“Chinese wine tastes like dead mouse”
Peter Farrow, narrator
Bonfire of the Vanities, by Thomas Wolfe
It has been said that brevity is the soul of wit, so whoever observed that “a hang-over is the wrath of grapes” was very witty indeed; and likely very familiar with the Chinese. It seems that 50% of Chinese have a genetic mutation that impedes their ability to metabolize alcohol. In its mildest form they suffer the “Asian Glow”, and in its severest form they suffer epic debilitating hang-overs. While that would be a miserable affliction for a Vogel, at least it’s the ultimate excuse for an extended morning in bed. Surely no boss can chastise an employee with a genetic malady!
Despite this genetic curse the Chinese have a long history of alcohol consumption as a part of their dietary and ceremonial lives. Indeed, two of the oldest dynastic regimes ended with similar tales of alcoholic excess. The 17th and last ruler of the Xia dynasty, Jie (1600 BC), was said to have ordered the construction of a pool of wine that was big enough to float a boat; and the last ruler of the subsequent Shang Dynasty, Di Xin, also followed the suspect counsel of his mistress and built a similar pool of plonk. Di Xin’s final act of excess brought about the end of the Xin and advent of the Zhou dynasty. Clearly, Oscar Wilde’s famous quip, “everything in moderation, including moderation”, came much too late for naughty Emperors Jie and Di Xin.
Although less prevalent than the traditional grain-based liquors, pinyin or grape wine, included in classical Chinese poems of the Han dynasty, has transitioned from Imperial privilege to bourgeois staple. Yes, bad wine has existed in China for millennia but it has become a current national ambition to produce world-class vintages. For the first time ever, in September 2011, at the Decanter World Wine Awards a Chinese wine took one of the top prizes. The He Lan Qing Xue Winery’s Jia Bei Lan 2009 Cabernet blend won the Red Bordeaux Varietal Over 10 pounds International Trophy. This is a pretty significant achievement as there are only 25 trophies given and over 12,000 wines judged.
UK-based Waitrose offers Chinese wine in its international wine section. Esteemed purveyor of fine wines, Berry Brothers and Rudd, has predicted by 2058 Chinese wine will be as good as that of Bordeaux. China produces more wine than Chile and more grapes are being planted every year. Experts from the around the world advise Chinese vineyards on planting, harvesting and producing wines.
The price of wine has sky-rocketed largely asa result of the huge demand from cash-rich Asian consumers. Many a French traditionalist is up in arms over the purchase last summer of Chateau de Gevery-Chambertin and its two-hectare vineyard by a Chinese casino owner. Napoleon will be spinning in his grave to see this happen to his favorite red wine. This marked the first Burgundy chateau to be purchased by the Chinese. They also own 20 in Bordeaux. China is the biggest importer of Bordeaux wine.
It may soothe the egos of westerners to mock the Chinese as interlopers and carpet-baggers who scarcely understand the value of their latest acquisitions, but frivolous consumption is part of every economic evolution. The Arabs used their petrol-dollars to buy fleets of luxury cars and stables of race horses, while the Russian kleptocracy scooped up most of the Cote D’Azur. Even the daughters of American rail barons married into faded British nobility in the hope of brushing off their dusty heritage and acquiring class. Alas, it didn’t work.
Urban myth has Coke being added to red wine and Sprite to white and the Chinese, with their inexperienced palates, supposedly prefer it to the original. Diluting wine is nothing new and a spritz of soda isn’t as distressing as the Italian preference for anti-freeze as a wine additive. It is a big business and big bucks are involved, so it comes as no surprise to hear that 10,000 bottles of fake Chateau Lafite were found in an abandoned house in remote Wenzhou. The police are justifiably convinced the bottles are fakes since only 50,000 bottles of the real thing come into China each year.
Our time in China has not been wasted on Hunter since, evidently, he has acquired a measure of Chinese entrepreneurialism. When he read the two factoids that (i) Christies auction house smashes all their empty bottles after wine tastings to ensure they are not refilled and (ii) a Chinese recycler was paying as much as $320 for an empty bottle of great vintage Lafite, his mental light bulb was aglow. Hunter proposed selling our many empty bottles on taobao.com, the Chinese eBay.
Though I applauded the ingenuity I put the kibosh on the idea. Not because of some higher moral standing but, rather, from the fact that I don’t want my husband inadvertently serving counterfeit Romanee-Conti at some future dinner party. The horror! I’d much rather be outed for my knock-off Louboutins….not that I have any. Mine are original, I swear.
Counterfeiting is merely an early step in an economic process that invariably positions real and competitive Chinese products into the international markets. China has terroir and climate of every combination so, when coupled with the import of foreign technology and talent, a legitimate wine industry will emerge….even if it takes to 2058. Apparently even wine self-sufficiency is part of the Chinese master plan.
P.S. I look forward to a dinner party where we serve Jia Bei Lan 2009 Cabernet; if only we could get our hands on some. Hmmm, that sounds like a challenge! Maybe some braised Mongolian beef short-ribs with Great Wall Cabernet 1998, a wine described by the WSJ as “full bodied, tannic but with a lot of fruit—that could hold its own with Cabernets from other countries.” All that and a bargain at $80 a bottle.