Being a Master Sommelier is the most prestigious and highly regarded title given to sommeliers. Candidates first need to pass a three-part exam which is generally considered one of the hardest in the world. Then it comes to the Master Sommelier exam, which is available through invitation only. Keen to find out more about this elusive qualification, we spoke with Carlos Simoes Santos, the world’s 253rd Master Sommelier, to find out how he came to pass this stringent testing programme.
Born in Switzerland to Portuguese parents, Carlos grew up in Portugal. As a young boy he played in the family’s small vineyard. Later, he became fascinated by the wines of the Douro Valley, “Touriga Nacional can be made into both full-bodied reds, and delicate nuanced wines,” he says of Portugal’s most famous variety. He moved to London and worked with Gordon Ramsay and then at Dinner by Heston, Heston Blumenthal’s two-Michelin-star London restaurant. After four years he left for Paris to work under the highly respected Thierry Marx at Sur Mesure. During his time there Carlos estimates he sampled several thousand of Europe’s finest wines. “As a sommelier, it is our responsibility to make sure the wines are at their best,” says Carlos. “So, when a customer orders the bottle, we open it and sniff the wine and sample just a few millilitres to make sure it is in good condition.” The wine he remembers clearest is a Madeira from around 1790. “It was so perfumed,” says Carlos, slowly closing his eyes. “Dried fruit, dry flowers, earth.” He opens them again. “An amazing wine.”
On his road to become a Master Sommelier, Carlos has had to commit to memory thousands of different wines. To do this he creates a three-dimensional library in his brain. Each wine is represented by a basket. The aroma characteristics are represented by images of berries, different types of mushrooms, different leaves and even charcuterie. Using his imagination, he virtually loads the baskets with different amounts of these aroma images depending what he is tasting. “Nebbiolo, for example,” he says. “Can have leaves of the forest floor, bloody meat, sour cherries. These ideas, these images, allow me to remember the characteristics of the wine.”
As a Master Sommelier, Carlos has to also have an up-to-date understanding of the intricacies of the European geographical indication system. This means he has to know which wineries and even vineyards, are allowed to produce wine under a certain regional name, such as Burgundy and which vineyards may fall a few metres short. He has to remember the climatic conditions for each vintage in each region. To gain this mass of understanding he spent almost a decade travelling the world, tasting thousands of wines from Slovenia to Spain, from Martinborough to Margaret River. At times he was studying 17 hours straight, nine days in a row. With wine, food, accommodation he has spent tens and tens of thousands of dollars, although he refuses to put a figure on his education.
Despite his encyclopaedic knowledge of wine, Carlos has a humble demeanour. Now working in the hospitality industry, he wants nothing more than to ‘marry’ diners to the wines that will suit the food being served and to the specific taste of the customer themselves. “It is my job to help the diner make a choice that is suitable to their tastes and needs,” says Carlos. “I might have a wine in my mind, but the diner ultimately has to make the decision,” he says. “I find out what they know and what they like. I ask if they are feeling adventurous. If they say yes, I can show them some wines that perhaps they would never have tried.” Carlos’ face breaks into a broad grin. “Ultimately people are out for dinner for a good time,” he says. “They can drink New Zealand sauvignon blanc if they like. Who am I to differ? But I know there are so many interesting wines that they would enjoy. I love to see people enjoying the wines I have had the privilege to get to know and love.”