Monday, August 23, 2010

The Chinese wine era might be a good thing

What's the world going to be like when China is the pre-eminent power?

I'm not going to speculate about what it will mean for our economy; that's for other blogs. I feel a lot better about the wine aspect of Chinese domination after a discussion I had recently with Jeannie Cho Lee, Hong Kong's first Master of Wine.

American and European wine drinkers like to feel superior to the Chinese. Wealthy Chinese are willing to spend so much for top Bordeaux that we can't afford them anymore. I can't tell you how many wine industry professionals have told me, "That wine is wasted on them."

Now I'm not so sure about that. In fact, wealthy Chinese may be just what we need to reset some priorities for wine producers.

Lee made some interesting points about how Chinese in the wealthiest cities experience food and drink differently from Westerners, and what it might mean for wine.

She's quick to caution that "Chinese food" is too big a category; some regional Chinese food is spicy; some is lamb-based while others use more seafood; some uses bread instead of rice. It's like how "American food" includes raw oysters, burritos and cheese fries. How do you pick a wine to go with "American food"?

All of that said, Lee's most interesting point was about texture -- something we rarely talk about in American food or wine.

"If you look at the top foods in Asian cuisine, there's no flavor, it's all texture," Lee said. "Shark's fin soup (right). Bird's nest soup. The flavors are very bland, but these are very expensive dishes that are highly prized."

So what kind of wine would you want with shark's fin soup? Keep in mind that the people eating it are the ones with money to spend.

Lee's answer: you want a mature wine in which the tannins have softened. You don't want an exuberant young wine, white or red, because it will overwhelm the delicate dish.

"Among the real food connoisseurs, people prefer the mature wines that give that harmonious effect," Lee said. Indeed, with each of three courses served at Colgin Estate (thanks Ann), we got both an old and a young wine, and I liked the older wine better.

The implication is this: If the Chinese market is what top wineries want to pursue, they will have to make wines that age well. This runs counter to the trend of the last 20 years, in which wines have gotten bigger and riper and more ready to drink now, because that's how we Westerners prefer them.*

(*There are exceptions to that? Really? I thought all round eyes were alike.)

Lee says her experience with many wealthy Chinese diners is that they order a highly rated, expensive wine of recent vintage and it sits mostly undrunk on the table. "They know they don't like the wine, but they don't have confidence in their wine knowledge to say it's not their fault, it's the wine," she said.

I asked if that was because these wines were high in alcohol, and she corrected me.

"Asians have no problem with high alcohol," she said. "They're coming down from the local whiskies which are 40%. What is a problem is really high unresolved tannins. It's about ripeness and finesse and the midpalate."

Lee says this is the reason the Hong Kong auction market is so active: "People are seeking older wines."

So the upshot is, if you want to sell wines to the Chinese, you need* wines of elegance.

*Unless your name is Lafite, which she said means "beautiful woman" in many Chinese dialects. That's why Lafite Rothschild is now the currency of bribes in China -- everybody wants it, and it's less troublesome to be caught with a bottle of wine than cash. Nobody is especially interested in Mouton Rothschild; maybe we'll still get bottles of that in the US in the future. But I digress.

This is why I welcome the Chinese wine era. Who would you rather see wine producers around the world kowtow to: people who eat cheeseburgers, or people who eat shark's fin soup?

Of course, the Chinese wine era may still be a few decades away. But there has been rapid progress, even among the average consumer; a researcher blogged just last week about how most Chinese women see red wine as a health-food drink, putting them ahead already of the one-third of American adults who don't drink alcohol at all.

As for the continued whispers about Chinese consumers' use of wine, Lee pointed out that anybody mocking another culture's dining habits is throwing a stone from a glass house.

"The good news in mainland China is we're no longer mixing wine with Sprite," Lee said. "In England, they're still mixing milk with tea."


Cabfrancophile said...

There is definitely thinly veiled racism evident in Western wine drinkers' disdain for the new Asian market. It's quite ironic, though, since the stereotype (mixes Coke with 1st Growth) is intended to suggest conspicuous consumption without appreciation. But what is the apparent highest form of Western appreciation? A tasting of dozens of wines where each person gets and ounce or two. Either the tasters spit and miss out on the full experience, or they get too drunk to appreciate the nuances. Hmmmm, looks suspiciously like conspicuous consumption without appreciation!

That is an interesting point on texture. It makes me think New World wines might be a be a better match since these are often quite texture-driven wines. The choco-berry milkshake profile might be too rich for many food pairings. But much of the appeal of these wines is they make broadly appealing cocktails due to softness of acid and tannin and the enveloping texture. They also seem tailor-made for the conspicuous consumption tasting format described above . . . .

Unknown said...

A few things -
1) the old saw about lack of appreciation is same thing EU's said about US a few decades ago.
2) most wealthy people don't appreciate what they are drinking, it's not a China thing, it's a status thing.
3) most of the "Lafitte" being consumed in China is counterfeit anyway
4) Your equating shark fin soup w/Cheeseburgers is cliche and insulting ( especially to cheeseburgers).

W. Blake Gray said...

CabFrancoPhile: I thought that too about the texture of milkshakey wines, but Jeannie said they're generally too potent tasting for delicate food.

Serge: I apologize to cheeseburgers, but only those made with grass-fed, free-range beef. I'm sorry, burgers.

Todd Hansen said...

I agree that "Chinese Cuisine" is too broad a term. Mongolian cuisine seems like it would work well with a good Syrah, Hainan would work well with Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, and dishes from some other regions are very nuanced and delicate and would match great with good wine. But a lot of Chinese cuisine is quite salty and spicy and pairs best with beer. Lots of beer. Má là spareribs ("hot and numb") literally numb the tongue - this is a texture effect, but it really doesn't pair well with wine. It can be great food, but it works best with beer. A good, thirst-quenching, floral trippel or an IPA. My point is that in my experience *most* Chinese cuisine doesn't pair well with wine, but there are notable exceptions.
Final point: Good cheeseburger and wine is a great combo.