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Wine culture, like a great vintage, takes time
2013-11-14
By John H. Isacs

Depending on how you look at it, wine culture in China is either very old or very new. As I observed in a past column, the oldest archeological evidence of drinking wine was discovered right here in China.

University of Pennsylvania scientists found grape wine residue on 9,000-year-old pottery jars excavated from the remains of a Neolithic village in Henan Province. We also know that wine culture in China is very new with first-generation drinkers still learning the dos and don’ts of proper wine etiquette.

As a child, I was taught the culture of wine appreciation by my father. However, when my father was drinking wines on a daily basis as a student at Princeton University in the late 1940s he was seen as somewhat of a freak.

The US did not feature much of a wine-drinking culture and it was common for cocktails or liquors to be served throughout meals. Europe has a much longer continuous wine culture but good wine etiquette is still not as pervasive as one might expect.

So before I look at China today, let’s all remember that the veil of wine etiquette and expertise almost everywhere remains quite thin.

Is wine etiquette important?

Wine by its nature is a social drink, so good wine manners are important. Wine appreciation is an important part of epicurean culture and as with all art forms some knowledge is requisite. The more one knows about music, painting and other artistic pursuits, the more one appreciates them.

Wine is the same, however, in all these fields and perhaps most prevalently in wine culture the ugly head of snobbism often rears itself. This pretentious elitism turns off many people and remains a hindrance to the wine industry. My suggestion is quite simple; break the rules if you like but be sure to learn them first.

Charting a nation’s wine culture or more specifically the wine etiquette or manners is no easy endeavor. This is especially true in a nation as huge and fast-moving as China. So for purposes of clarity I’ll look at three specific barometers that indicate progress.

I first visited China over three decades ago and have lived most of my life here, so I’ve certainly seen tremendous progress in wine appreciation. There was no wine culture in China in those early days. On the rare occasions when wine was served with a meal I would often try to introduce the wine but my friends would look at me rather curiously and suggest I cut the talk and just get drunk.

Often at five-star hotels I would have to show the staff how to open the bottle. Forget about proper glasses and pouring technique. Even today, when I do events in second-tier cities, merely opening bottles or pouring wine often presents huge challenges to the service staff.

Today in first-tier cities like Shanghai it’s a whole different story. Top hotels and restaurants usually have properly trained staff and more discerning consumers. Service is important because wine culture is a two-way street necessitating not only informed consumers but also competent and professional service. Reciprocally even the best trained staff will regress if not kept on their toes by discerning customers.

Wine professionals from around the world who are visiting the FHC/Prowine exhibition in Pudong this week will encounter a vastly improved wine culture. At most good restaurants there are at least a few staff members who know when a wine should be decanted and at what temperature it should be served. Unlike most Hollywood stars, people seated nearby will most likely be holding the glass by the stem.

While the beloved “gan bei” or bottoms up toasts are less common they still exist, especially in Chinese restaurants. Befuddling small amounts of wine are poured into your glass from strange glass service vessels allowing for easier and more frequent bottoms up toasts. These annoying tiny pours of wine make proper wine drinking and multi-sense appreciation virtually impossible.   

Food pairing still a challenge

One area of wine appreciation that has been slow to progress is food pairing. Many will claim that unlike wine growing countries in the West where food and wine evolved together, China has never really had a culture of pairing its great and diverse cuisines with wine. True, but this is only part of the problem.

According to several sources, China now has more students in wine certification courses that any other country. The course material in these programs is often strong in the technicalities of wines but exceedingly weak in pairing these wines with food, especially Asian cuisines.

The standards for wine and food pairing mostly originate from the West and are of limited application here. Even in the West, wine and food pairing rules evolved slowly with a process that was more trial and error than science.  

I particularly loath wine experts from the West coming here and dictating what wines pair best with Chinese food. While their wine knowledge may be formidable they usually know very little or nothing about the complexity of regional Chinese cuisines. In fact many of them wouldn’t dare eat some of the dishes near and dear to local palates.

The next time I hear a visiting expert affirm that Gewurztraminer is best with Chinese cuisine I’m likely to freak out. This is as absurd as stipulating that there’s one wine that works best will the entirety of French or Italian cuisines. Regional Chinese cuisines are so diversified in terms of ingredients, cooking techniques, flavors and textures that its pure ignorance to think one style of wine covers all food pairing needs.

Ultimately the onus for pairing wines with local cuisines will be with local wine drinkers who are as intimate with their own regional cuisines as they are with wines. This will take time, but is critically important and will be deliciously fun.

So for all our esteemed FHC/Prowine visitors, drink up and enjoy the evolving wine culture of our city. You may still see some ugly vestiges of the past, but you’re much more likely to experience promising instances of sophistication.

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