Part 1 – Dalian Delights: Seafood and the Wine Scene off China’s North-East Coast Continued
Continued from Part 1 on Darian Delights
But what did this family drink? On offer was the internationally exported Tsingtao beer from another famed coastal city, Qingdao. The spelling “Tsingtao‘ is from the Wades-Giles system of representing the sounds of Chinese characters (now defunct); but some Chinese brands/institutions like to state their age by using the early 20th Century romanized spelling replaced by pinyin after 1949 and the foundation of the PRC (the pinyin is “Qingdao‘, pronounced “ching-dow’ for English speakers). There was also Chinese peach juice and the inescapable bai jiu, literally “white alcohol’, a category of spirits distilled from sorghum or millet which can range in flavour from delicate aniseed to rotting garbage (I don’t know how they quite manage that or what kind of “still’ bai jiu is actually distilled in).
We’d brought a bag of gifts with us – never go to a Chinese family without bringing something – which included a bottle of 2007 Lo Tengo Torrontes from Norton (from importer ASC). Torrontes is an Argentinian, highly aromatic grape (a bit like a cross between Muscat and Gewurztraminer with an oily and slightly bitter aftertaste) which, in our experience, has appealed to Chinese wine drinkers. But the Chinese never open gifts in front of people and it would have been rude to suggest chilling it. So we got talking about wine instead, over beer, peach juice and bai jiu.
Bai jiu is fairly evil in more than one respect. Although the northern Chinese like to drink it with seafood and just about anything, its very name has clouded the existence of white wine. Red wine is popularly known as hong jiu (literally “red alcohol’), but its correct, full name is hong putao jiu (“red grape alcohol’). Because the Chinese know bai jiu as “white alcohol’ and red wine as hong jiu, many are unaware that white wine, whose correct name is bai putao jiu (“white grape alcohol’), even exists. And, as we discovered in trying to find a wine shop in downtown Dalian, not everyone even knows that the lauded hong jiu – the short-hand for red wine – is made from grapes. Asking for a local shop selling putao jiu (wine in general), one security guard assured us there was nothing like that in the area, but there was a shop selling hong jiu! When Fongyee qualified “hong putao jiu‘, the guard looked even more perplexed. But there’s nothing in the phrase hong jiu that mentions grapes, of course.
Their suspicions were not allayed when we revealed the big brands blend Chinese wine with imported must (whenever another country, say Spain or Chile, has a surplus); but they were interested in Grace Vineyard and Dragon Seal as producers using exclusively Chinese grapes. The older generation like their beer and bai jiu and find wine’s acidity and the tannins in red wine to be a bit unpleasant; although many older Chinese feel they should be drinking red wine for health reasons. The younger generation – in this case Fongyee’s 34 year-old cousin who works in real-estate and her husband, a tennis instructor – does drink wine, but there is not much of a wine-bar scene in Dalian, outside the five-star hotels.
We knew already about Dalian-based French importer DCT Wines, run by Frederic Choux. In addition, we found an intriguing wine-bar and shop called AP Wines in a local shopping mall.
The Dalian owner spoke English and explained the wines he was importing directly. It took a while to realize that the name AP came from Australian producer, Andrew Peace, whose wines dominated the shop’s selection. All in all these looked pretty pricey by Beijing standards (e.g. well over 300RMB for a generic Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon) and the place had only been open a year, so perhaps business was tough. The owner didn’t let on, but was on the ball, offering a glass of 2006 Master Peace Shiraz, Andrew Peace which he apologized was a bit cold to drink as it had been stored in the fridge (at least they were trying to preserve opened bottles somehow).
AP Wines did have a few wines from France and Germany besides the Andrew Peace range. But we thought we’d shake things up a bit with our Chinese relatives by purchasing a tetra-pak, one-litre bottle of non-vintage Andrew Peace Chardonnay for next day’s feast.
I say shake things because in a young wine market like China’s traditional packaging, cork closures and red wines generally reign supreme, even although most Chinese palates prefer lighter reds with generally low tannins (e.g. from wines made from grapes like Gamay or Pinot Noir) or whites with some residual sugar. So we’d deliberately chosen a wine under cork as a gift, albeit the plastic cork of the above Lo Tengo Torrontes before arriving in Dalian. Now, here we were a) bringing white wine to the table, b) choosing a wine in a one-litre format not standard 75 cl bottle and c) purchasing something in less than “classy’ packaging. We could “keep face’ doing this only because of our professional work and knowledge of international wines. As a result everyone in the family tried the Aussie Chardonnay and ostensibly liked it. But it was Fongyee’s younger cousins who actually drank most of the tetra-pak, saying how well the wine went with the beautiful Dalian clams on offer.
So let’s explode a few myths and report on what we learned or confirmed: it is not correct to say the Chinese struggle to drink alcohol, even wine, or are blind to trying new things (we hear a lot of importers here who insist the Chinese will only try certain types of wine – ignore them. It’s more a matter of education all round). The only Chinese who don’t drink much tend to be Cantonese. They lack alcohol dehydrogenase, the enzyme that processes alcohol – hence the pink-in-the-face routine after half a glass. These “wine drinkers’ should try Moscato d’Asti or another low-alcohol wine with decent residual sugar and pleasant, easy-to-like aromas. Northern Chinese drink like the Russians and Koreans: don’t take them on, particularly with bai jiu. The older generation are unlikely to be great wine buyers, unless they are highly affluent. It’s China younger drinkers who are coming to Western brands in all forms. Where wine may have the edge, though, is that it is perceived to be healthier than spirits. White wine may not be well-known, but younger drinkers will try just about anything and choosing and drinking international wines has social cachet.
The Dalian wine-lists we saw – in our hotel and a few restaurants – were dominated by the more significant importers here, particularly ASC and Torres China. But the wine scene is very young. However, there’s certainly a fair bit of cash knocking around this popular Chinese city with massive building developments and the predictable run of black S-Class Mercedes ducking between scooters and vehicles of all other descriptions.
On our final day, we visited a local Buddhist temple and monastery. From a distance, this countryside retreat could have dated from the Ming or Qing Dynasties. But as we came up close, it looked newer and newer, in fact, very new! (Not that this necessarily meant it was new. Beijing’s Ming Dynasty Forbidden City is, for example, under constant restoration and re-painting). But this place was genuinely young. A group of wealthy Buddhists had built the entire thing from scratch as recently as 2004. As we thought about this massive undertaking, we wondered if the Chinese Buddhists in question – generally, more laid back than their Japanese Zen or Lamaist Tibetan counterparts – were also buying wine for their festivals and holidays. Judging by the SUVs and luxury cars lining the car-park of this working temple, many of these Chinese Buddhists could certainly afford to buy wine and perhaps a few of them are.
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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