Q&A with S.A.'s Master of Wine

Cathy van Zyl is South Africa's only resident Master of Wine. Food24's Cathy put her through her paces.

by: Cathy Marston | 15 Sep 2010

The Master of Wine qualification is probably the most rigorous and difficult to obtain in any discipline or walk of life and is held by only 289 people worldwide. Cathy van Zyl qualified as a Master of Wine 5 years ago and now tastes, consults and teaches both at home and internationally. Another South African woman, Lynne Sherriff has just been appointed Chairman of the Institute of Masters of Wine in London, putting SA women winetasters firmly on the map! Cathy asked Cathy some questions.

1.       You are South Africa’s only resident Master of Wine  – why did you decide to take this qualification?
There were more than a couple of bottles of wine involved! Someone was arguing that it would be impossible for anyone to pass the qualification while residing in South Africa. And then someone said 'why don't you try and be the anyone who does it?' and before I knew it I was hooked, I couldn't very well throw in the towel, could I?
2.       How long did it take you to complete and what does the course entail?
It is a self-study course and the candidate needs to pass three tasting exams (all in the same 'sitting'), four theory exams (all in the same 'sitting') and a dissertation. I passed my theory exams the first year I sat, my tasting exams the next year but it took nearly two to pass my dissertation to the satisfaction of the Institute, so four years give or take a month.
3.       How do you use the qualification now you’ve got it?
I'm invited to judge more often around the world, which I really enjoy; and I was only invited to judge for Platter once I had the qualification. I don't work in the wine industry ...
4.       Blends or straight varietals – which do you prefer?
5.       Favourite red for long cold winter evenings?
My preference changes continually. I really like Barolo and Rioja and 'proper' sherry, and would drink them far more often if I had the bank balance to facilitate it; the Gonzales Byass special sherries are favourites, as is Marqués de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial. But if you are going to restrict me to local, right now I'm enjoying Stone Ridge Shiraz.
6.       Favourite white for chilled out sundowners on the stoep?
Again, I enjoy the variety wine has to offer: Domaine Huet Vouvray Sec Le Mont if I'm feeling grand, Ken Forrester's Petit Chenin if we're quaffing, and Tio Pepe if I can get my hands on it - because it has to be fresh.
7.       Favourite bubbly for celebrations?
Any of the French rosé bubbles or Krone Borealis.
8.       ‘Must-try before I die’ wine?
I've tasted quite a few grand wines - not all of them though. But could we change the question to 'must drink a whole bottle of before I die', please? Vega Sicilia Unico or Gonzales Byass 'Apostoles', the palo cortado.
9.       If I could rid the wine world of just one thing it would be ...
Those who want to grub up old vineyards of indigenous (or just lesser known) varieties and plant Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.
10.   What’s the one wine experience which most sticks in your mind?
Many years ago Marc Kent (Boekenhoutskloof) treated our then-tasting group to a food and wine matching evening at Reuben's. He'd briefed Reuben to create tiny portions of food of the region to accompany each of the 10 wines he had ... and these were dessert wines and fortified wines of the world. An enduring memory.
11.   What did you drink last night?
I had a glass of Versailles chenin blanc, one or two of the Stone Ridge Shiraz and then I took a glass of Montagu white muskadel to bed.
12.   Hot wine tip for the future?
They're embargoed.
13.   Favourite food and wine combo
Manzanilla and jamón
14.   Best wine-induced hangover cure?
Milk thistle and a litre of water before going to bed; greasy - very greasy - toasted egg & bacon in the morning. Even better, Huevos Rancheros: eggs 'poached/fried' in a tomato, onion and chilli sauce.
15.   And finally – which do you think are better wine tasters – women or men?!
While some of the best wine tasters I've ever met have been men, it always astounds me how my female friends - who have no interest in wine other than that it gives them a buzz - are intuitively 'good' versus their husbands who just crash and burn!

You can reach Cathy on www.grape.co.za


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