Brian Salter's Blogs:
In search of vintage paint stripper


Men are like fine wine, a female friend once told me. They all start out like grapes and women then like to stomp all over them and keep them in the dark until they mature into something they'd like to have dinner with.

When I used to live in Saudi Arabia, they always used to say that the test of a good wine was how much 7-Up you had to pour into it to make it remotely drinkable. Many was the time when these well-worn “jokes” were trotted out:

*You should get health insurance before you drink that stuff!
** Does it come in unleaded as well as leaded?
*** Does anyone realise that this stuff is meant to include grapes?

Now I am in China I have found the same piece of advice is entirely apposite. Frank Sinatra may well have felt sorry for people who don't drink. When they wake up in the morning that's as good as they're gonna feel all day. But obviously the great crooner never visited the Middle Kingdom.

The 14th International Food and Wine Festival is being held in Beijing’s Hilton Hotel next month. They say it is the most famous wine pageant in Beijing, though whether there are any others at all, I really couldn’t tell you.

But many “distinguished Chinese and overseas celebrities” are expected to attend as well as some 2000 exhibitors, some of which are famous international brands.

Now, this doesn’t surprise me in the slightest, for the Chinese domestic market for wine is projected to become the largest in the world in a few years, even though the current average annual per capita consumption of wine in China is only 0.35 litres. But this year alone, China's wine consumption is expected to reach 828 million litres as the country uncorks (or should that read unscrews) more than 1.2 billion bottles of wine every year.

In 2008, wine merchant Berry Brothers and Rudd predicted that within 50 years the quality of Chinese wine will rival that of Bordeaux. OMG – is that really the best we can hope for? Why can’t they set their sights a bit higher such as a good Oz or Kiwi wine?

But they say that while there is a small yet growing group of wine connoisseurs, the bulk of wine consumers in China are still in the "bling" phase, buying bottles to show off to their business partners or as an ostentatious present.

Traditional Chinese meals have always had one specific partner in crime – the ruthless take-no-prisoners “baiju” – a grain-based drink, which to my untrained palate tastes like a mixture of paint stripper, rocket propellant and lavatory cleaner.

But when it comes to real wine, it appears that among the different grapes, the Chinese tend to prefer Bordeaux to other wines because of its perceived value. It was the first western wine to enter the market here and as such consumers tend to play safe when ordering a bottle of foreign plonk.

At the moment, a few large wine companies, such as Changyu Pioneer, China Great Wall and Dynasty Wine dominate the market.

The largest wine producing region is Yantai-Penglai in Shandong province in the north east of China. (It is believed that Confucius drank the wines of this region, which all goes to prove he must have had the stomach of a horse.) With more than 140 wineries it is responsible for 40% of China's wine production. Unfortunately I couldn’t get any statistics on how much 7-Up they consume there.

Of all the wines served in China, 8% is imported bulk wine (used for blending purposes), 9% is bottled import, and 83% is locally produced. Eighty percent of wine sales are red wine.

The taxes and duties on most incoming bottles are around 50%. And in restaurants and bars that mark up is typically 200-350%, so it is no surprise that the locally produced stuff is favoured by the unsophisticated local market. Interestingly, wines from Chile and Argentina are exempt from import taxes, and it is a well-acknowledged fact that when you get a mass-produced plonk that is arguably actually drinkable, the chances are it has a good dollop of imported bulk wine from Chile or Argentina in it.

Like many people round the world, Chinese wine consumers often judge a wine by the label. Market research shows Chinese drinkers do not particularly like plain white labels, but tend to prefer red backgrounds with loads of gold, as the two colours are regarded as lucky, and therefore suitable for presenting as gifts.

I decide to try a bottle with a bold red and gold label:

and thank my lucky stars that I had the foresight to purchase a bottle of 7-Up at the same time. How to lose friends in one fell swoop, I think to myself, red and gold label not withstanding. OK. It only costs 11 yuan (just over a quid) and I later discover it is excellent poured over a gently simmering chicken-in-a-wok dish, but to imbibe it on its own is a disaster. I doubt that any Argentinean or Chilean bulk has come anywhere near this particular bottle.

I decide to splash out a little and fork out the princely sum of 18元, though with little in the way of expectations as there is over two litres in this bottle. I have to admit though that I am buying it more for the cookability of the wine than for knocking it back by the tankard.

I realise that at this rate I will be soon living on chicken-in-a-wok or coq-au-vin, though I suppose there are worse ways to live. As the Kempinski Hotel’s sommelier - Jean-Claude Terdjemane – is quoted as saying, “Wine, like people, should always have small imperfections. It's where the charm and character come from.”

