Ezra Cipes
March 28, 2011 | China, March 2011, China, March 2011 | Ezra Cipes

China Travel-Blog Part 2

It seems that Chinese people do not drink very much white wine, and I have been told that they really don't like sparkling wine very much (except for the young people). I find this strange as white and sparkling wines, especially those with a little residual sweetness, pair much better with the often oily and spicy local cuisine than the tannic reds that are embraced here. But Chinese people prefer red over white by the largest margin, and I have been told it is to do with red wine's health giving properties.

In every wine store in Chengdu the shelves are dominated by France. Bordeaux Superiore and the top Chateuxs fill the shelves. There is a little Rioja, a decent selection of Australian reds, and a smattering of Californian, Italian, and German wines, but by and large, France owns this market. Strangely enough, there is virtually no Champagne. The good people of China are just beginning to appreciate wine, and France, especially Bordeaux, has done a marvellous job embedding itself as the top choice. France has a great story to tell filled with rich tradition and heritage, and they have told it well.

The other night, Li and I had dinner in a private dining room atop an upscale wine shop. There was a greater selection of labels in this store than any other I'd seen, with wines from all over Europe and the new world, but still none from Canada, and still only two labels of Champagne (a rose and a blanc de blanc). Leonard Cohen's 'Ten New Songs' played on repeat the whole evening, and a clerk personally attended to each customer. It was really a nice place. At the table with Li and me were a small group of well-to-do friends, including our host Yang Wei, who is the owner of Summerhill's distribution partner in China, and her old classmates, who are a lawyer and a realtor by trade respectively. I was charged with going downstairs to choose three bottles to have with dinner. I wanted to play it somewhat safe by choosing two reds, but mix it up with a white to start, and a sparkling white at that. They stocked a very elegant bottle of Moscato d'Asti, which in my books is a safe bet and always a crowd pleaser. For reds, I consciously avoided Bordeaux, but honoured old France, somewhat selfishly (I love Pinot Noir), with an AC Bourgogne. Third had to be new world, and I found what looked to be a very good bottle of California Zinfandel.

The food was magnificent and strange, and at times masochistically spiced. The Moscato d'Asti was a perfect match. It cut the heat of the mushroom and jellyfish soup, and refreshed the palate after the spicy eel and noodles. A large, ornate blue lobster was presented to the table just as the Asti, too soon, ended. (The lobster was later served raw on ice.) The Pinot Noir, as can happen, disappointed. It took us the rest of the meal to finish the bottle, and, bigger disappointment, we never had the chance to try the Zin.

I thought this all to be an interesting illustration of the state of wine culture in China. The thirst for knowledge and new experience is there, but so is an acceptance of the dominant wisdom (which can be summed up in three words: France, France, and France.) If I may generalize an entire culture, the Chinese people seem to have excellent palates. My table, quite rightly, identified the Pinot Noir as being too tart, with a somewhat bitter aftertaste. So much for the dominant wisdom (not to dismiss all French wines... I'm just sayin'.)

There is great potential for Canadian wine in China, especially icewine. But it will require some special effort. The Canadian industry needs to band together to tell our collective story. Our country is home to the largest icewine production on the planet, with strict standards and international awards to prove our icewine's superiority. To this end, officials from China and Canada have organized with a group of Chinese distribution companies specializing in Canadian wine to tell the story. It is going to take a constant string of tasting seminars and promotional events to reach the tipping point for Canadian icewine, and establish ourselves, as France has done with red wine, as the world's best at what we do. And we better do it quick! Already the market is saturated with 'Ice Wine' (note the space between the words) and 'Iced Wine', and an enterprising group is planting thousands of acres of vines brought from Ontario around a splended lake in a northern Chinese province, with their own, somewhat less strict set of standards, and with the goal of producing icewine cheaper than we can in Canada.

Now off to Beijing.


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