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Terms of wine don't always make sense

IF you are a seasoned wine lover with more than a smattering of knowledge in this rich and delightful subject, you really could be the greatest barrier to entry to new aficionados.

In the 2004 sleeper hit "Sideways," the main character Miles takes a good hard whiff of his glass, in turn sprouting a spring of adjectives to describe its bouquet, then emphasizing on a soupcon of something or other he picks up near the end, all the while watched in bewilderment by his gum chewing, wine novice pal.

While it is undeniable that a glass of this most revered elixir can indeed release such a broad spectrum of aromas, this "geek speak" is more likely than not going to intimidate beginners and put them off altogether.

When was the last time you smelt a gooseberry? How many non-Australians can conjure the fragrance of eucalyptus leaves? What nut would taste like tar?

It gets worse. While such language is tough enough in English (who even uses soupcon in everyday conversation anyway?), trying to describe flavors that simply do not exist in this continent, let alone this country, is difficult at best.

How then, to entice local drinkers into the wonderful world of wine without spooking them with phantom notes and unfamiliar tastes? A few locally-based wine professionals believe a "softly, softly" approach is best, and while these tags may be difficult to get across, translating them verbatim is ultimately essential for the development of the local wine market.

"You definitely need to introduce some sort of communication or you're just talking to yourself," said Andy Tan, manager of communication and training at ASC Fine Wines. "You need a medium to communicate, otherwise there's no way to share experience."

After about 14 years in the industry in Singapore, Tan arrived in China two years ago to find that wine language was a larger problem than he anticipated. Compared to his native country, where a wide array of imported products and fruits are available and his fellow countrymen are better exposed to these Western flavors, the Chinese mainland did not enjoy this availability.

Tan and his company, the largest distributor in the country, are thus caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, his colleagues are undertaking the massive project of introducing terms local consumers might be more familiar with, but, on the other hand, such language is not without side effects.

"If you start to speak a vocabulary that only caters to local consumers then how are you going to connect yourself to the international market. If you can't even describe blackcurrant, how are you going to talk about cabernet sauvignon to the rest of the world?"

Local wine writer Jerry Hong concurs that Western flavor descriptors are essential in the market, at least in the short run. "I think it is essential for the media to use, instead of rejecting, the Western way of talking about wine since imported wine itself is an exotic product for the Chinese. At this stage, the Chinese are not wine-literate enough to be wine-descriptive. Hence, to learn the Western way is a necessary and important step.

"In the long run, it will be very helpful and constructive if the media start describing wines in Chinese fruits, spices and Chinese thoughts, and encouraging the audience to do that."

The prolific 30-year-old writer, who has toured European wine regions (he recently visited the Rhone Valley), is not convinced that the onus of a new language should fall squarely on the shoulders of his fellow scribes. "The media could not achieve this with their own strength. Different Chinese wine associations exert significant influence in the formation of a Chinese wine language; the wine importers should also take an active part in this for their own good."

To Molly Low, marketing manager for Fosters Wine Estates China & Korea, making the language of wine simpler in the first place is a key strategy for an emerging market, especially because many of the wines entering the market are at entry level.

"For many companies, it's more about getting wine in people's mouths first," she said. "We're more interested in the occasion in which people are drinking wine. For example a lot of the perception is that Western, or grape, wine is taken with Western food. We're trying to promote brands like Beringer paired with local food. In this program, we look at the five tastes, such as umami (protein) that is predominant in Asian food.

"So in this case, we're educating about the way umami reacts with wine and how you are aware of that taste so you can enjoy it together (with wine)."

This sentiment is echoed by the Park Hyatt Shanghai's Outlet Manager Diego Zhang. The Shanghainese has been in the food and beverage industry for nine years and was previously at Three on the Bund's Laris where he recommended wines with comfort and ease. Reprising his role at the luxury Shanghai World Financial Center property, the effectively bilingual Zhang is able to change tack when dealing with different customers.

"Of course, not every local customer understands some of the descriptions," he explained. "As a Chinese customer really just focuses on the vintage, fruitiness, sweetness and brand, I'll only use the flavors they can find, otherwise they have no idea about what I am saying."


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