By Jim Boyce
Nicolas Carre is manager of the new Maxim’s (Solana) in Beijing, a trained sommelier, creator and director of local French-language newsletter Ping Pong, and Beijing rep for DCT Wines. Busy guy. I talked to him about trends in the local wine scene, his view on customers and wine, and what will be on the menu at Maxim’s.
What wine trends have you seen in Beijing during your five years here?
There are more and more choices for consumers in terms of both New World and Old World wines. With French wines, for example, I am seeing small appellations you can hardly even find in France! Three or four years ago, you didn’t see much wine from places such as Cotes de Rhone, Saint Joseph, or Gicondas. They are good wines but have limited production and can be quite expensive, so distributors didn’t want to take the risk.
In broader terms, Bordeaux has been dominant since the beginning, but three years ago we started to see more wines from Alsace, Burgundy and southwest France showing up. The issue with Burgundy is that it’s hard to pronounce in Chinese and the terroir is complicated – it’s like a big jungle – so it is hard to understand for many consumers.
Another trend I see is more distributors. I find that many come from Shanghai – they don’t have an office here, just a representative, and this can be a problem if they don’t have enough stock in the city, since it can take three or four days to get more.
As a sommelier, how do you deal with customers in the restaurant?
My first question is, “What wine do you like?” With a specific dish, some sommeliers might recommend a particular wine, but that doesn’t mean there are not other options. Ten years ago in France, no one would pair red wine with fish, but now people propose Gamay and Syrah as options. I’m happy this happens
You also need to ask a lot of questions. The perception of aromas, dryness, and other factors is very subjective, so you need to know your clients. That’s the job of the sommelier – to find out what people like. If someone asks for a “heavy” wine, you still need to find out if they like tannins or not, how dry they want it, and so on. In China, for example, my experience is that many beginners don’t like tannins but they do like some acidity in their wine, so Syrah is a nice fit. Of course, it also depends on what food they are eating.
Why do people in China like Bordeaux so much?
I wouldn’t say they like drinking Bordeaux, I would say they have an image of it as being the best in the world. If you did a blind tasting with Bordeaux and Burgundy, I’m sure many Chinese would pick Burgundy.
I can give you an analogy. When I lived in France, I didn’t try Australia or American wines, because everyone told me Chilean were the best New World ones and I simply accepted this. But by exploring, I have learned that there are good wines from many parts of the world.
The wine industry in China is heavily influenced by marketing and media. People believe what they read about wines without even trying them. I think this is especially problematic in China because the wine industry is fairly young.
What kind of wine will you have in Maxim’s?
I’m trying to offer a large range of wines, both in terms of styles and regions. About 80 percent of the menu will be French and include wine I like, wine I feel my customers like, and wine that works with our food. I will have some Australian, Argentine, Italian, Chilean and South African wines, as well as Chinese wines, including Grace Vineyard and Dragon Seal. I hope to build my list up to five or six Chinese wines.
We will have about five wines by the glass in the brasserie on the first floor. Since it is summertime, we will probably have three whites and two reds, and change the wines every month so people can try new things.
What is your experience with Chinese wines?
I heard many people say Chinese wines are terrible so I wasn’t disappointed when I first tried them. My view is that the wine industry is very new, so we need to give it a chance.
I like Grace Vineyard Chardonnay, especially the 2002. About a month ago, I tried a 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon from Changyu and I was impressed that even at ten years old it was very nice. I also recently had a chance to drink Dragon Seal wine out of the barrel from the 2006 harvest. I tried it with wine maker Jerome Sabate and liked the Syrah. I studied in Cotes du Rhone, so I appreciate Syrah and Grenache!
I’m sure the wine industry in China will get better and better. It’s no longer legal to blend in imported wine without mentioning this on the label and rules like this will be increasingly enforced. I’m sure in ten years we can talk about China being a positive player in the wine industry. They know it’s a big business, that more and more people are learning about wine, and that they will need to do better.
China also needs more qualified sommeliers. I’ve seen people with “sommelier” printed on their business cards who don’t know that Burgundy is made with Pinot Noir! You have all kinds of people here who have some easy-to-get diploma from overseas or the Internet. It would be great for China to have a government-sanctioned diploma.
Because of your involvement with Ping Pong, you eat and drink at many different places. What are some favorites?
La Baie des Anges: I really enjoy the selection of the wine, though I find the place a bit too quiet and uncomfortable. Palette Vino [in Shunyi] is very nice and the new Enoteca [in The Place] looks good. But there are many, many other places I frequent.
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