Friday 17 May 2019

What wine can learn from whisky?

Blended whisky has been losing market share to single malt whisky in the last 10 years. To counteract, Chivas Regal recently held the world’s first whisky blending competition in Hong Kong for both consumers and professionals. I was honoured to be one of the judges and even more impressed with the outcome, perhaps something that even Pernod Ricard, owner of Chivas Regal did not anticipate.

The candidates first attended a 3-hour workshop and then were given five components with distinctive characters - floral, creamy, citrus, fruity and smoky to make up their own blend. At the judging, they had to present their blends and explained to judges the reason behind the blend. The judges are not from whisky or spirits profession, but all are connected to blending, including perfume specialist John Paulo Hui who plays with over 600 perfume raw materials, coffee trainer Chris So (also from the wine trade), lyricist Leung Pak Kin and myself, a winemaker and where blending is absolutely essential in winemaking.

What strike me was not the technical aspect of the blending, but how the candidates connected the blends to the stories, and nearly all were derived from their own experiences - about life in Hong Kong or the places they grew up, about families and about love. Only two professional contestants focused on making a blend that is perfect for the cocktail they had in mind. All judges could feel the stories while tasting their concoctions.

This is the power of emotion and story-telling which sadly is kind of missing in the wine people. Most wineries and winemakers are too fixated on terroir. Soil and climate are no doubt related to the quality of wine but while we in the trade find them fascinating, unfortunately it doesn’t resonate with most consumers. The second most used story after terroir is family history but if seven out of ten wineries are emphasising this, it is not unique anymore. Winemaking maybe technical but wine is a social, lifestyle beverage and it has to be connected to the consumers emotionally. I urge all the winemakers to tell their personal stories - why they want to make wine, their first wine, their dogs, and so on. Terroir and family history can come later once consumers are listening.

There are wine blending workshops but again they are focus on creating a technically correct blend. Perhaps we should copy Chivas Regal and organise a ‘blend from your heart’ workshop. Does it matter if it is a Bordeaux blend or a whacky tempranillo-pinotage blend as long as it tastes good and has a moving story behind?

Back to the Chivas blending competition, the winner of the consumer session is ‘Dram of a Day’ created by Gigi Wong. The story is about a typical Hongkonger who wakes up cheerful but has to juggle tasks during the long working hours until finally has a moment of relaxation at night. The fresh citrus note denotes the start of the day which then moves onto the heavier aromas corresponding to the daily tasks and finally the smoky flavour then ends the day.

The winner of the professional session is Ronald Ho from Safe Bubbles and Malt. His blend is called Chivas Regal Turadh, a firm but smooth whisky that Ronald said will rejuvenate the drinker from the hectic schedule, just like the blast of sunshine between two raining days in typical Scottish weather.

I’m sure my opinion is not agreed by most in the industry but perhaps food for thought?