Thursday, June 14, 2018

CHINA


China it is one of the oldest wine-producing countries on the planet. However, wine has not been an important aspect of Chinese culture until very recently. Already within the first two decades of the new century, China has become not only a major producer but also a major consumer of wine. Within the next decade, China could prove itself one of the leading players in the world of wine.

Although grape wine has been consumed in China for at least 4,600 years, a stronger version containing up to 20 percent alcohol, called Huangjiu, or “yellow-wine,” made from fermented rice and cereals, has always been more popular. Additionally, the Chinese have always consumed a distilled version called Baijiu, which has a 40-60 percent alcohol content. Alcohol in China is typically consumed in the form of toasts, drunk in small shot glasses and tossed to the back of the throat—the complete opposite of everything described in Chapter One of my book.

Modern Vitis vinifera grapes were probably first introduced by the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great in the third century BC, and planted in the extreme west of China in what is today’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Marco Polo referred to the local wines when he passed through this area in the thirteenth century. This Uighur populated province (ironically the most Islamic part of China) is still the major wine-producing region in the nation, even though it clings to the edge of the Gobi Desert. One of the vineyards covers twenty-five thousand acres at 262 feet below sea level!

Following Deng Xiaoping’s Economic Reforms in the early 1980s, agricultural land was de-collectivized, private entrepreneurs were permitted to develop vineyards, and foreign investment was encouraged. At the same time, a growing middle class was becoming exposed to the outside world, traveling to Europe and bringing back knowledge about foreign cultures—including wine.

The French brandy house, Remy Martin/Cointreau, established a joint venture in 1980 which eventually became Dynasty Wines, producing over one hundred types of wine products in China. Initially, Chinese wines were limited to the export market, but with the growing wealth of the domestic market in the twenty-firstt century and a fast evolving appreciation for wine, 90 percent of Chinese wine is now consumed domestically. While the disposable income of the growing middle class accounts for the consumption of home-grown Chinese wine, it is only the extreme wealth of the Chinese billionaire class that can account for an obsessive consumption of French, especially Bordeaux, wines. The Chinese love of Bordeaux wine is delightfully explored in the 2013 movie Red Obsession.

Although most Chinese wine comes from the Xinjiang Autonomous Region on the border with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, a new northern area, Ningxia Province, also bordering the Gobi Desert, is rapidly becoming the center of China’s fine-wine industry. With 160,000 acres of vineyards planned by 2020, Ningxia will be three times the size of Napa. The French luxury goods giant LVMH has recently invested $28 million in a state-of-the-art winery called Chandon. An international competition named "Bordeaux Against Ningxia" was held in Beijing in December 2011, when experts from China and France tasted five wines from each region. Ningxia was the clear winner, with four out of five of the top wines. The best wine in the whole competition was the 2009 Chairman's Reserve, a Cabernet Sauvignon which even Robert Parker rated as “not bad.” It is unclear whether the name referred to Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book.

Another rapidly expanding wine-growing area is Shandong Province on the coast of the Yellow Sea, which, with 140 wineries, already produces 40 percent of Chinese wine. The latest company to invest in Shandong is Bordeaux’s Domains Barons de Rothschild, which harvested its third vintage in 2015. Based on Rothschild’s previous successes in California and Chile, Shandong Province is a region to keep an eye on.

In just the past decade, China has become one of the world’s top ten wine markets, and is actually the largest consumer of red wine in the world, as well as being the sixth largest producer of wine. Between 2006 and 2015, China’s wine consumption grew by 54 percent. According to Sotheby’s, it is no longer London or New York but Hong Kong which is now the world’s largest market for fine wines at auction. Furthermore, China is one of the world’s biggest consumers of Bordeaux’s Premier Cru wines, and has had a significant effect on the price structure. Chinese billionaires have long had a predilection for Château Lafite (like the English aristocracy before them), followed by Château Latour, Château Mouton-Rothschild, Château Margaux and finally by Château Haut-Brion. This preference for Lafite has had the unfortunate consequence of making Lafite the most popular target of international wine-fraud, resulting in a number of recent scandals and uncertainty in the Chinese market. There is a growing tendency among Chinese billionaires, therefore, to focus on the previously overlooked Château Haut-Brion wines (Jefferson’s favorite), because its unique bottle shape makes it more difficult for criminals to reproduce.

