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A supertaster of wine

Civil servant Jackie Ang has been named top taster twice in blind wine-tasting contests

Before wines, the only alcohol Mr Jackie Ang knew was the XO cognac his father, a businessman, had at home.

"I had no idea what wine was," says the 30-year-old, who earlier this week started working as a research fellow at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star).

The unassuming civil servant and scholar is also a master wine-taster who can easily identify the grape variety used, its origins and the vintage of wines in blind taste tests.

Over a glass of white Savoie - not blind taste tested, but picked off a wine list - he does not miss the opportunity to show off his knowledge.

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"Savoie, also known as Savoy, is in eastern France," he says, as he points out where it is on one of the maps of wine-growing regions hung up at French speciality wine bar Le Quinze Vins in Boon Tat Street.

I pick a Gewurtzraminer and he helpfully rattles off its characteristic aromas of "Turkish Delight, rose water and lychees".

Mr Ang came into prominence as a member of the Oxford University Blind Tasting Society, which went up against age-old rivals Cambridge University in the Varsity match - an annual blind wine-tasting contest which has been held between the universities since 1953.

Mr Ang, his teammates and members of the rival team were featured recently as "supertasters" in 1843, a lifestyle-centric offshoot of The Economist.

In January this year, the Oxford team swept the competition, which requires the teams of seven to identify six white wines and six reds. Mr Ang was named top taster, winning a magnum of Cuvee Winston Churchill, a champagne valued at around £400 (S$710) and made by the competition sponsor, Pol Roger.

His 31/2-year-old son, Winston, is named after the British statesman Churchill, and perhaps, those prized magnums, of which he now owns two. He won top taster last year as well.

While he had a brush with wines in national service, Cambridge University, where he pursued an undergraduate degree in natural sciences, was where he really started to drink and appreciate wines.

He says: "There were scholars' feasts you would be invited to if you got good grades in your first-year exams. There were eight courses. Each dish was paired with a different wine and it made me wonder, why does this wine go with this dish?"

He moved to Oxford to pursue a PhD in medical sciences and that is where his wine-tasting abilities were honed.

It helped that wines are inexpensive and accessible in Britain.

"A decent bottle of wine cost me no more than £8 and being part of the Blind Tasting Society meant that I had access to wines at tastings that cost no more than £15.

"Wine is not just science - but also history, geography, culture added to it, a window to the world," he says.

"That's what really got me into it as a researcher and a student."

He considers himself more of a "generalist".

"I have a a good knowledge of classic wines, but I'm also very interested in learning about things like Chinese, Canadian and Swiss wines."

The passion for wines has extended to visiting wine-growing regions such as Rhone, Alsace and Rioja with his wife, PhD student Low Wee Suan, 30, every time they go on holiday.

The Blind Tasting Society, however, was where he shone in terms of wine knowledge. He insists that he does not have a "super palate" and that it is all down to training.

Oxford has also had a long tradition of Asians in the team, but he does not feel that Asian palates are better or worse than Western ones when it comes to identifying wines. Instead, in true Asian style, it is down to sheer hard work.

"What I find about Asians is that they tend to be a lot more conscientious in terms of learning about wine," he says. "It's just a case of how much work you put in and how much care you take."

He insists that he is "dead serious" at blind tastings, but when he is out with friends, he is not.

"I used to call out bad wines, but now I do it only if I know it's a dirt cheap wine and you've not put in any effort," he says with a laugh.

Mr Ang holds a Wine & Spirit Education Trust, or WSET, diploma.

He was also awarded the Wines from Spain Scholarship and plans to pursue the Master of Wine (MW) certification, which is one of the most prestigious titles in the wine world. He has also started a company called Cherwell Wine & Spirits, which provides wine education and consultancy services.

As for his ideal wine?

He refuses to name names, but says: "I'm always looking for wines with balance. Whether it's acid, fruit, tannin or alcohol, they all have to be in balance, with none of them overpowering the others."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 23, 2017, with the headline 'A supertaster of wine'. Print Edition | Subscribe