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Part 2: Confessions of a Chinese Wine Consultant Continued – “The Vinous Bafflement”

china_1Continued from yesterday:

Fast forward to December 2008: there is now more retail here, albeit on a limited scale; and wine clubs of various sizes are sprouting for Beijing‘s wealthy (focus Bordeaux). Wine lists are becoming more exciting too with less evidence of wayward persuasion by strong-arm importers. Mercifully, tasting opportunities are more frequent and more inviting with new importers coming on the scene (The Wine Republic), some of whom have done well elsewhere in China or in Hong Kong/Macau (Watson’s, Links Concept). At the same time some of the more distinctive Shanghai importers (like Ruby Red Fine Wines and Globus Fine Wines) are sending their wines to Beijing and the traditional players here (Aussino, ASC, Torres China, Summergate) are shaking up their lists to rival relative newcomers like East Meets West. And so it goes on. The point is the market is becoming more dynamic.(Flickr photo by tsc_traveler)

My earliest memories are all based on shocks, of one sort or another: not culture shocks, so much as, what, “vinous bafflement”? I remember being in a well-known Sichuan restaurant chain and seeing a young Chinese couple confidently order a bottle of Argentinean Malbec. This was great! The waiter came back, presented the bottle elegantly, cut the cap and removed the cork without trouble. He then left; so I expected the happy diners would just serve themselves (this was not exactly a white linen affair after all). Nothing happened! for some time. The waiter then returned with an ice bucket and, with some ceremony, coaxed the bottle into ice-water. Thankfully, the food then arrived, so the young Chinese couple out on a date were saved the embarrassment, if embarrassment it was, of broaching when to serve their rapidly chilling Malbec (not a grape known for being short on tannin).

Now I have nothing against chilling certain reds – and the point of this anecdote is not to poke fun at people coming to wine for the first time. It’s just that so much affects how we experience wine whether in terms of cultural expectations (replete with aspirations and blind-spots), not to mention the condition in which wine is sent to China, stored and served here (transport, distribution and storage temperatures always constituting big worries). Our first concern as educators was, therefore, to gauge what an appropriate starting point should be. Clearly, for many, it was best to start with the very basics of the very basics; just as most foreigners would be hard pushed to get to grips with China’s intricate tea culture and myriad cuisines. Then, there was the all-encompassing issue of language, especially for Fongyee who was already familiar with the multiple translations proliferating for the same grape varieties, same wineries, same wine-making processes; and thereby having to battle with the misconceived notions some of these translations inevitably foster.

chinese_wine_grapesWe had to be careful in other respects too. No doubt the extent of our wine knowledge and tasting experience – not remarkable by UK standards, but intimidating to some people in what is a new trade here primed us for the odd encounter or two (“odd” in all senses), even with the best will in the world. Local Chinese were very willing to learn, but some of the ex-pat community probably wondered who we (wine upstarts) were! No doubt some still do.

Still, we were told some pretty strange and frankly erroneous things by those who claimed to have a handle on wine (always a bad sign): that Port is not alcoholic, that the only way to taste wine is to swallow it, that all rosé wines are a blend of white and red (and so on and so forth). Of course, no one can reasonably get annoyed at general misunderstanding or getting the wrong end of the stick, at least on this level; but there was a danger that new Chinese wine lovers were being peddled garbage dressed as “wine education” by locals and foreigners alike. At the same time, we were lucky to meet people who combined knowledge with experience of the market, even if these were in short supply (the people and the knowledge).

