Shanghai moved at a slower pace in 2002. Behind the massive western banking palaces that line the Bund, there was still an open-air market one block in. At the edge of the market, a young man in what amounted to Chinese chef whites stood at the open stall that his family had turned into a noodle shop. He made dumplings at a large wooden cutting block, chopping spinach or mincing pork to stuff into wrappers. His brothers tended the clear broth, flash cooking the dumplings, or noodles with slices of pork. Two skinny cats circled the tables where local workers breakfasted on soup. We were the only Westerners in the neighborhood, and the brothers fed us with warm, welcoming smiles.
Fourteen years later, there are no open markets behind the Bund. The urban landscape is 21st-century glass towers; meanwhile, the dumpling landscape has been codified by an obsessive local chef in the Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index, rating xiao long bao entrepreneurs by the ultimate thinness of their dumpling wrappers and the generosity of the pork-and-soup cache within. Many of the purveyors at the top control multiple locations, their soup-dumpling empires guarding recipes as secret as KFC’s (they are also ubiquitous in Shanghai).
Small wine shops dot the landscape as well, a rarity 14 years ago, now as common in the streets of the French Concession as any Gucci or Prada store. Many of the most successful entrepreneurs in Shanghai—whether they made their money in dumplings, trading or tech—have taken up the western hobby of wine.
The city now supports a community of importers and distributors, the largest serving as national agents throughout China. ASC Fine Wines, established in 1996 by American father-and-son team Don St. Pierre, Sr. and Jr., is now in the hands of Suntory, based in Shanghai’s French Concession. The Wine Residence, originally built as a clubhouse for one of the city’s most exclusive apartment buildings next door, is now ASC’s five-story private dining club, something of a holdover from the early days of bling in Shanghai’s wine market. I met Bruno Baudry, ASC’s recently appointed CEO, for a tour of the dining club and an update on the current state of wine in China.
Members of the Wine Residence pay an annual fee, he explained, funding their account, which they can then use to stock their cellars at the club with ASC wines. Members can also use their accounts to pay for dinner, where they can enjoy their wines with both Chinese and Western-style dishes. Or they can order the seasonal pairings, like the current one featuring Lustau Sherries with hairy crab.
Baudry, who grew up in France’s Languedoc and developed his language skills in Japan, took a job in 1998 with the Castel Group, a Bordelaise family intent on building distribution for their wines in Asia. He was tapped by Suntory to run ASC in June 2015.
“The trade has changed drastically since Xi Jinping announced the anti-bribery and austerity measures [in November 2012],” Baudry explains. “We were selling a very large amount of Bordeaux, most of it being bought by government people as gifts. At the time, the buyer was not the drinker. Now, in the last three years, the buyer has become the drinker. They won’t go for Château Margaux. They go for Lindemans.
Baudry points to three very different markets for wine that have developed in China. The first is the wealthy wine lover. “They are almost more passionate about wine than I am,” he admits. “Their consumption is moving from Bordeaux to Burgundy—intrigued by the small domaines of Burgundy rather than the big names of Bordeaux. The rich prefer to go for things that others cannot afford,” he adds.
For the second category of wine drinker, he points to Matthew Gong, the young public relations manager who is accompanying us on the tour. “The young people want to drink something their parents didn’t drink,” Baudry says. “You can see groups in their mid-twenties opening a bottle of wine in a restaurant. You drink much less baijiu in the cities than in the countryside,” he says to Gong, referencing his generation of young Chinese.
“The palate is not for fullbodied wine—not for shiraz. They are going for lighter, softer tannins. The style of wine has to be a little more feminine, more fruity. We go more for merlot than cabernet—merlot from Australia (or moscato from Australia), not merlot from Bordeaux.”
The third group of wine drinkers is in the second and third-tier cities and, Baudry says, that market is driven by Alibaba, the giant online marketplace in China. “This year, on eleven eleven, internet sales reached a new high,” Baudry explains, referring to the Double 11 campaign that started on November 11, 2009. “They call it singles day: You’re alone, so take out your phone and buy online.” This year, internet sales on Alibaba’s Tmall on November 11, 2015 reached 91.2 billion renminbi ($14.1 billion US). That’s up from 57.1 billion on November 11, 2014. Baudry told me that baijiu, spirits and wine accounted for 500 million of this year’s Double 11 sales.
“China has become the number one buyer of wine online—way ahead of the US,” Baudry says. “Alibaba says that sixty percent of their wine sales are through m-commerce—via mobile phones.” Alibaba launched “Tmall Vineyard Direct” on its Tmall.com marketplace in September with a Robert Mondavi Wines store, becoming the exclusive distributor of the entire Robert Mondavi lineup in China, from the Napa Valley line to Private Selection, Woodbridge and Twin Oaks. Baudry estimates that wine sold direct, through Alibaba, can sell for about 40 percent less than if it went through a traditional distributor.
