OVER 300 OENOPHILES – from sommeliers to collectors – cheered in unison as French conglomerate LVMH’s Ao Yun was named ‘Best Chinese Red’ at the recent inaugural Wine Pinnacle Awards organised by Resorts World Sentosa.
“The wine world is pivoting more and more towards Asia,” says Jeannie Cho-Lee, the world’s first Asian Master of Wine, who was in the awards committee. “China has gone from nowhere to (become one of) the world’s top 10 winegrowers in a decade, moving away from faulty wines to producing top range stuff showcasing the uniqueness of the region.” She adds that the award shows that eyes should be on this oft-overlooked New World region. “Ao Yun proves to the world that China can produce world-class wine, even in the most remote and challenging conditions, like the Yunnan mountains.”
(Related: China’s thirst for wine is still growing)
While China-related wine news tends to focus on billionaires buying up vineyards in Bordeaux or Burgundy, its own winemaking industry has blossomed in the last decade, especially with the likes of LVMH investing heavily in the industry.
Besides Ao Yun, LVMH also invested in Domaine Chandon, which produces sparkling wine in the Ningxia region.
China has been making wine for decades, but consumption was mainly domestic and it’s only in recent years that wines like Ao Yun have been making a big splash overseas. Domaines Barons de Rothschild, the parent company of Chateau Lafite, recently released its first vintage – the 2017 Long Dai – from its Shandong-based winery in September this year, with the same ambitions.
Chinese ‘firewater’ is also getting a boost as alcohol companies step up its marketing efforts here and bars also start incorporating it into their cocktails. Premium baijiu distiller Langjiu, for example, targets the younger generation with smaller, sleeker bottles. Alcohol company Wuliangye has also set its sights on the international market, recently collaborating with the Chinese Cultural Centre in Paris for a special gala on the Seine River. Moutai plans to up its presence in Singapore with a retail showroom MTBL Cultural Centre Singapore in Suntec City that will open at a later date.
“Baijiu has a lot of complexity and character that lets it stand as its own class of spirit,” explains Chee Wei De, head bartender of The Single Cask and top 3 finalist in the Bacardi Legacy Cocktail Competition 2019. He dispels the misconceptions that baijiu is a harsh-tasting liquor, noting the layers of flora, cocoa and tea notes savoured in the Langjiu 10 (one of the four main styles of baijiu known for its strong aroma).
Another unlikely newcomer from China is HuiManNong’s Sakura Sake, a glutinous rice-based alcohol that is partly made and completed in Wuhan. Director of sake importer Inter Rice Asia Adrian Goh, says that Chinese brewers “showcase creativity and integrate own terroir and styles to the product.” While the beverage market is generally over-saturated, “the local market has an evolved palate and are willing to try new things,” adds Mr Chee, citing the constant flow of new spirits from across the globe that have made successful marks in the Singapore bar scene.
Breaking down the great wall
While there’s always room for unique and quality products in the Singapore market, Chinese wines and spirits have an uphill climb ahead.
Its biggest challenge? People know next to nothing about it – even those who are veterans in the F&B industry.
Senior sommelier Lucas Liu of Park90 at Regent Singapore concedes that he has, despite his vast experience in premium wines, “tasted not more than three brands of baijiu”.
Ang Chien Sern, CEO of Ang Leong Huat – a distributor of baijiu and Chinese wines since the 70s – attributes the market’s lack of interest and, subsequently, knowledge, to its unfortunate image as a preferred tipple of the older generation. “It’s just not trendy for the younger crowd to buy a bottle of baijiu or Chinese wine at bars,” he adds.
Even so, he sees a gradual increase in sales of three to five percent a year, and expects it to grow, thanks to baijiu’s inclusion in the curriculum of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) – the global wine education organisation.
For wines per se, Ms Lee says that the limited availability beyond the domestic Chinese market is another issue.
“You hardly see them outside of China. Only a small percentage is ever available for the vast international market,” she says. Furthermore, these winemakers are also often independent and cannot afford the time and money to invest in marketing and branding overseas as of yet.
“Many places (restaurants and bars) end up not stocking Chinese wines. If they can’t try it, they don’t have the confidence to stock them,” adds Ms Lee.
Mr Ang says that the country’s tumultuous history of food safety – think the 2008 baby formula scandal or insecticide-laced dumplings – has only exacerbated consumers’ mistrust of products labeled “Made in China”.
In 2018, professor Steve Yim Hung-lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong reported that pollutants in China’s air are not only affecting its citizens’ well-being, but also reducing crop yields that can cost the country up to 267 billion yuan (S$52 billion); not exactly the ideal terroir for producing quality (alcohol) products.
The harsh flavours associated with the high alcohol content of baijiu aside, Chinese wines had a negative reputation thanks to its initial wave of subpar quality. Ms Lee recalls a “pretty unappealing” experience when first sampling a Great Wall Wine in 1994.
It could be a result of its rapid viticulture development. Many inland provinces in China, facing an urgent need to bolster its economies, turned to winemaking.
Cultivation has increased year on year to 847,000 hectares in 2016 and 875,000 hectares in 2018, putting it second in the world behind Spain; quite a feat for a country that only began production of modern wines in the last century.
“They are still figuring out their land; the holy grail combination of terroir and grape varietal. If you look at Europe, they took hundreds of years,” says Ms Lee. “The good news is that, right now, there are winemakers who are moving away from the popular Bordeaux-esque blends and are growing grapes, such as riesling or Shiraz in Ningxia.”
Another kicker? In terms of quality and pricing, they face fierce competition from Chile and New Zealand, according to Ms Lee. The consensus is that China’s wine scene, despite its popularity domestically, is not at the stage to compete internationally.
Slow and steady
To overcome skepticism, Mr Ang actively collaborates with Singapore Polytechnic for their Science and Business of Wine course“Drinkers (especially for wine) will always be used to a particular style. Through education, I can introduce them to this newworld region and its potential in creating noteworthy products,” he adds.
Mr Chee suggests a more hands-on approach with strong spirits like Baijiu.
“Cocktails are a great way to let consumers understand the spirit. Producers can work with bars to enhance the natural flavours of the spirit in the cocktail and make it more accessible. We would also serve a shot (upon request) of the base spirit on the side for guests to help them appreciate its character and complexity on its own.”
Gerald Lu, vice-chairman of the Sommelier Association of Singapore and general manager at Praelum Wine Bistro adds, “Consumers won’t order Chinese wines due to preconceived notions and price points, but are willing to try (as a low-cost/ free sampling). I’d say that 75 per cent are surprised by the quality, and about 20 per cent would end up buying a bottle.
The problem is that wines from boutique wineries who are doing great things, are not yet available in Singapore (or the rest of the world, for that matter).”
Meanwhile, Ms Lee believes that letting the fan base for wines and other spirits grow organically by seeding them into Chinese restaurants is a good way to get the ball rolling. “Chinese food and restaurants are universal. Through pairing with food and keeping the prices accessible, its popularity will eventually rise.”
(Related: Wine news: September 2019)
This article was originally published in The Business Times.