But despite China’s seeming integration into the international wine market, it retains certain Chinese idiosyncrasies. For example, the reason that Chinese are almost exclusively red wine drinkers has less to do with their appreciation of tannins and more to do with red being a lucky color traditionally associated with good fortune and good health. The Chinese still serve wine in small, shot-sized wine glasses, and, although it is a sign of progress that wine is replacing strong baijiu spirits at business banquets, it means that when that priceless 1959 Château Lafite is being poured, all the guests can toss it back in a hearty group toast without even needing to taste it.



Saturday, May 12, 2018

Books and Wine


Under the careful supervision of my father, I began drinking wine with meals at the age of five. Although mixed with water, it was unmistakably wine and we would discuss the taste and bouquet while my father would explain where and how it was made. At the same age, with the warm encouragement of my mother, I began a lifelong love affair with books.

My earliest memories involve Christopher Robin, with Pooh and Tigger and then Rat and Mole from the Wind in the Willows. Weekends were spent lying on the floor in the local library, lost in the worlds of Kipling and Dickens and, above all, my beloved John Buchan. Another early memory concerns Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and asking my mother to explain, ''But did thee feel the earth move?''

Shakespeare, of course, became an early love of mine, and I still thrill to hear Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV , Part 2 boldly proclaiming the joys and wonders of a glass, or two, of Sherry. Likewise, in Richard III, I still feel a chill when the two murderers arrive at the Tower of London with orders to drown the Duke of Clarence in a barrel of wine. When the unsuspecting Duke asks the men for a glass of wine, the second murderer calms him with a reassuring, “You shall have wine enough my lord, anon.”

And it is not just the English who associate wine with books. The twelfth century Persian poet, Omar Kayan, famously wrote:
                A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
                A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
                Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
                Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Indeed, as the writer Julian Street famously argued in his posthumous book, Table Topics: "Blot out every book in which wine is praised and you blot out the world’s great literature, from the Bible and Shakespeare to the latest best-seller. Blot out the wine-drinkers of the world and you blot out history, including saints, philosophers, statesmen, soldiers, scientists, and artists."

But of course it is the French, with their unparalleled tradition of winemaking and their glorious history of great writing which, since Rabelais, has always combined that love of books with the mastery of the grape. This combination was enough for me to leave England at an early age and move into the French countryside of southwest France where my wife and I spent the next few years raising children, drinking Bordeaux wines, and immersing ourselves in every writer from Balzac and Flaubert to Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

Ironically, my favorite French writer preferred beer to wine and would even phone the Ritz hotel at any hour of the day or night to order a cold bottle to be delivered to his apartment. Nonetheless, Marcel Proust still wrote a wonderful description of his young hero drinking seven or eight glasses of Port wine to give himself courage to invite a young lady for an amorous assignation. By the time he had drunk enough to make his proposal, the young lady declined. Possibly because he had consumed too much Port wine, or because she had not consumed any.

If Marcel Proust was a wine, I think he would be a Gewurztraminer from Alsace. Despite the wine’s underlying acidity, its sharpness and acuity is hidden behind a rich, floral bouquet that charms with a mellifluous harmony that simply overwhelms the senses. In the same way, Proust, the writer, hides his sharp and extremely comic insights into human nature behind a screen of poetically seductive images. The first taste from a glass of Gewurztraminer or a random passage read from In Search of Lost Time leaves us standing alone in ecstasy, inhaling through the rain, the lingering scent of invisible lilacs.

Over the years, as I have become more familiar with my favorite authors and have become better acquainted with a wide selection of different grapes, I often find myself pairing wines with writers. In Chapter Six – Varietals, I have therefore described several different grapes in terms of novelists who share similar characteristics with the wine. A literary wine pairing.

Sixty-five years after my first glass, I have become ever more set in my ways, and now I am never happier than with a glass of wine in one hand and a good book in the other.