The Malaysia Best Sommelier Championship 2023 Announced Three Leading Lights In The Region (And Introduced Many Delicious Vintages)

Was there ever a nicer bunch? The great and the good of the vocation gathered in Kuala Lumpur for the Malaysia Best Sommelier Championship on the last lap of 2023. Service is the privilege of the happy and the lucky, and the somms redeemed a year of atrocities as we watched them reach for grape-ness. Robb Report Malaysia warmly toasts the Sommelier Association of Malaysia (Somlay), for organising much-needed respite.

Sixteen of their number sportingly put themselves to the test, with barely a sideways glance at the prize. If at times it looked like they were having a frolic in the playground of their terroir, it’s because they return and rise with the occasion, having gone places with the priceless experience and camaraderie of their ongoing participation.

At the thoughtfully renovated Parkroyal Collection Kuala Lumpur, sunlight streamed into a surprising ballroom, its floor-to-ceiling windows and living plants a godsend. There and in chambers, sommeliers comprised a mycorrhizal network, tasting their way through the wonderful earth for two days.

When the dust of their organoleptic activity had settled behind closed doors, the diligent judges had truffled out three finalists: Justin Ho of Berjaya University College, Han Yew Kong of Galaxy Macau, and Wong Yi Ying of Pall Mall 67 Singapore would tread the boards the next day in full public view. Fans of theatre would have appreciated their improvisational performance in scenes that might have been written by David Mamet. One at a time, they stepped onto the stage while the other two were kept in a holding room for their surprise and our delight.

Each became the protagonist of their own character-driven play, navigating guests, specific requests, and subtly and widely different drinks, to be opened, poured, mixed, decanted and served without missing a beat, while batting curveballs from left field spied with eyes at the back of the head, casually, like a tarantula. Ho, Han and Wong were simply great in their roles, reflecting their professionalism, personal good humour and graciousness.

Spontaneously enacted, the same scenes were also a mirror on the audience as one decision led to another, and another. We began to think of the sommeliers of our own lives, the self-effacing personal coaches whose cool cucumber suggestions make our day: like Alfred, without whom Bruce Wayne could not be Batman, nor could the Batcave under Jalan Langgak Golf optimally cellar his stash of ‘45s, ’59s and ’61s.

The diversity of wines chosen to test the candidates was a vicarious joy, not being variations on chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. Kissing cousins, a Pinot Gris from Alsace, France, and a Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige, Italy, were to be blind tasted, identified and fully described, then a plate of Hainanese chicken rice thrust under their noses before they knew it. Which one did they feel, not just think, would pair better? You wanted to shout, I know, I show you!

Somlay president Ronald Binati circulated throughout the event, beaming from the heart to make everything go swimmingly for everyone. Thanking everyone at dinner, he wondered aloud if the chief judge and Somlay founder Roderick Wong, hoarse from more than a decade’s dedication to the cause, would stay on as permanent technical director.

Parting the mists of time, I first met Wong at the then newish Kuala Lumpur Hilton at KL Sentral, hosting Australian wine doyen James Halliday. He and the hotel were on full throttle to recapture the glamour of the Hilton’s golden triangle heyday. Even so, Wong presented as someone with the unfinished business of a higher calling. Somlay popped shortly after (or was it before) in May 2009. The inaugural Best Sommelier of Malaysia Competition, as it was initially called, took place mere months later in October, at the Hilton.

Roped in as head judge was Shinya Tasaki, the first non-European to win the Best Sommelier of the World title awarded by Association de la Sommellerie Internationale, a perfect role model if ever there was one. On the multinational panel with Tasaki was Teng Wee Jeh, progressive restaurateur, seeker and self-confessed “wine tragic”. The next year, Andreas Larson was head judge, and so it went. Somlay’s mission to raise service standards was apparent from the outset.

Tasaki had observed then that the level of the participants was already higher than in Japan when it had held its first sommelier competition in 1980, and noted their youthful promise. And so it would prove: among the field of ’09 was 2023 finalist Han, whose classic Rolls-Royce bearing and unflappable palate would win the day, his third time. (Ho and Wong are serial winners too.) Tan Chuan Ann, last year’s champion, was semifinalist at the ASI Best Sommelier of the World 2023.

The industry’s stalwarts continue to generously give of their time and experience. Wong Yin How, Somlay founding secretary, Decanter Asia judge and better known for Vintry, was judge for the third year running, as was Shawn Chong of Omakase+Appreciate fame and now Mizukami Collective. Joining them on their first and second tour of duty respectively were Adolphus Foo and Yap Lip Seng. Foo, a Malaysian expat, is founder and president of the Macau Sommelier Association, while Yap is CEO of Riyaz Hotels and Resorts. Upholding the feminine principle was Saiko Tamura-Soga, ASI Vice-President of Asia Pacific.

And here from the vaults is a chat with Roderick Wong from the lockdown years that hasn’t appeared until now because a virus ate my homework. Now seen in the light of ChatGPT, the gist of our exchange can be summarised as, will the sommelier be replaced by AI trained on the reviews of wine critics?

On the data, Wong concedes that information is now much more accessible, but “not every 100-pointer will be to the guest’s liking. It is obvious that some critics tend to have a higher preference for a full-bodied, rich style of wine and some prefer a more subtle, complex, elegant and mature wine.”

It may have all the data points on glasses, replacement wines, pairing, and so on, but the somm-bot cannot (yet) get a feel for the guest’s palate by reading their mood, day at the office, and mental state to recommend something especially for them, there and then. In short, empathy. As Wong says, “a sommelier they can relate well with, and who understands their preferences could be valuable for a memorable dining experience.”

Roderick Wong’s List

What would he get as an investment in delayed gratification for a special occasion, and what would it be? “Wow the list can be pretty long. Well, I would probably go for:”

  • Henri Bonneau Reserve des Celestins Châteauneuf-du-Pape (vintages made before Henri Bonneau’s passing)
  • Château Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1989
  • Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage La Chapelle 1990
  • Domaine Dujac, Clos de la Roche Grand Cru (pre-1999, while still made by founder Jacques Seysses)
  • Champagne Salon Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs 1996 (produced in small quantities; love the style of the wine and the best vintages they have produced)

“Frankly, no special occasion; just drinking with people who enjoy and appreciate such wines.”

And a dark horse; long odds, potentially great rewards:

“Vintage Sherry (not easy to find) or López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Reserva Blanco.”

Sommelier Association of Malaysia (SOMLAY)

Photography by: Law Soo Phye

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