Alibaba may be the key to opening this third category of wine drinker in China. “Five percent of the population has drunk wine in the last six months,” Baudry says, “meaning there is another 95 percent that we do not even address today. For these people in the countryside, [to sell imported wine] you have to go simple: New World, sweet, high alcohol, gentle tannins. If you have an eleven percent alcohol wine that is light, it will be perceived as low quality. Alibaba addresses the aspiring new class that doesn’t drink wine; the internet is helping us reach that new frontier.”
At the Wine Residence, Baudry says, people drink wine with a meal. “I have not seen a member drink a glass of wine at the bar, other than a glass of Champagne.”
Gong says he drinks wine at home. “And at home, it’s always Chinese food. A few years back, wine was associated with Western food. But now, it’s just associated with food and we eat Chinese food.” And a lot of the wine locals drink is Chinese wine.
Sophie Liu booked a table in a private room at Hong Rui Xing, her family’s favorite Shanghainese restaurant. Patricio Tapia, the W&S critic, had been working with Liu on the translatation of his Descorchados guide to the wines of South America, and the three us of us had planned to meet for dinner on Saturday night before driving five hours south of Shanghai where the Annual Wines of Chile Awards competition was starting the following day.
Liu worked for the Far Eastern Economic Review (Dow Jones) and then Newsweek before earning a scholarship to study journalism at the University of Strasbourg, in Alsace, France. Fluent in French and English, she was headhunted by China’s Xinhua Daily, as they were looking for trilingual journalists to work in Brussels. But she quickly got turned onto wine, began traveling in Bordeaux, and soon headed back to China to focus on a new career. One of the most energetic and prolific members of the young Chinese wine elite, Liu has published three books—and birthed two babies—in the last two years.
After the Champagne, we order shaoxing, the traditional rice wine from the region that bears its name, and Tapia comments that it tastes a bit like a fine Amontillado Sherry. On the other hand, it tastes nothing like the grape-based wines gaining traction in the market. I am still wondering why Wines of Chile had decided to do their awards competition in China, and I ask Liu why she thinks Chile has grown to be China’s third-largest supplier of imported wine, after France and Australia.
“People drink Bordeaux because it is very well known and French products give people a very high end image, very sophisticated,” Liu says. “Chile is very far away. People only know Chile through wine, and they love the style. Many local Chinese wines were Chilean bulk wine, sold to the Chinese and bottled here, so people who drank local wine were getting used to the Chilean wine style in this way.”
Ten years ago, Chile and China signed a trade agreement, which gradually brought the duty on bottled wine down to zero, as of this past January. Now, with branded Chilean wine growing at an unprecedented rate, Julio Alonso, Wines of Chile’s director in Asia, thought it would be timely to bring the awards competition to China.
I was completely mystified, especially during the medal round, when we all tasted together as a group. The tastings were blind, with notes on region, variety and vintage. More often than not, the group gave high marks to wines I marked with my lowest scores. It soon occurred to me that I was tasting for origin and the Chinese were tasting for something else—what they described as balance and harmony.
In the US, tasters tend to fall into two camps, hedonists and terroir hounds. Both camps have their quirks. An obsessive hedonist might give high marks to an “international style” (i.e., generic) wine if it is made meticulously and tastes luscious and delicious. An obsessive terroir hound might rate a wine highly if it is meticulously made and precisely highlights the character of the region where it is from, even if that character is more of an intellectual fascination than a pleasure to drink.
China seems to stake out a third camp. These tasters love Harlan, a wine with more hedonistic appeal than site-specific character, beautifully rich, perfectly balanced and precisely made. They also love lean, austere Bordeaux from lighter vintages, and sleek Alto Maipo cabernets from Chile. The panelists, when describing why they appreciated a wine in one of these, or other, divergent styles, would consistently use the terms balance and harmony—referencing, perhaps, some countervailing elements in the structure of the wines.
Fongyee Walker, a panelist who founded Dragon Phoenix, a wine-consultancy in Beijing, approaches my question from a different angle. An MW candidate writing her dissertation on viticulture in China, she points out that local food culture also has a strong impact.
“In Cantonese and Fujian schools of cooking,” she tells me, “the dishes are known for their light and delicate flavors.” She notes a preference in these southern and eastern regions for fruity, off-dry wines with little or no tannins. “In Sichuan, home of the chile-hot and numbing palate (ma-la), they really like wines with a kick—big Napa cabernets, Oloroso Sherry and the like. In northern China, where the food is salty and strong (but not very chile-hot), the preference is for fruity reds or strong-flavored whites, like a rich chardonnay.” Walker, who suffered through British boarding-school food, has a strong preference for the comfort food her Chinese-born mother fed her at home. In general, she sees a strong link between wine preferences in China and the diverse regional cuisines.
