Samui Wining & Dining
One Day?

Will Asia ever be a wine-producing force to be reckoned with?


One Day?Do wine and Asia go together? I live here on Samui and I’m the first to admit that Asia is probably the world’s worst continent from a wine lover’s point of view. I understand it can never be the Mediterranean, California, South Australia, or even South America. But there are geographical areas in Asia that are right in the ‘sweet spot’ for wine growing. By this I mean the temperate zones that match the latitudes of southern Europe. Of course, there are many other factors that affect vine cultivation, such as terrain, soil fertility, altitude, sunlight hours and nighttime temperatures. But it can’t be overlooked that China in particular, is a huge country, with thousands of square miles of agricultural land sitting right inside this perfect zone.


History tells us that the lack of wine production and consumption in Asia is due to cultural beliefs. The Arab world renounced wine in the 8th century, on religious grounds in one of the clearest differences of faith with the teachings of miracle winemaker Jesus Christ. Hindu India’s traditions have been slightly more ambiguous on the subject of wine. Not least because of the 16th century Indian Mogul Court’s penchant for imported Persian Shiraz.


Today, Poona, in the Maharashtra Hills above Mumbai, produces sparkling wines, including the marvelously named Omar Khayyam and Pompadour, worthy of export to Europe. And somewhat surprisingly, as far south as Bangalore, Cabernet Sauvignon is happily growing in the Dodballapur Hills. Further east, scattered along the more fertile parts of the old Silk Road, seeping into China, vineyards flourish. Some go back into ancient times. Indeed, 2nd century farmers in China knew the grapevine very well. They called the grapes ‘dragon pearls’ and knew how to make wine from them. Which begs the question, why did wine not become part of everyday life there, as it has in every Western country where it successfully grows these days?


One argument, based on Chinese literature, concludes that it simply does not suit the Asiatic temperament. It clearly brings out the best in Western man, but for the Chinese (with the notable exception of Hong Kong), wine from grapes, with its complexities of flavours, and soothing, inspiring effects, has never ‘taken’. And perhaps there is an even simpler reason. Like most Asians, the Chinese eat strongly seasoned food hurriedly. They simply need something liquid, usually water, to wash it down with, plus a strong drink, like a rice spirit, to toast each course with. To all Asians, any alcohol should have fire to it.


This being said, there has been a substantial growth in the number of vineyards in Northern China in recent times. The district of Tsingtao in Shantung Province, just south of Beijing, is fast becoming a major wine region. Interestingly, there were vineyards in the colonial days of early last century and the century before. It’s believed the Germans planted the first one in Tsingtao, complete with vast cellars. This century, however, with the new mood openness and rush for modernity in China, state-of-the-art wineries are popping up all over the region. Hopefully, this is the thin end of a very wide Asian wedge.


However, the Asian wine business has had some painful teething problems. Most memorably, the high profile fake wine scandal, exposed a few years ago. And, unfortunately, continuing to be a thorn-in-the-side of the legitimate local wine producers and importers alike. Some cheap wine was found to include only a small percentage, or worst still, no fermented grape juice at all (just sugar, water and chemical flavourings). Equally bad, I’ve heard that in China, empty imported wine bottles have a premium second-hand value. They are shamelessly used for refilling with fake wine. And if of a famous-name Chateau, such as Petrus, Lafitte, Margaux or Mouton Rothschild, it can fetch up to US $200 a bottle! Provided, in a spectacular irony lost on the dealers, it’s genuine!


Another problem is the many wine drinkers coming back from China (and other Asian countries) reporting that any local wine they tried, especially the cheaper supermarket wines, are just plain dreadful. With plain dreadful and banally predictable names to match, no doubt, most wine lovers would prefer to be spared ‘The Great Wall’ and ‘Red Dragon’ brands. But don’t let these teething issues distract you. There is a very serious side to China’s wine production that should not be underestimated. Reflecting many other fields of industry, a modern savvy wine industry is about to emerge through all the turmoil. And, more than likely, it will take a complacent wine world completely by surprise. And to highlight this point, a Chinese winery was honoured with one of the highest awards at this year’s ‘Decanter Wine Awards’ in London, signaling the country’s burgeoning reputation as a wine-producing nation.


A 2009 Bordeaux-style blend called ‘Jia Bei Lan’ from the He Lan Qing Xue winery in Ningxia province won in the category of still red wines over £10. Judges described the wine as, “supple, graceful and ripe but not flashy,” and praised its length and tannins. The same winery won a silver medal for its 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon. And Domaine Helan Mountain winery, also from China, took home a silver medal for its ‘Classic Chardonnay 2008’, and a bronze medal for its ‘Premium Collection Riesling’. So the future looks very interesting.


Of course, the smaller Southeast Asian nations have yet to make an impact (and may never). Here in Thailand, there’s a very small wine industry, with just a handful of wineries producing some adequate wines. But they are struggling with unfavorable climatic conditions and lack of economies of scale. One of the most successful Thai wines is, in fact, imported South African grape juice merely fermented and bottled here. Competing, on price and quality, with some of the excellent Australian wines, is a difficult challenge for Thai winemakers, even with the exorbitant duty levied on all imported wine. But the good news, for the wine industry as a whole, is that there’s a definite trend amongst middle-class young Asians to drink it. Wine is fast becoming very fashionable here, because, along with international dining, it’s fresh and new, something that the previous generation knows little of. If I were a wine marketing person, my key target group would be this new generation of hip Asians.


Peter James

Wine Guru


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