One importer, showing off his “intimate” knowledge of Burgundy, declared to me at what was an awkwardly empty tasting to begin with: “Oh, yes, we’re very pleased. We’ve just got in some Moux.” I strained, silently toying over the word: “Moux”? Er, producer? Vineyard? Village? None of above?…It’s a Grand Cru I was informed in a breezy, matter-of-fact tone, as if I should have known this given I was a wine educator. Some very long seconds passed. Eventually, the penny dropping, I blurted: “Oh, yes, Clos des Mouches, right, yeah, near Beaune, yeah, stupidly adding, “it’s not a Grand Cru”. Stony silence. (Flickr photo by palindrome6996)

I hadn’t intended to play teacher and know there is always more to learn about wine (especially Burgundy). But by this stage, even after a few months in Beijing, I’d just got sick of people trotting out, “Oh, it’s a Grand Cru” for just about every French wine under the sun; even those, that have no “Grand Cru” appellation system.

It was time to go back to school (and, for me, take an extra course in diplomacy).

Next time: Chinese versus Iberian Wines


Edward Ragg

Edward Ragg & Fongyee Walker write for us from Beijing, and you can get more information on their website, Dragon Phoenix Fine Wine Consulting

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  • Thanks for the link on the opposite house. They have quite the establishment based on the photos. As for this post, I can relate to the difficulty involved with passing along knowledge. It's why I think teachers should be paid more. The truth, as I believe it, is that everyone is a willing learner, or receptive to learning, but only at the appropriate times. And, I do not refer to times of day as much as times of experience. Usually, the “further along” someone is in their studies compared to the rest of their social circle, their confidence will hit new highs. Depending on the level of confidence, they may project themselves more expert than is the reality, and in some cases oppose conflicting information. The best you can do is try in those cases.

  • Thanks, Dylan. I fully agree. I take these kind of things on the chin. I taught at Cambridge for 5 years (essentially one-on-one or very small classes) and more recently have taught at Tsinghua, one of China's top universities here in Beijing. Again, I have very bright students, but English is obviously their second language; so I've had to change my teaching style a lot whilst dealing with much larger class sizes, of course (as well as giving lectures to several hundred). In our wine classes this has actually really helped in learning how to explain things where English is again often the second language (I never use idioms, metaphors, other tropes or turns of phrase). At the same time, outside the likes of Tsinghua, Cambridge and other such illustrious schools, I'm really seeing how people learn in different ways (if this is true of super-bright students too, at least, as a teacher, you usually don't have to focus on how they learn). With a wide range of Chinese wine lovers/private clients, wine business people and other enthusiasts taking our courses, we now use the whole gamut of learning aids (PPTs, DVDs, some great stuff off YouTube for things like remuage etc., pronunciation tools etc.). All in all, it's been an education for us too! (Especially for me – at least Fongyee can break out into Mandarin when she needs to explain something in a different way…). Thank again.Edward

  • Hi Edward,This episode of Malbec in an ice bucket reminded me of a conversation I had with a fairly wine savvy waiter in Hong Kong. This server admitted that he's had to bear and grin it when his customers ask for ice buckets to chill their red wines. His dilemma has to do with a cultural taboo which he explained simply that, as a wait staff, one does not make a comment to correct a situation as it is considered an major insult and loss of face to the customer. Unable to offer the right way to enjoy wine, he feels really frustrated when faced with this issue, especially if the customer is a much older person. Let me know if you have encountered similar situations in Beijing.Cheers,Leo Baduria

  • Thanks, Leo. From a sommelier perspective, the customer is always right, of course. Say, for example, a customer thinks a wine is corked (even if it isn't), the wine should be replaced immediately. The restaurant can still use the rejected bottle, either as wine by the glass or for training or even for the kitchen (if wine is used there). With chilling heavy reds, there's not much that a sommelier can do. After all, if the customer wants it, the sommelier must be accommodating. I have not seen widespread chilling of heavy reds in Beijing, however, and the above post details an isolated incident. In the Beijing summer, it might well make sense to lightly chill Pinot Noirs, Gamays and, say, Loire Cabernet Francs or Valpolicella, particularly for an outdoor tasting or other event. Your Hong Kong sommelier will have to grin and bear it in all likelihood – although, in the high humidity of a Hong Kong summer (as you know well) some light chilling of certain reds might be advisable, though perhaps not in an air-conditioned environment.