I stress to myself that JCT does say “small imperfections” and accordingly now splash out an amazing 19 元 on another bottle – this one from Grand Dragon (plenty of gold on the bottle, but no red.)

This time I am able to swallow it all without adding any 7-Up whatsoever and without having to rush to the bathroom immediately afterwards. Things are obviously improving.

I turn back to the interview with JCT in Beijing Agenda magazine. “Have you discovered any notable vineyards in China?” he is asked. “Yes. Grace Vineyards from Shanxi. You can sit with a bottle in any of our restaurants for RMB220.” [Gulp! Thinks: I am only a factor of ten out!]
What about Great Wall wines?” the interviewer continues relentlessly.
“No comment!”

Many wine boffs over here believe part of the problem for would-be Chinese connoisseurs is that the language of wine is western. They are faced with obscure words referring to unknown tastes (see how challenged you are if you go looking for liquorice or blackcurrants in a local shop!). As author Jeannie Cho Lee says: “Nobody has ever used things like Chinese chives or red dates, persimmons, or any of these more local ingredients to describe wine.”

To try to plug this gap, you can nowadays go online to watch a series of programmes in Putonghua called Wine Connoisseur. It’s already in its second season and has been produced by ASC Fine Wines, China’s biggest wine importer.

Each episode features a conversation between Zorro – representing one of the uneducated Chinese masses at the bar who would like to know more about wine – and Martin Hao – a wine expert. (This is beginning to have throw backs for me to those famous Pete & Dud sketches in Not Only... But Also from the 1960s!)

Topics range from the basics, like recognizing the difference between white and red, or dry and sweet wines, to more challenging matters, like pairing Chinese food with wine.

Not that you need Zorro & Hao sketches to learn about the etiquette of wine drinking – as I found out on my visit to Chateau Laffitte some 10 days ago.

The wine tasting starts form at the table and ends in the mouth,” we are told. “First, raise the glass and watch the liquid. Second, come closer to the glass and sniff in the fragrance coming out the wine. Third, and also most importantly, let your lips touch the glass rim and drink up the wine. At the same time, experience the tasting period.” Sound advice to be sure!

“At the very end of the process, you would come to a conclusion of the impressions acquired in the above stets. To conclude is to summarize your feelings and emotions to make assessment of this wine.

“At last, it is worthy of mentioning that tasting the wine while standing will obey no rules of perfect order yet still with a lot of fun.”

We are advised that there are three stages of smelling:

“Smell as it set still: Let the glass remained still after or before rotating it. You can let it on the table or raise it into the air, then rotate it in different directions. Then set it still to let the delicate scent of micro-molecules come out, especially for those young wines.

Smell after rotation: The fragrance traced in this stage, either delicate or rough, will be so strong as to fill the whole glass. Yet for the young wine, it seems harder to be woken up. Therefore it’s a bit early to draw a conclusion.

Smell after shaking: Either it is too dumb, closed, or ill smelled, you can confirm your impression by shaking the glass with your hands covering the mouth to prevent liquid from spitting out.

Only 35cl of wine will be poured into your glass when tasting the really expensive ones. Maybe you find it minimal, yet as a matter of fact there is no need to drink a lot of it. This tiny amount will suffice in 6-8 times tasting. However, if taken too little, your tongue won’t be stimulated enough.

After drinking it into the mouth, the wine will be diluted by saliva, and the only taste you identify may be the worst part of roughness, bitterness, acid, the taste of tannin or alcohol, rather than the flavour of fruits. If you’re drinking too much each time, apart from the awkward looking, there won’t either be enough saliva in your mouth to deal with the quantity you take in.

After taking the liquid into your mouth, let the tongue stir it in a low speed to make the liquid fully touch the inner side of your mouth and the very back of your tongue. After chewing a bit, swallow down a tiny amount.

(Ah – that’s obviously where I missed out on my Chateau Plonk. I forgot to chew!)

Spitting should be taken in a resolute way otherwise there will be an awkward moment of lingering saliva. Purse up your mouth to stiffen the muscles a bit and then spit them out like a compressor.If you can’t make it perfect, then let practice do the job. And only in that way will you spit the liquid precisely.

Ah. Now I understand why the Chinese are such great spitters. Everywhere you go in China you hear that gurgle in the back of the throat which sounds like a simmering volcano, followed by a loud ptchawahh sound. So all they are doing is practising their wine etiquette! You see – there is always a perfectly rational explanation for the vilest of human behavioural patterns, just so long as you keep an open mind!

By the way… Did you hear about the new blend of pinot blanc, pinot noir, and pinot grigio that acts a bit like a diuretic? It's called pinot more. (I heard that on the grapevine, BTW.)