Wine Word – Guy Wittich: 20 years in Taiwan

By Jim Boyce

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Guy Wittich (top right) leads a Rhone Valley wine tour.


Guy Wittich, CEO of the European Chamber of Commerce in Taipei, has been intimately involved in Taiwan’s wine scene for decades, whether as a consumer or a club, event and trip organizer. (Note: Wittich is my former boss and piqued my interest in wine when he asked me to help the chamber organize a series of dinners in 2003.)

 

You’ve been in Taipei since the 1980s. How does the wine scene compare then and now, and what are the emerging trends?

With the wave of new foreign investors arriving in the late eighties, and the lifting of martial law, there was quite some activity in wine promotion. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines cooperated with the Taipei Hilton in flying in the first batch of Beaujolais Nouveau from Lyon. Table wines were relatively expensive due to excise taxes and customs duties, but higher-end Bordeaux was priced very competitively. And Australian wines were popular for their excellent value – I recall buying Henschke, Penfolds, Margaret River, and other top wines for a fraction of what they would cost now.

In the early nineties, drinking wine became a trend among the Taiwanese. Many new wine retail stores emerged, even a chain of wine stores called Drinks, and large quantities of wine were imported from France, Italy, the U.S., and elsewhere. With supply far exceeding demand, many of these stores disappeared and this meant there were some very good bargains in the market. I remember buying a case of Chateau Carbonnieux Grand Cru (from Graves) at NT$300 (6.25 Euros) per bottle! Chilean wines also became popular in the nineties and are considered good value for money.

Top end wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy have been selling very well in Taiwan during the last 10-15 years. Some private Taiwanese collectors have amazing wine cellars with vintage wines from the 1870s, and top years such as 1945, 1963, and 1982. For a very nice public cellar, visit restaurant Villa 32 (www.villa32.com.tw) for an impressive collection of Petrus, d’Yquem, and Latour.

The European Chamber has held more than 30 wine dinners since 2003? Why did you start the wine dinner series and what have been some highlights.

As we were until then a rather serious business organization specialized in advocacy, we wanted to offer our members a social event strong associated with European culture. We came up with the idea of thematic wine tasting dinners at top restaurants.

One of the keys to success has been to work with wine consultant John Isacs – an American based in Taiwan for the last 23 years – who is in charge of selecting the wines with the various importers, many of which are members of our chamber.

We cap the diners at 50 persons in order to guarantee the quality of the menu. Another limitation is the availability of quality glasses (preferably Riedel) – with an average of six to seven wines per evening, only a few hotels and two or three restaurants in Taipei can host our events.

We started in 2003 with a “Tour de France” dinner at the Ritz Landis Taipei. Other highlights were our Italian dinners with Baron Francesco Ricasoli flying in from Italy to introduce his wonderful Tuscan wines. We had Nicholas Jaboulet introduce a fantastic selection of Northern Rhone wines by the house of Paul Jaboulet-Aine, the Moet-Hennessy dinners with Veuve Cliquot’s La Grande Dame, Dom Perignon, and Krug, then a “Battle between the New and Old Worlds,” with over 14 wines served side-by-side in a comparison of grape varieties from Europe against their counterparts elsewhere.

Last month we had a Hungarian wine tasting dinner organized by Csaba Gergely, one of the major Hungarian wine exporters, with entertainment provided by a gypsy orchestra flown in from Budapest. (Besides the world-famous Tokaj wines, they also produce excellent reds.) We just had the sales director of Smith Haut-Lafitte introduce some of the chateau’s recent top vintages, including the 2000 red – given 94 points by the Wine Advocate – one of the best they have ever made. Steve Fang of wine importer Chateau Wines and Spirits together with Smith Haut-Lafitte generously air freighted the bottles directly from the chateau’s cellar for this event.

