Sunday, 11 September 2011

Tasting in Guangzhou

I hopped on a Guangzhou bound train for a cool climate wine tasting last week, part of a three-city (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou) tasting tour organised by the Austrian and German embassies to celebrate the launch of the ‘Cool Climate Wine’ book written by Susie Wu and Michael Thurner. Some 63 wineries from Austria, Germany, Alsace and one from Tokaji were invited to present their wines.

China is supposedly a red wine-loving nation, so, apart from just tasting, I wanted to see how mainland Chinese drinkers responded to these mostly white wines from cool climates. The results were interesting.

I started with whites, tasting the Austrian Grüner Veltliner in the company of a local importer. After two glasses, he was already looking for reds and strayed away.

Only about an hour into the tasting the place got noisier, and merrier, and more alcohol was consumed—no one was spitting apart from me. Broadly speaking, there were two types of conversation among guests: price—how much for a container?—and status—how important the guest was (it seemed most were the biggest importer somewhere). Among the producers several carried the bemused look of someone in China for the first time. I asked a few what they thought. All said they were impressed. Perhaps they still had the illusion that ‘if every Chinese person spends one dollar on my product...’.

But apart from the ‘important traders’, there was also a curious younger crowd who discussed the wines among themselves and listened to what the producers had to say. I suspect they were just ordinary consumers inspired by wine and genuinely wanting to learn more. It was encouraging to see this group, eager to try different wines from around the world, probably following other people’s opinions at the moment but no doubt forming their own views given time. I even saw one of them timidly spitting out the wine.

The most striking episode was at the Hungarian Petricius/Leonis station, which had a Tokaji Furmint and five sweet wines ranging from late harvest to Azuz 5 Puttonyos (no reds at all). There were about five outspoken ladies and gentlemen alternating between dry and sweet wines, inviting their friends to join them and asking the interpreter to tell the producer that they were the biggest importer in China, their friend was the biggest distributor and their other friend was another big shot.... oh, and that the producer's wines were delicious and they wished him luck. The poor guy behind the table had no idea what they were yelling about and just obligingly poured whatever wine they demanded. During the entire 15–20 minutes, Susie and Michael were presenting their book on stage. The loudspeakers were turned to maximum volume but still couldn’t silence this group of partygoers. In fact nobody except perhaps some 20 people at the front were listening to the presentation. The whole room was more chaotic than a Mongkok market. I waited patiently for my turn to taste and finally had to pour the wines myself, working up from the Patricius dry Furmint to the Leonis Tokaji Aszu 3 Puttonyos 2006. The Patricius Aszu 5 Puttonyos was not on display and I asked the producer politely if it was available. Sensing that he could get away from the bellowing crowd, he gladly opened a new bottle hidden behind the counter. All of a sudden, seven glasses were thrust at him from all directions demanding a taste of this great sweet wine! The poor guy was dragged back to the gang. I felt sorry for him.

Despite all the chaos and confusion, I can see underlying causes for optimism for producers:

  • Despite the fact that over 90% of wine consumed in China is red, the Chinese do not reject white wines;
  • The party atmosphere indicated that the Chinese genuinely liked what they tasted—the norm is that the happier and rowdier the Chinese are, the more they are enjoying something);
  • The younger generation is serious about wine.

China may already be the fastest growing wine consuming country but I always believe it is the young generation of 18 to 30 year-olds that is the real Chinese beacon for wine producers. They are open minded and yearn for knowledge. Both producers and importers must invest in education to nurture this customer group. This phenomenon happened in England and, more recently, Hong Kong, and it is now repeating itself in China. But instead of taking 20 years to see the result, in China people are learning so fast it will only take them 10 years to climb this learning curve.

Until then, be patient, producers, and good luck.

I spent three hours at the tasting and did try some interesting wines:

  • Heinrich Pannobile Rot 2008
  • Domaine Gobelsburg Riesling Zöbinger Heiligenstein 2010
  • JR Reinisch Rotgipfler Satzing Reserve 2009
  • Markus Huber Grüner Veltliner Obere Steigen 2010
  • Franz Weninger Blaufränkisch Alte Reben 2007
  • Leitz Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck Riesling Trocken Alte Reben 2010
  • Patricius Furmint 2009 (dry)

Note: Professor Ma Hui Qin from the China Agricultural University conducted a survey among her students and concluded that, on taste alone, Chinese actually prefer white wine to red wine. She did not use the black glass trick but instead dyed white wine red with permitted food colouring.

PS. When I left, I saw the local importer I was with at the beginning. He was still drinking white wine.

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