Food and wine pairing in Europe is seen as having both sociological and gastronomic relevance. Wine becomes something noble, on a higher level than a mere alcoholic drink and is also a promotional tool for our wines in new markets.
The US is proof that this strategy works, moving from Prohibition and junk food to becoming the world’s top consumer of wine in terms of value and to competing with Europeans in quality restaurants.
But the main focus for European producers is undoubtedly China. Since Beijing’s decision at the end of last century to sideline bai-ju, the liquor of choice among the population, in favor of new vineyards and wineries, wine consumption has become a symbol of prestige and a matter of great economic importance. Around 300 million Chinese can afford to buy wine, but that figure keeps increasing —last year the country became the world’s top consumer of red wines.
Food is as important in China as in Mediterranean countries. Eating is the quintessentially social event with an extraordinary variety and quality of dishes. A large number of respected sommeliers have led tastings in China, showing locals the ability of Sauternes, Rioja, Chianti or German Riesling to match many Chinese dishes.
Such efforts have not reaped the same benefits seen in other parts of the world. Many professionals conclude that the Chinese lack wine culture, but saying that a country with deeply-rooted culinary traditions has no culture is a rather bold statement. Maybe it should be down to us to find out more about the Chinese’s eating and drinking habits to discover if wine can fit in well. Thanks to genius chefs like the Roca brothers and David Muñoz we begin to understand that wine can be enjoyed in diverse forms without losing its greatness.
I regularly travel to China on business trips so I get to eat with locals. There is not a scientific basis behind my next statement, but in the past three years I have come to the conclusion that the traditional way of matching wine with Chinese makes no sense at all.
My position is based on three reasons. Firstly, wine has partially replaced bai-ju but its consumption context remains unchanged. In China, as in most parts of the world, wine is not considered food but an object of celebration. As such, wine is not drunk; instead it is shared with a toast: Ganbei! Entwined around social life, wine and other alcoholic drinks are a tool of conviviality and exchange —much more important than in western countries.
In Europe glasses are filled to wish each other bon appétit or good health to carry on drinking individually during a meal. In China bringing a glass close to one’s lips without a previous toast is seen as bad mannered. At receptions, custom dictates that diners must stand up and toast with other guests according to a social protocol. Each sip is imperatively preceded by Ganbei and some polite talk.
To make it a little harder, failing to drink the contents of the glass is frowned upon. And there is a toast etiquette. As a sign of respect (unless one is in charge), a guest’s glass should appear to be below the host’s. Those large glasses so fashionable in Europe are rather dangerous for such endeavours in China —hence the reason behind the small servings in man-ageable glasses. Tea is the drink to quench one’s thirst.
Secondly, good manners do not contemplate keeping anything in one’s mouth beyond what is strictly necessary to swallow. Anyone gurgling with gusto and ostentatiously retaining wine in the mouth with theatrical intensity is seen by westerners as someone who knows (or shows he/she knows). A Chinese person would see that as rude behaviour.
Chinese education is somewhat permissive with what goes on outside the mouth —spitting is accepted if chewing proves hard work— but it is strict with regards to the inside of the mouth. Quick circulation is key: wine is therefore tasted differently. Many Chinese feel bemused at the westerners’ attempts to get them to imitate such performance.
Additionally, western cuisine is built upon succession, while Chinese dishes are simultaneous. Let me explain. In Europe and North America, we have been taught to eat one dish after the other, and to search for the intrinsic quality and harmony of each plate. Wine is paired to heighten or be heightened with a dish. For the following course, the story begins anew with a tenuous line between each dish.
A great number of dishes is served simultaneously in Chinese cuisine. Guests help themselves from large communal plates on the centre of the table or gyrating platforms, which reveals once again, the sharing principle of Chinese cuisine. Diners are expected to try every dish.
Eating turns into a beautiful game of contrasts between flavors and tex-tures, powerful and frequently antagonistic, from savoury to sweet; from spicy to greasy. Westerners enjoy having a second helping of the nicest dish; Chinese derive pleasure from confronting totally different foods. A key difference stems from this: unless neutrality is looked for, matching one wine with 20 dishes is absurd.
