would have during normal times. Restaurants who quickly adapted to delivery and takeaway did okay. Suppliers say that mid-range purchases have been mostly the same; it’s low-range and high-range wines that have reduced in consumption.

Ying – We see a lot more retail and direct sales. Importers such as our company are dealing with high-end wines so we haven’t been affected so much. Those that deal more with restaurants are harder hit. A lot of people are trying to do clearance sales to clear stock. Many more are converting to online platforms.

Alison – People are still drinking… a lot. I find in good times and bad, wine will always stay consistent if you do it for a living. If you adapt, you’ll always find a market. More people are drinking at home and doing more private, intimate events. The bigger scene is dwindling. Things are becoming more personalized.

Sommeliers Malaysia – The Future of Wine KL
Gan Yee Khong, Strauss – Sommeliers Malaysia

Where do you see the industry headed?

Strauss – On the restaurant scene, I see people returning to looking for quality over quantity. Even though COVID-19 has slowed down the restaurant pace, I believe it will pick up again. Food and alcohol are core loves. People will always spend money on them.

Justin – I think the online platforms will continue as a valid option for business. Restaurants have boosted their business models. You have a dine-in price and a takeaway price. Instead of customers having to go to two places to get food and wine, they can now get both at a restaurant.

Ying – Drinking in small groups and privately will continue. People are moving away from the mainstream stuff. There are lots of alternative grapes that are as equally delicious but at a lower price. It could actually be a positive thing in that people are more willing to explore different varietals and labels. There are more younger drinkers looking to try wine.

Alison – I think it has taught people how to buckle down and take life seriously and not be frivolous. And, to really appreciate and value of everything you have. Even the big restaurateurs are realizing that every detail counts. Consumers are more thoughtful about dollars spent and where they go. Emotional bonding is happening. More emotions are involved in spending. People have become more adventurous. The boring, everyday wine tasting is not going to work anymore. People want more interesting things… that are safe.

Sommeliers Malaysia – The Future of Wine KL
Justin Ho – Sommeliers Malaysia

Now that you can’t travel, how do you plan on staying current with what’s happening in the wine world?

Strauss – I subscribe to a channel called the Master Class and this keeps me up to date. I get lots of new information here. Instagram is also a good resource keeping me informed of what winemakers are doing. I can still do my study and exams so I plan to continue with those. I am a wine geek. I can talk about wine until everyone falls asleep. This hasn’t changed.

Justin – Actually, COVID-19 has helped to boost the local market. People can’t go anywhere so they are becoming more adventurous. They become more educated as they are looking for information on wine. It boosts the industry in that the public now see the value of sommeliers in assisting in wine selection. The potential of the wine business is coming back. Because of MCO, many restaurants are doing online sales so they need people who are knowledgeable to push the sales.

Ying – Social media keeps me stay connected. Instagram is a great resource for staying in touch with the winemakers and seeing what’s happening. They understand that many can’t travel so they are providing more information online than they did before.

Alison – There are a couple of publications that publish daily that are worth reading. I try to do online seminars and classes. I just participated in the World’s Leading Fine Wine’s event where I got to meet the makers, some that I may not have had the chance to meet in person otherwise. The Internet is at your fingertips. We can work together and share knowledge.

Sommeliers Malaysia – The Future of Wine KL
Yee Ying Yong – Sommeliers Malaysia

Final Words

Ying – With sommeliers growing in Malaysia the wine scene grows too. It’s not about it being serious but more about encouraging people to enjoy wine. It’s not a snooty scene but rather one for enjoyment.

Alison – I feel that everyone’s been sleepy. I want to tell everybody to get up and make some noise. Shake your tail. Don’t say it’s COVIDy. The world is an endless opportunity for us. You just have to adapt. Internal tourism shows that people are dying to do something. Take advantage of it, innovate, create something new.

Sommeliers Malaysia – The Future of Wine KL
Alison Christ

Find out more about the wine scene in Malaysia here and stay up to date with the latest gourmet happenings around Malaysia here and here.

One Comment

  1. Count me out! I’m off the bottle. 😀

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