I spent a week in February 2019 on a four-city tour with the Ningxia winery association. Ningxia, like Gansu and Xinjiang have been the fastest growing domestic wine regions quickly coming on to the world stage within twenty short year. It is no surprise that the variety that is most widely planted is Cabernet Sauvignon, although Merlot, Cabernet Gernischt and a little bit of Cabernet Franc can be found. White grape varieties continue to play a minor role although wineries like Chandon, making very good sparkling wine from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and Kanaan making lovely aromatic Riesling proves white wines from China can also be delicious.
For over twenty years, people have been asking me this question: Why do Asians prefer red wine versus white wines? This is not just in China, but also in Korea and India. Looking at the circumstances in which wine became popular and also given our dining culture, one can make a few deductions. One of the key factors that popularised wine in the mid 1990s was the connection between red wine and health. In our dining culture, it is no secret that nearly all the most sought-after and expensive ingredients have purported health benefits. The concept of consuming food like medicine with each ingredient possessing yin and yang properties that have cooling and healing effects are centuries old and well documented.
Why are we willing to pay several hundred dollars to well over a thousand dollars per portion to eat bird’s nest, shark’s fin or sea cucumber if not for their health-enhancing benefits? Along the way, I admit, I have acquired a liking for the velvety, gelatinous texture of sea cucumber and the soft crinkly texture of bird’s nest. Without ever researching or looking for concrete medical evidence, I have accepted and happily consumed these delicacies – bird’s nest for my skin and general health and sea cucumber as immunity against ailments that emerge during cold weather.
From as far back as I can remember, every few years I was given a concoction of Chinese herbs –bitter, dark, muddy coloured brew to drink three times a day for two weeks to keep my health in check. This was courtesy of my mother who purchased the ingredients from Korean medicine doctors who no doubt made a fortune on formulating the most foul-tasting herbal brews.
All Korean, Chinese and Japanese mothers from my mother’s generation emphasised health-enhancing properties of food and we were brought up to appreciate it, making it a subconscious, sometimes conscious part of our psyche. Our tolerance for tannins are obvious – in our unadulterated teas we consume throughout the day (now being replaced by coffee) and our penchant for bitter root vegetables like ginseng and familiarity with strong herbal medicines.
The tannins in red wines, especially young red Bordeaux, are not out of line with the flavours we grew up with. Red wines also enjoy the fundamental cultural preference in our culture for room temperature or warm beverages versus cold/chilled beverages (white and sparkling wine). In addition, with Bordeaux reds positioned as the premium, trendy lifestyle alcoholic beverage of choice, it is now the de facto choice at weddings, special occasions, business banquets and dinners at most fine dining venues. It helps too that the colour is red.
The flavours of full bodied red Bordeaux sits comfortably alongside all types of regional Chinese cuisines because we enjoy our food and eat in a unique way: Instead of repeating flavours as is the case for most western meals, we roam with our chopsticks, changing each flavour combination in each bite we take. Who eats rice and chicken for the entire meal? Where are the vegetables, the fish, other seafood and soup to balance it all out? Wine is not something we sip with each, or even every other, mouthful. We reach for it when it occurs to us that with a particular combination of rice, beef and vegetables, the Cabernet Sauvignon might taste good right now. It doesn’t need to be sublime with every dish or every mouthful.
Tannins work in another way – they prolong the heat of chilis. For those not used to the heat of Sichuan peppercorn or Korean chili paste, the tannins in red Bordeaux can exaggerate the burn. However, this is precisely what spice-lovers enjoy — prolonging the heat and spiciness of chilis, not wiping away the flavours with a jarring sweet wine.
Yes, there are other factors why red Bordeaux is popular, including the ‘face’ culture of showing respect and ordering a ‘wine label’ as a gesture and acknowledgement of their importance to the relationship. This is not limited to wine but has always existed in our food culture — high grade abalone can cost over 800 RMB for a small single serving. Ordering expensive red Bordeaux is not always about ‘showing off’ or a display of conspicuous consumption (although it can be at times); more often than not, it is a gesture of respect, sending a clear message to the recipient, often the guest, that says, “This is how important you are to me and it is my pleasure to treat you to the best and most expensive food and wine.”
While those in Europe or America may snicker at our ‘gauche behaviour’ and ‘unsuitable matches’ with food, we are perfectly happy with full-bodied reds adorning our dining tables. Personally, I would rather have a red Bordeaux, preferably with some bottle age, with a Cantonese seafood meal than a lightly sweet, powerfully aromatic Gewurztraminer suggested by western food and wine experts. The sweetness in the Gewurztraminer would wipe away all nuances from a delicate umami-filled dish and insult the chef at the same time while its strong flavours would dominate every dish, sprinkling it with a sweet lychee, rose petal note to everything on the table.
We are coming to wine from a different angle, with our unique baggage of eating habits and flavour preferences. What is important to understand is that enjoying red wine, with its health enhancing properties, auspicious colour, firm tannins and flavour profile, does make sense for us; and for the near term, reds will continue to dominate the Asian wine market.
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