Mathias Camilleri is Singapore's first master sommelier

Ce La Vi's Mathias Camilleri is the first master sommelier in Singapore and only one of 249 in the world.
Ce La Vi's Mathias Camilleri is the first master sommelier in Singapore and only one of 249 in the world.ST PHOTO: SONG TAO

The next time you order a bottle of wine at modern Asian restaurant Ce La Vi at the Marina Bay Sands SkyPark, you might just be attended to by Mathias Camilleri, Singapore's first master sommelier.

The 30-year-old, who is of French and Chinese-Singaporean parentage, was awarded the prestigious title in October last year and is one of only 249 master sommeliers worldwide currently.

The title is given out by the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), in what is considered one of the toughest and most rigorous exams in the world, with one of the lowest pass rates. It is chronicled in the 2012 documentary Somm.

Only about 3 to 8 per cent of applicants pass the notoriously difficult multi-part exam.

But Camilleri had not always wanted to be a sommelier.

"After high school, I had a dream of being a musician," he says. He attended jazz school at the American School of Modern Music for two years before moving to Macau at 20 to pursue a career as an electric bass player.

But that did not work out. After meeting some people in the wine industry, he decided to "take a shot at something more realistic".

"When you give up something that's really important to you, it's important that it is for something you know you'll be dedicated to.

"And for me, that was wine," he says.

"Giving up music was a huge loss in a way and I decided if I was going to go into wine, I need to make it successful by entering a lot of competitions and pushing myself for examinations."

He started from the bottom as a commis waiter in a one-Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris, and then joined a hospitality school followed by internships in wine shops, wineries and restaurants.

His most recent appointment was head sommelier at modern British restaurant The Five Fields, which picked up its first Michelin star in 2016.

Despite France being home to some of the most renowned wines in the world, he says his view of wines is "very international" and considers London the city where he honed his palate.

"It's very dynamic and that's where you develop your knowledge and palate, plus you have a wine community that's very international," he says.

Entering competitions seems to be the right move for Camilleri, who took home the title of Moet & Chandon's UK Sommelier of the Year in July last year, beating sommeliers from top London restaurants Core by Clare Smyth and Fat Duck.

However, he wanted to come to Singapore because of his mother's heritage.

"I came here for holidays and always liked the lifestyle... Asians are such foodies as well," he says.

"The sommelier world is very small and I liked the personalities of the sommeliers I met from Singapore.

"That, combined with the current situation in England with Brexit, made me think it was a good time to leave Britain."

He has led the team of sommeliers at Ce La Vi for the last three months, looking after a list of about 180 wines, which he considers "not too big, but very friendly".

It features bottles that cost slightly below $100 to a $12,000 bottle of 1990 Domaine de la Romanee-Conti La Tache. Red wine and champagne are the most popular.

"We have a crowd that's very diverse and we need to be versatile. So there's classic, lesser-known and very iconic wines.

"But people here like their brands and what they're familiar with," he says.

He believes that "wine should be popular, not exclusive" and is reviewing the format of the current wine list.

"I am trying to put together a wine list that represents the diversity of the customers who come from every country in the world, so I can easily list an Indian or Chinese wine," he says.

Chinese wines, in particular, are of interest and he has been "very impressed by the quality".

"People are very suspicious when you say Chinese wine, but for me, it will become one of the main wine-producing regions in the next 20 years ," he adds.

Working in Singapore presents its own set of challenges, however, and he admits the modern Asian food menu at Ce La Vi was a challenge for him.

"In terms of figuring out pairings, it's a new way of seeing things," he says.

"I'm familiar with local food, but I still cannot eat spicy food and durian."

Three wines that made an impact on master sommelier Mathias Camilleri

Egon Muller, Scharzhofberger, Spatlese 2006

"This was my first 'wow' moment with wine, which I had while working in Macau as a musician.

I didn't like wine at first because I thought it was too acidic, dry and tannic. But this wine was off dry, a little sweet.

I didn't realise it was one of the most premium rieslings in the world... I have expensive taste naturally."

Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1945

"This was in London, where I was with a wine group that organised a tasting of all the Grand Cru Bordeaux wines from 1945. The year is considered a legendary vintage because it was the end of World War II.

Considering how fresh this wine tasted, it was impossible to believe that it was 60 years old. You would think it can last another 30 years easily.

It probably cost a five-figure sum."

Domaine Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet 1996

"I drank this last year after I won the UK Sommelier of the Year award. I was really happy about winning that because you have to be the best among the 12 finalists, whereas Master Sommelier is an exam, so I wanted to open the best bottle of wine in my cellar.

It's an aged chardonnay, so it can either be exceptional or dead, but this was one of the best chardonnays I've had in my life."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 29, 2018, with the headline 'Master of wines'. Subscribe