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“Women can be very good tasters and we work very hard”

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image Cathy van Zyl, South African Master of Wine

Viviana Seguí

Cathy van Zyl is a Master of Wine, the highest qualification in the wine industry given by the London-based Institute of Masters of Wine. The title has existed since 1953 and was originally established as a qualification for the British wine trade. It has only become available in other countries over the last 20 years. Thus Ms van Zyl is not only one of the 300 Masters of Wine in the world but also “the first Master of wine in South Africa.” Three other South Africans have obtained the title before, but whilst in other countries. Ms van Zyl is currently the special guest at the South African Food and Wine Week held by the Institute for Tourism Studies. We had a chat, and a glass of wine, with Cathy.

MDT - How do you become a Master of Wine?
Cathy van Zyl - It’s a self-study course. Usually the best way to start is by doing introductory courses through institutes like the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, which I believe has a very strong presence in China. Once you have completed those diplomas you can apply to become a Master of Wine. In order to get the qualification you have to pass seven exams and write a dissertation. There are three practical tastings and four theory exams about wine.
I think the reason why there are so few of us is because it is a self-study course and the exams are quite tough.

MDT – Are the Masters of Wine in China?
CZ - Hong Kong got its first Master of Wine in 2011. The Master obtained her qualification after 20 years of living in Hong Kong. But the first Asian Master of Wine is Korean. She also lives in Hong Kong.

MDT – This is already the third woman that you mention. Is it more a female domain?
CZ - In the initial stages of the institute it was mainly men, because that’s what the workplace was. Now many more women are taking [the qualification] and often there are many more women graduates than men. Women can be very good tasters and we work very hard.

MDT – Which qualities do you need to become a Master of Wine?
CZ - You must be a good taster and most importantly a good communicator because that is the institute’s key aim, to grow the world of wine by elegantly and precisely communicating all aspects of wine. You have to be very diligent and learn about growing the wine and all aspects of viticulture - about wine making - and you have to know how it becomes profitable, how to import it. You have to know about consumers and the impact of wine on society as a whole, such as trends and health issues.

MDT – The health statements about wine seem to vary. Sometimes it’s said wine is healthy, sometimes the opposite.
CZ – Wine is a natural product. However there are more and more natural winemakers. One of the biggest preservatives in the past has been sulfur and some people are allergic to it. But we use much less sulfur these days. Of course there’s the alcohol which gives people headaches. But I believe that anything in moderation is good. Therefore wine in moderation, even if not entirely good for you, will not harm you.

MDT – What kind of relationship with wine would you attribute to the Macau society?
CZ – This is my first time in Macau – I have not had enough time to learn about a market. However, from the people I have interacted with, I am delighted with the interest in wine and the thirst for knowledge shown by the people I have met with to date. The people in Macau whom I have met seem to be passionate about wine and want to increase their understanding of all wines of the world, and not just the wines from the traditional countries like France and Italy.

MDT – How many types of wine can you distinguish without looking at the label?
CZ – As a Master of Wine I’m supposed to say all of them. But I would like to think I would get about 30 right.

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