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The Wine Show: episode seven – a question of taste

The Wine Show: episode seven – a question of taste

by Amelia Singer 13 June 2016

Amelia Singer takes an in-depth look at the differences between Chinese and Western attitudes to wine, and how a Chianti can taste of either balsamic vinegar or soy sauce – depending on who you ask.

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If you've felt that the last couple of weeks have been missing a little something, you aren't mistaken. The Wine Show has, for the last couple of weeks, had to exit stage right for summer sport. My uncoordinated self was dismayed, but all is now put to vinous right – The Wine Show is not only back but this next episode is a super double bill of Joe’s Eastern Adventures in China!

Although I have never been to China, it is very much on my wine radar. As Jancis Robinson wrote recently, China is now the world’s sixth largest wine producer and, according to market analysts employed by the Bordelais, it is also the world’s biggest market for red wine. It is a huge contemporary wine industry player and should be watched with interest by all in the future. One of the world’s most prominent wine merchants, Berry Brothers & Rudd, predicted in 2008 that the quality of Chinese wine will rival that of Bordeaux within fifty years.

Joe’s experience in cosmopolitan Shanghai attests that there is a thriving, appreciative wine scene in the country. The episode starts with Joe giving a wine tasting to local wine lovers at Ruby Red, a popular wine shop. What ensues is an enlightening portrayal of Old World tasting versus a different order of engaging the senses. Joe starts the tasting by pouring a classic Puligny Montrachet. Those of the group who are older and have been ‘classically’ trained how to taste, evoke the expected responses of ‘buttered toast’ and ‘minerality’. These same people also respond with the textbook answers of ‘sour cherry’ when Joe moves onto a Chianti Classico. Everyone in the room, whatever their level of knowledge, is dedicated to their commitment of tasting. They focus, with singular determination, on where the wine is made, where exactly it comes from and what other estates they should be looking out for. China’s way of learning is famous worldwide. However, when it comes to the younger generation, a different mode of learning is expressed. It reveals just as much about the West as well as China.

The older, more expert tasters talk in a way that's familiar to people in the West. However, when Joe talks to a young man in his early twenties he reveals that he enjoys wine differently from his father. He's less interested in just trying famous wines. He wants to try more diverse styles, and frankly can't be bothered learning lots of Western tasting terms. When he tastes the Chianti Classico he doesn’t perceive balsamic notes. It tastes of soy sauce – a very specific type of soy sauce. The Puligny Montrachet does not remind him of buttered toast. It's burnt rice. This evokes a much more profound question in regard to future markets. How and why do we describe wine the way we do? Why do the wines of the world have to be described and sold based on Western tasting terms and Western sensory experiences? Is it helpful for future consumers from different cultures? And is it just arrogant or ignorant to apply Western terms like balsamic to future Chinese wines?

When I was studying for my wine diploma we were given very specific categories on how to analyse and evaluate the taste and quality of a wine. We learnt about tannins, acidity and how this relates to our taste buds. Even though terms like minerality can be viewed as quite subjective or elusive, one would have thought that acid levels and tannin textures could at least be all evaluated similarly. Right?

This may not be the case. Flora Wang, manager of Ruby Red, takes Joe to a local tea house to enjoy a typical tea ceremony. This is an historic ritual, which allows the drinker to relax and meditate upon the many nuances contained in each tea. The tea ceremony conveys how important tea is in the Chinese diet but also how the Chinese palate is shaped by their engagement with tea. Joe is first of all presented with a white tea. The importance of smelling tea before drinking resembles that of wine. Joe picks up on fresh, fruity, leafy, grassy smells. This reveals tea’s complexity as well as its subtlety. However, when Joe is guided to taste other teas, even more is revealed. The Bai Moo Tan – a green tea – is much stronger, drier and astringent on the palate than the grassy, fruity white tea. The tea master’s guidance for tasting and appreciating tea based on its tannin is extremely similar to how the West would engage with a fine wine. Nobody in China would just describe a wine as ‘tannic’.

This focus on tannins means that the Chinese have calibrated their palate completely differently to Western cultures. It is tannin which they love in a wine; acidity is more of an issue. This immediately raises the question of what a balanced wine is. I thought I had a pretty clear idea of how to evaluate wine but had I been brought up in another country, perhaps my palate and therefore tool of analysis would be calibrated completely differently.

Taste being something socially conditioned is not a new phenomenon. McDonalds has been making different kinds of burgers for decades – certain countries prefer their Big Macs on the sweet side, others prefer a salty, umami tang. I once went to a rather large winery in South America where wines which cost the same and were made from similar grapes had been altered slightly for the American consumer versus the European market. The former were slightly more oaky and heavier in alcohol than the latter.

In order to sell wine and really engage drinkers, it seems imperative to understand social and cultural factors which make up that country. Joe is forced to bring all this new knowledge together when he is called upon to be a sommelier to Jerry Liao, a high rising sommelier in Shanghai. Due to his wine tastings, participation in tea ceremonies and gorging on local dishes, Joe now knows the food and wines and has a heightened appreciation of tannin texture. Yet a sommelier's job is not simply about pairing wine and food together – it is a huge component of hospitality and caring for people, something that is highly revered in China. This means Joe cannot match the food and wine for his own Western calibrated palate, he must match it to the palate of his guest. Jerry is from Sichuan, a region famed for its spicy cuisine. The perfect wine pairing for him would be a wine that makes the food even spicier. Against his instinct to find a wine that would calm down the tannins and alcohol, Joe chooses a heavy, tannic wine to really bring out the green chillies in the dish. He breathes a huge sigh of relief when Jerry is overjoyed at the fiery combination!

This sommelier test questions the very fundamentals of traditional wine and food pairing. Joe had to pretty much unlearn his tutored instincts and completely submit to another way of thinking and engaging. As with all of Joe’s experiences in China, it begs the question: how is it possible to evaluate wine – through wine descriptions, ratings or food pairings? Is it better to appreciate a wine learning by rote as one can then communicate to the West, or is it more important to evaluate a wine’s quality using our own authentic experience?

There may be no firm answers, but we can definitely conclude that we have a lot to learn from China. It is also exciting to see how the wine world is constantly changing; there are no rules or principles that can be set in stone, and taste is truly subjective. By keeping this in mind, it can only make us more creative with how we experience and communicate about wine as well as how we engage with wine from other countries. As one sommelier once told me –whatever grows together goes together. If you don’t understand the food or cultural context of a wine then you are, quite simply, just a wine nerd!

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The Wine Show: episode seven – a question of taste


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