Wine Workshop III: Taste, with Chinese characteristics

I attended seven lectures and tasted 14 local wines on August 9, the second day of the International Workshop on the Wine Market in China, held in Beijing. I’ll post notes all week.

Here’s a shocker: Chinese people drink wine to get drunk.

That statement might trigger eye rolls from more than a few people who see it as stating the obvious, but in a world where pairing wine and food gains growing popularity it can be easy to “miss the bunch for the grapes”, and this was a point made by wine educator and writer Frankie Zhao, who discussed the Chinese palate.

Zhao started by noting the diversity of Chinese cuisine, which tends toward salty in the north, spicy in the southwest, fresh and light in the southeast, and so on. “Chinese have a very delicate and complex palate,” he said, noting that at meals many dishes are simultaneously served and naturally balance one another, no help from wine needed.

Thus, wine is enjoyed not in terms of food but how quickly it gets into the bloodstream. As Zhao notes, “Chinese tend to drink voluminously and quickly.”

Zhao noted wine preferences among Chinese drinkers: beginners prefer sweet, the more experienced like tannic and some women prefer “sour”. Oak flavors are not easily detected by Chinese. He added that most drinkers prefer fruity wine, those who enjoy strong-flavored food like spicy ones, and only the experienced can detect earthiness in wine.

In terms of purchases, Zhao said the ratio of red to white wine is nine to one, only a few brands are influential (see Petrus and Lafite), and most consumers can only remember five brands (no surprise, they find Chinese names easier to remember). Finally, he noted the perceived health connection, especially among older buyers, with red wine.

To finish by returning to the start, what if you really want to pair wine and Chinese food? Zhao provided several ideas:

  • Pick a wine that pairs with the majority of dishes (hopefully 80 to 90 percent).
  • Have two or three wines with the dinner.
  • Rather than bring out all the dishes at once, stagger and match them to wine.

It sounds like a great deal of research is still needed on this topic and I’m sure volunteers will be easy to find.

Coming next: Wine Workshop IV—Cash, Carry and Cabernet in China (I’ll try to have this one out by Friday)

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