As for the restaurants, we are working directly with their executive chefs in selecting dishes to match the wines. We have kept our price per person very reasonable as we consider these events a service to our members. A six-course dinner including all wines would cost NT$3,600 per person. We have a very loyal – and at times fanatic – group of dinner participants, including the president of the chaine des rotisseurs in Taipei, European trade office representatives, CEOs of our member companies, and their Taiwanese guests.

You founded a Rhone Valley Wine Society in Taipei in 2004. Why focus on the Rhone Valley and what was the public response?

I have to admit top not being very active with the society for the last couple of years, as the project has been squeezed between my busy work and family lives. I am a not totally unbiased fan of Rhone wines and this all has to do with the fact that we have a family house in the middle of the Southern Rhone region, near the village of Vinsobres, where I have either lived or frequently visited for the last 44 years.

The house is surrounded by vineyards and I recall the early wake-up calls by the tractor plowing the earth between the vines or spraying sulfur. In September we helped the neighbors with the harvest, and brought the grapes to the Caves Cooperative of Vinsobres. The Cooperative paid the farmer based on alcohol percentage of the grapes. All of it was made into cheap CDR.

In response to globalization and fierce competition from the new world, particularly from Chile and Australia, Rhone valley producers have been putting a lot of effort in upgrading their wine quality in recent years. Hence, the new generation of wine makers has studied at universities in Bordeaux or at the Wine University in Suze la Rousse, which is 20 minutes from Vinsobres, in order to make better quality wine. Older vine grapes with higher alcohol levels (usually those harvested from the vineyards on the hills) are segregated from the rest and spend time in new French or American oak barrels in order to create “cuvee prestige” wines. Others stay away from using new barrels or use a combination of new and old.

The Rhone region, and in particular the Provence, has gained increasing popularity in Taiwan as a travel destination for its beautiful sceneries, as a source of lifestyle products (such as Occitane and lavender oils for spa treatments), and as producer of wines that prove to be very suitable when paired with Chinese cuisine, particularly the red grape varieties Grenache (Southern Rhone) and Syrah (Northern Rhone). Many of the high-quality Rhone wines, and in particular the Southern Rhone wines, are still reasonably priced when compared to their Bordeaux and Burgundy counterparts. Top chateaux, such as Domaine du Pegau, Beaucastel and Rayas from the Southern Rhone, as well as the bit pricier Cote Rotie from Guigal and Chave’s Hermitage from the Northern Rhone, are all within NT$2500-5000 per bottle range – half of the price of their Bordeaux counterparts.

We organized a number of wine tasting dinners for the society, combining wines with both southern European and Chinese cuisines. In particular, Sichuan dishes go well with the Grenache-based wines.

You took a group of Taiwanese on a food and wine tour of France. How did the tour work?

In November 2004 I organized a tour to the Rhone Valley for a group of 12 Taiwanese wine enthusiasts, including a Taiwanese wine importer. The six-day itinerary featured some of the finest of French cuisine, visits to the region’s top wineries, and sightseeing in the beautiful Provencal region. It was quite some work to get the tour together, and was tailor-made to the fit the best restaurants and wine producers into the program.

The tour started in the Southern Rhone where we used the eighteenth-century Hotel d’Europe in Avignon as our base. We were welcomed by Jean-andre Charial of L’Ousteau de Beaumaniere (**), beautifully situated between the rocks of Les Baux de Provence, had dinner at La Mirande (*) in Avignon where we had a Table d’Hote (i.e. dinner in the kitchen) with Chef Jean-Claude Altmayer, and at La Beaugraviere in Mondragon Chef Jullien presented us with a fantastic truffle menu along with the region’s most impressive wine list: 10 pages long and including some extraordinary bottles from the 1930s and 1940s. We received a 1955 Chateau Rayas Vendange Tardive as a present from Mme Jullien.

