By Jim Boyce
As a publisher, writer, lawyer, and tasting panel judge, Singapore-based Ch’ng Poh Tiong has long been a key player in the wine world and especially on the Asian scene. In May, he organized the first International Congress of Chinese Cuisine and Wine, held in Beijing. I talked to him about the feasibility of pairing wine and Chinese food, about his publications, and about the key factors impacting wine growth in China.
You have been in the wine publishing game for a long time, doing everything from publishing The Wine Review to writing for publications such as Decanter. What is your view of the state of wine coverage in Asia and especially in China?
There is, to begin with, more information on wine in languages such as English, German, and French than in Chinese. We have, therefore, some way to go. But where there is a need, people will try and fill that gap. There are two aspects of this gap I would like to address. Coverage is needed but, even more importantly, is the accuracy and quality of coverage.
In my experience as a journalist and a publisher, there are, broadly speaking, two types of journalists and two types of publishers. Some journalists and publishers do not care what subject they write about or publish as long as the topic is “hot” or in demand. So long as there is money to be made. There is nothing wrong in this if they approach the subject responsibly and accurately. On the other hand, if they do not, and are just plugging the gap with poorly researched and inaccurately written articles or reports, then the public will suffer from their lack of professionalism.
On the other side, we have those journalists and publishers who are full of passion for their topic. Passion is good because it will mean that the journalists and publishers are driven and motivated. However, passion should also be clear-minded and not become evangelical or arrogant.
I always cringe when I hear the cliché “Life is too short to drink bad wine“. No one, of course, should have to drink bad wine, or sour soya bean milk for that matter. But, when people say that, it’s arrogance that is talking because these people usually don’t mean bad or off wines but cheap wines. Personally, I find tasting cheap wines very interesting because when the winemaker is good he or she can surprise and produce something special.
More than 100 people from around the world attended the inaugural ICCCW (International Congress on Chinese Cuisine and Wine) in Beijing. Why start the ICCCW, why hold this first session in Beijing, and what was involved in putting the event together?
I started the International Congress of Chinese Cuisine & Wine because I wanted to give the pairing of Chinese dishes with wine some kind of structure instead of just recommending “white wine with shellfish” or “red wines with red meats including roast goose” or “abalone is a white, not red, wine dish”, and so on.
I wanted to round up restaurateurs, sommeliers, hoteliers, wine distributors, and journalists, sit down with four types of dishes and 10 wines in front of us, and explore and analyse what characteristics of the wine and the food go with one another and which do not. ICCCW provides a platform where wine-pairing with Chinese and Asian cuisines becomes more formalised and investigative. Beijing as the choice for the first congress was easy because it is the capital of China and 2008 is an Olympic year. I wanted people to think of ICCCW as “the Olympics of Chinese cuisine and wine“.
As for what was involved in putting the event together, the new white hairs on my head say it all. But it was great fun. And the added attractions of the Chateau Margaux vertical tasting conducted by Winemaker Paul Pontallier and the Grange vertical by Penfolds Chief Winemaker Peter Gago were just fantastic. By the way ICCCW 2009 will take place in Singapore from 26 to 28 October.
[Note: For a copy of the ICCCW pairing guide, see this post.]
Pairing wine and Chinese food evokes a wide range of responses, from those who view it as an exciting challenge to those who consider it a near-futile endeavor. What’s your take on the situation?
As you know yourself, Chinese cuisine has several branches and, collectively, includes more dishes than there are days in a decade. You cannot, naturally, just plonk a bottle of white or red wine and expect it to go with every dish that will be served for dinner. But, if the French can drink a Chablis or white Bordeaux with their rotisserie or roast chicken, I don’t see why you cannot have those two wines with Cantonese roast chicken. Or red Burgundy, Chateauneuf-du-Pape or Medoc with Teochew braised goose or Zhongshan roast pigeon. Or a full-bodied California or Chilean Cabernet or South Australian Shiraz with Hakka Mei-chai pork (the Shanghainese do theirs too sweet). Champagne or a sparking Prosecco, for example, are great with deep-friend spring roll and scorpions. I also love Sichuan food: a medium-sweet German Riesling is irresistible with the mar-lak.
The challenge in pairing wine with Chinese cuisine is in arranging the numerous dishes around the wines. When I go to a restaurant, for example, I order the dishes with the Champagne (leftover from the aperitif) first; then those for the white wines and then the reds. As for dessert wines, I like treating the wine itself as the dessert. I also order two dishes at a time instead of letting the restaurant swarm the table with an ocean of plates.
China is an increasingly important player as a wine producer and consumer. What do you see as the three biggest factors affecting the growth of wine in China?
As a wine producer, at least as coastal and even inland China is concerned, one of the biggest challenges is obviously the weather. In August and September, the time when grapes in the northern hemisphere are going through the final stage of ripening, there’s too much precipitation whether in the form of monsoonal rain or typhoons. I remember visiting my first vineyard in Shandong 15 years ago and seeing the black grapes had not even completed veraison or the changing of colour at harvest time.
The other challenge involves authenticity. The authorities have to come together and enforce regulations that prohibit from being labeled as Chinese wine those wines that actually use imported bulk wine from Chile, Australia or what have you.
The final factor affecting growth is the high sales tax and duties. If they were lowered or abolished, as in the case of Hong Kong and Macau, wine consumption will grow even more. As far as consumption is concerned, Chinese people love food and drink. The literature is full of it. Friends drink when they meet; when they part; when they become sworn brothers; and, when they celebrate. The Tang poets – great opinion leaders – also loved wine. Even qin music composed during the Song Dynasty have references to wine. Of course, when the economy is not so good, we all make sacrifices and cut down on our expenditures. Wine is not a necessity and people will then tend to drink less. But even in such a situation, something good can come out of it because people will experiment with cheaper wines. In the process, they make discoveries. And people always like to boast about discoveries. Which then spreads the good news.
How did you get involved in wine and what are you drinking at the moment?
I started drinking wine in my pre-university days mainly because it was free. My father had then just discovered the pleasures of wine and we always had wine at home, in the fridge, and in the store-room. My father is a very generous man and he never minded me tasting or drinking his wine. Or taking them out to dinner with my friends.
At university, I was able to continue this lifestyle because I had quite a generous allowance which allowed me to buy wines and frequent restaurants. In fact, I started writing about wine for a newspaper when I was at university.
As with coffee and tea, I drink wine everyday. There’s always Champagne in the fridge. At this very moment there are rose, non-vintage, and vintage Champagnes. I keep wine in the domestic fridge and also have four wine fridges at home and another five wine fridges in the office. This means I have wines – white or red – that are ready to drink today, tomorrow and into the next 50 years (my daughter will inherit them).
I am also very lucky because as consultant to the biggest supermarket chain in Singapore, I get sent lots of wines that are very reasonably priced. Tasting inexpensive wines is much more demanding than tasting a great, expensive wine. This is the part of my job which I like very much because it helps me stay in touch with the consumer. And also because the wines are free. Just as when I first started drinking them.