China is therefore a country with great culinary culture but it is unadapted to the western concept of pairing. So how is wine consumed?
There are several ways. The most common is seeing wine as an element of prestige: appearances do matter. This is the natural market for the greatest Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, prestigious brands from Spain and other countries and, in a different context, attractively packaged reds. Social context is more important than quality. They way to tap into this market is luxury marketing.
The second, also widely practiced, is the use of wine as an alternative or as a complement to bai-ju in order to toast with a small glass. This manner applies to most of the wine consumed in China. There is a possibility to introduce quality, but it is important to keep fast-drinking local habits in mind.
A third possibility, albeit mostly unexplored and with obvious economic limits, is to treat the wine as if it were another dish, in a similar fashion to today’s greatest modern restaurants. All the wines would be served at the same time and any of them could be used for toasts (in fact, protocol does not state that the same drink must be used all the time). These wines would have singular aromas and texture, such as Rueda, white Garnacha from Catalonia, young Rioja wines, fresh Bobal wines of young Mencía could be enjoyed as a dish on its own.
There’s an increasing number of people —particularly in the sprawling cities on China’s East— who drink wine in a western manner, including pairings, but I don’t see this type of consumption becoming mainstream. In fact, in countries where wine consumption is rising, this increase is based on new models, not necessarily following the French pairing pattern.
The overwhelming dominance of French wines among imported wines de-rives from the first prestige-based model. Wine drinkers following the sec-ond model fail to adapt well to the relatively high acidity of Bordeaux and Burgundy as well as the hard tannins found in Bordeaux. For palates which appreciate textures, such as the Chinese, wines with low acidity and soft tannins seem more appropriate —I have noted a certain preference for French Midi wines when the origin is not known. Spanish Garnacha and Monastrell, even young Tempranillos with little oak, are good candidates to cover this segment.
But there are further possibilities. It is said that Champagne is not successful in China, that locals do not enjoy bubbles but that is not true. People were unfamiliar with this type of wines and their high price was a considerable barrier (specially taking into account the huge margins importers and distributors work with in China). But Cava arrived and conquered the market.
Although starting from a small base, imports in 2014 increased considerably, but Cava’s potential to sell quality at reasonable prices is unbeatable. Champagne is getting ready to fight back —Moët Chandon has already set up an impressive winery to make traditional method sparkling wines in Ningxia. Get ready for another commercial battle between Cava and Champagne in China.
In my opinion, the wine with a unique potential in China is sherry. Most of them are served on small glasses, have a smooth texture and require a slow pass through the mouth to express themselves, because the best thing is their finish. A sip of manzanilla has the perfect amount of alcohol for a toast and is enjoyable for a second toast.
A good Amontillado has greater freshness and vinous character compared to bai-ju, without the high alcohol of spirits but with a similar complexity to the older ones. Sherry is the only fortified wine to be dry, something very important to take into account in the Chinese market, which dislikes sugar when it is evident. And if you want to dine with wine, what’s best than a good Fino Pasado?
Sherry also marries well with social prestige. Those vintage Palo Cortado, those old age soleras and the history of Sherry must be magical when told to a Chinese audience.
Many say that white wine in China is unsellable because locals only drink red out of superstition and the link between red wine and health. Nothing further from the truth. The Chinese market has developed, like many others, on red wine but it is open to other styles like Cava. I don’t think colour is a great barrier —colour palettes for both bai-ju and tea are similar to those for Sherry.
To conclude, a good wine in China will be successful if it adapts to the country’s drinking habits, not if it follows western practices. Many Spanish wines —those coming from warmer climates which lower acidity and soften textures— have a great future in China. I am optimistic about Cava’s and dry Sherry’s success in this market, provided that investments are wisely carried out. Considerable marketing efforts are needed in order to build prestige —if prestige fails, taste does not matter.