On our way to the Northern Rhone we lunched at Hotellerie Beau Rivage (**), and had our first bottle of the Syrah-based Northern Rhone wines: a beautiful 1994 Cote Rotie Guigal La Landonne. Our culinary adventure ended in Roanne at the 3-star Michelin Troisgros where we were welcomed by owner and Chef Michel Troisgros. That night we had a fabulous dinner, and a tour through the kitchen of this institute of French haute-cuisine, the cradle where many great chefs of France started their careers. It’s interesting to mention that our Taiwanese participants ordered mostly top vintage Burgundy wines at these restaurants, and very few Rhone wines

As for the wine part of the tour; we started with a half day Rhone wine course at the Wine University of Suze la Rousse, situated in a twelfth-century castle – explaining the grape varieties, the terroir, and the tasting of typical Rhone wine aromas. After this crash course in Rhone wines, we started with visits to producers of Cotes du Rhone Villages wines (Domaine Viret, Domaine Chaume-Arnaud), followed by a short visit and aperitif at our own home, “L’Hermitage,” near Vinsobres. The next day we visited Beaumes-de-Venise, Cairanne and Gigondas region, and tasted the Muscat-based desert wines from Domaine des Bernardins, and got a detailed explanation of the wine-making process by Daniel Brusset of Domaine Brusset in Cairanne (Les Haut de Montmiral, Gigondas). In Gigondas we visited St. Cosme.

In the Chateauneuf-du-Pape region we visited my favourite domains Chateau de Beaucastel, Domaine du Pegau, Domaine de Marcoux and Domaine de la Mordoree (a bit further down in Tavel). In the Northern Rhone our first stop was in Cornas at Domaine Auguste Clape – we drove by the insiginificant and modest entrance three times – to visit the historic caves of this most famous Cornas domaine. Most interesting was to taste the wines of different cepages (which comes different plots of land with vines of different age before being mixed into Clape’s Cornas blend). We ended the day at Guigal where son and wine maker Philippe showed us through the enormous cave and the impressive control room. We had a fantastic tasting experience of their three world-famous Cote Rotie Lalala (La Landonne, la Turque, and La Mouline ). All in all, a wonderful trip.

Where does your interest in wine come from, what are your favorite regions and varietals, and what are you drinking these days?

I grew up with wine since very young. As teenagers in Vinsobres, for lunch we drank table wine with lots of water in it.

I do not have one favorite varietal or region. Wine is like music, and what I’m drinking very much depends on my mood – and perhaps the food as well.

In my cellar I have some Bordeaux (a nice ’88 Chateau Margaux) and Burgundy, then from Italy a number Ricassoli wines (Castello di Broglio, Chianti Classico Reserva) and yes, many Rhone wines: Chateauneuf-du-Pape’s from Domaine Pegau (the 2001 is excellent), Vieux Telegraphe, and Domaine de la Mordoree; from Gigondas Brusset’s Les Hauts de Montmiral (2001, 2003, 2005), St. Cosme’s Cuvee “Valbelle,” and just very recently I drank a wonderful Vin de Table from St. Cosme with a comic label and a wine called Little James’ Basket Press, at only NT$530 (RMB110) per bottle… I also have some Australian wines: Torbreck’s The Steading (2003) is excellent, resembling some top CDP.s.

However, most of my wine is in the cellar of our house in Vinsobres. My retired parents have lived there permanently for the last 10 years, and every year when we visit, we tour the region’s wine makers and buy a couple of cases. Besides the ones already mentioned, Vieux Donjon in Chateauneuf makes a wonderful white, and Domaine de la Janasse’s 2006 CDP Vieilles Vignes (85% Grenache, 10% Syrah, some Mourvedre) has an extraordinary concentration, but is very smooth with many blackberry aromas. Upon arrival we spend some time selecting the wines to drink during our stay, including those wines that are about ready to drink: the 10- to 15-year-old CDPs, or the 8- to 10-year-old Gigondas/Cairanne or even the very concentrated 9- to 10-year-old Cotes du Rhone Village made by Les Aphillantes. Most of the wines from Cotes du Rhones have to be drunk within 6-8 years. I should also mention the excellent white Viognier wines made around the region (Chaume Arnaud, Domaine Brusset, Viret).

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