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