2018 has been a breakthrough year for me as a wine writer. I have secured a publishing deal with Ebury Press, the leading British non-fiction imprint belonging to the Penguin Randomhouse Group. Then in December, I became a member of the Circle of Wine Writers , ‘the world’s leading international association of authors, writers, journalists, bloggers, broadcasters, photographers and lecturers, communicating about wines and spirits.’
So as we ring in the new year, let me tell you more about this book project that I’ve been working on since 2012, initially as a sideline hobby which helped me to relax from my day job as an energy trader, but since 2015 has become a mission/obsession to see it published. Because through this process I realised that I have a topic that is worth shouting about and is worthy of an international audience. Consider, how can a culture so rich in its cuisine not have an equally impressive wine culture to match? It is simply that this wine culture has not been sufficiently told to an international audience. Below contents are adapted from the preface of my book.
I have always been interested in Chinese history and poetry (thanks to an extra-curricular regime from a ‘tiger mother’ since my early years). As I recall from the poems I stuffed into my memory bank as a child, wine was a very popular theme. Wine, it seemed, was something wondrous, and wielded great powers over humanity – it could somehow induce elation and joy; it could offer comfort and solace; it could kindle love and friendship; or destroy lives and dynasties.
During my time at the University of Cambridge I had my first encounters with fine wine at dinners, complete with gowns and college clarets, that featured frequently in the social calendar. After graduation, a happy side-effect of my career as a commodities trader, dealing mostly with French, Italian and Spanish counterparts, was the opportunity to taste many exquisite wines. It seemed all along that I was destined to fall in love with wine. My fate was sealed after a visit to Bordeaux, where I was smitten by the picturesque vineyards and fairy-tale châteaux, the delights of great food and delicious wine enjoyed with friends, immersed in nature’s inimitable beauty. Here was this wonderful twist in my story: my innate appreciation of wine, which stemmed from an interest in Chinese classics, was made real and vivid by my experience of Western wines. For me, the Chinese poems could have waxed lyrical about l’art de vivre of claret just as much as the bottle of Chinese traditional ‘Old Well Tribute’ wine my parents sealed away at my birth. The emotive language of wine transcends space and time.
I began to talk to winemakers, merchants and marketers about the Chinese wine market and they painted an intriguing picture. On the one hand, there were anecdotes about herd buying of trophy brands and speculation to make a quick fortune, of indifference to the wine and its heritage, even horror stories about people mixing prized vintages with Coca-Cola. On the other hand, there was admiration of how readily the Chinese can take on new knowledge, and their quick appreciation of nuanced wine concepts such as tannins, balance, structure and terroir. More remarkably, China is now one of the biggest producers of grape wine in the world and winning international accolades on a regular basis.
The wine trade has recognized China’s importance, both as producer and as consumer, for the future of the global wine industry because of its sheer size, its increasing wealth and its newfound fervour for wine (China’s grape wine market is worth around $18 billion a year. It produces over one billion litres annually). Engaging the Chinese in a cultural exchange about wine is therefore high on the Western wine industry’s agenda. The increasing presence of Chinese wine lovers in the international arena has started new conversations. In tasting rooms and wine cellars around the globe, people are beginning to talk about new grape varieties, new tastes and drawing new comparisons, such as ‘I learned about a furry local grape variety that’s indigenous to Guangxi province and could enhance a blend in acidity and colour’ or ‘I smell the aroma of loquat in Sauternes and it takes me back to my childhood in Hong Kong.’ As wines from China are beginning to spread to Western shores, wine lovers around the world will soon be exploring new flavours while expanding their cultural horizons.
Around the harvest time of the 2011 vintage I began to harbour the idea of writing a book about Chinese wine culture, harnessing my experience and understanding of East and West. By this point, I’d had experience of consulting business owners and wine merchants about doing business in China, and talking to them about Chinese wine culture. I had also explored the viability of electronic wine trading platforms and of commoditising wine trading and settlement with several entrepreneurs and investors, with a view to tracking provenance and tackling the fake wine epidemic in China. Through my research and interaction with the wine industry over the years, I was convinced that the wines of China would experience a genuine renaissance, this time with a globalized flavour. The Chinese have earned a reputation for acquiring breadth and depth of wine knowledge quickly and intuitively, because their cultural DNA underpins such abilities: as the book will show you, wine is an old and familiar friend to the Chinese – they have been making grape wines since the days of the Silk Road.
As wine lovers know, discussions of world history, culture, arts and customs among people from different backgrounds become stimulating and bring people closer with a glass of wine in hand. By looking at China through a wine glass, I hope the book offers a wide perspective that encompasses China’s past in order to understand its present and look to the future.
Part I, by way of an aperitif, will introduce you to China’s wine industry, its major wine-producing regions and the evolution of grape wine among the various types of alcoholic beverage that make up China’s wide repertoire. Part II is a mixed case in which we look at enduring wine themes in the context of China and explore the distinctive fusion of cultures in wine and beyond. Part III is a vertical tasting of the dynastic history of China, illustrating the evolution of wine alongside the evolution of a civilisation.
Some of my friends say, ‘but I don’t know anything about wine’, or ‘I don’t even drink wine’. This book is not solely for wine lovers and professionals. It is actually a story book for anyone interested in Chinese culture and history, with wine as the protagonist. With thousands of years of stories and wine drinking, China’s tales have not yet all been savoured. With this book I hope to bring life, colour, knowledge and ultimately a greater understanding of China, to everyone. To ardent and prospective wine lovers alike – cheers, ganbei!