What the best practitioners of those regional cuisines share is a focus on harmony and balance, words I have read often in Chinese cookbooks—and heard at the cooking class I took earlier in the week, at a school called The Kitchen at…, where chef Allan Wang taught us a recipe for curry crab. As I lifted a spoonful of sugar followed by a dash of salt and tossed them into the wok, I was struck by how I rarely, if ever, add sugar to savory dishes I cook at home—other than when I’m cooking Chinese food. And I thought about how Chinese Americans had stretched this concept, sweetening so much of the food in American Chinese restaurants that is unrecognizable to anyone but Americans.
We think of sweetening. The Chinese think of balancing. This concept hit home during one heated debate over a wine in the medal round. It was a red wine that tasted both green and raisined, two elements that several tasters described as harmoniously balanced. Walker took a firm stand against the majority on the panel and stated that she could not countenance such a wine receiving an award. I seconded her challenge, and stated that the wine was both underripe and overripe, to the extent that, I added, rather bluntly, it was flawed. Richards, in an effort to take the edge off my remark, said he didn’t believe there was anything wrong with the wine, but he agreed that he did not appreciate the style.
In the two decades since, others have adopted that strategy and, perhaps, stretched it. This controversial red wine might have been the result of poor viticulture, with grapes harvested at mixed levels of ripeness; or it might have been a conscious effort to blend greener fruit to refresh the flavors of superripe fruit. Either way, I didn’t find it to be a wine that grew comfortably out of a place, but one made to a predetermined style.
Throughout the tasting, I was fascinated by the wines the Chinese tasters appreciated. On the cabernet flight, the entire panel was precisely aligned, as we were only one other time, with a flight of premium syrahs, where we voted in a bright, cool-climate Casablanca wine with the cracked-black-peppercorn lift of a fine coastal syrah. That wine grew in the cold 2013 vintage. In a second flight of syrahs, the panel voted in another Casablanca wine, this one considerably riper, edging toward dimpled fruit, rich and full. In fact, both wines were from the same producer, Casas del Bosque, and, in the end, that ripe 2014 Syrah was voted Best in Show.
In all honesty, it would be challenging to sell either wine here in the US, as the market for syrah, outside of the Rhône, has yet to take off. But from my point of view, I could see the value in the 2013, as it showed a clear connection to the place where it was grown and was compelling to drink. The 2014 was fine, but there are thousands of other wines like it. That was the thinking of my Western brain. If I were to understand the Chinese, I needed to learn to think like them.
When it comes to what to drink, the Chinese appreciate the idea of pairing wine and food, but that is not what they talk about when they taste. Balance and harmony come first, something they learned from their ancient food culture. It is hard to tell where hedonism fits in, whether it’s just a matter of the alcohol buzz, and whether there is something more than an intellectual pleasure in drinking wine. As for origin, the factor that protects wine consumers from knockoffs, that’s still a learning curve.
At the awards ceremony, held the next day in an Art Deco hall that was once part of the Communist Party’s headquarters in Shanghai (now part of the Intercontinental Hotel), I was speaking with Eduardo Chadwick about his sales strategy in China. His company, Errázuriz, has been remarkably successful, not only for their less expensive wines, but also with Viñedo Chadwick, a $400 bottle of cabernet. He set up an office in Shanghai and hired a team to cover the market, something he has not done in the US, where he relies on his importer. “Michael [Quinttus] at Vintus is doing a great job for us, and we will continue to support the US market. But China…” He held out his hands, palms up, and looked around the room, a vast hall filled with revelers in black tie.
Chilean wine is growing at more than 40 percent a year in China, and, as Claudio Cilveti, the managing director of Wines of Chile announced at the awards ceremony, “China is on track to become Chile’s largest export market for wine in 2016.”
Christopher St. Cavish, the Miami-born chef and author of the Shanghai Soup Dumpling Index, suggested Jia Jia when he agreed to help me with my own xiao long bao research. Started by two Chinese bluebloods, who had lost everything after the Cultural Revolution, Jia Jia now has six locations. That expansion was driven in part by economic policy, St. Cavish explains, when the central government chose Shanghai for its experimentation with money. Today, in most parts of the city, you can feel the fierce churn of contemporary Chinese capitalism out on the streets, but it’s more muted here inside Jia Jia.
Since it’s hairy crab season, I thought a little wine and-food pairing might be in order. And since I’ve only ever enjoyed hairy crab with Tsingtao, I decided to smuggle in a bottle of Champagne for us to try with the variations of xiao long bao on the menu—pork (12 rmb), pork with crab (22 rmb) and hairy crab (99 rmb). The Jean Vesselle Oeil de Perdrix is a little bitter with the pork dumplings, and it strikes out with the pork and crab. But it’s a home run with the hairy crab dumplings and their pure flavor of the sea. “The Champagne can stand up to the fattiness, to the strong seafood and mineral flavors of the crab,” St. Cavish says, with the kind of contented smile I remember from the noodlemen who once worked behind the Bund.
The Art of Eating Xiao Long Bao
This story was featured in W&S February 2016.