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January 17, 2010

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Cultural approach to drinking wines

THE history of wine making in China is thousands of years old, some scholars finding evidence in documents and artifacts from archeological excavations of wine production using grapes or rice dating as far back at 3,000 BC.

The practice continued through the dynasties and ages to the era when foreign settlements imported their own wine, notably French, which became popular with elite Chinese citizens.

It's therefore one of the oldest civilizations in the world to produce and drink wine.

Fast-forward to today and China still makes a lot of its own wine.

But as with many products -- such as jewelry, fashion, cosmetics, watches, cognac, cars and cigars -- affluent Chinese are lifting their consumption of foreign brands. And increasingly that includes wine from overseas.

The trend has not been lost on wine producers from dozens of countries who over recent years have established significant footholds in the market for their reds, whites, bubblies and stickies.

A general consensus among these exporters, however, is that the Chinese wine drinking market is in its infancy, a point not lost on the Frenchman Jean-Pierre Renard, who visited Shanghai briefly this week.

Renard was on his first visit to China on a dual learning and teaching mission and has never been a seller of wine.

But he is a champion of the region of Burgundy where he is something of a wine philosopher who lectures, writes and advises on the culture of the product.

"I know that 200 to 300 years ago, wine was very popular in China with painters and writers and now it's being marketed to the middle class," Renard said as he arrived to lecture about 30 wine experts, educators and media for the Winekee Website.

"I don't believe that every Chinese will drink wine but slowly they will discover wine with food," he said.

A man in his 50s who is used to the relative peace of wine fields and vineyards, Renard was gasping at the size of "this huge city" although he is no newcomer to Asia with experience in South Korea and Singapore in recent years.

"Many people travel to China and different countries with wine for sale, explaining it in ways to make a deal," he said. "I have no wine for sale. I just want to present wine in an educational way and highlight its cultural aspects."

Renard's mini master-class audience was 100 percent young Chinese, all fluent in English and very knowledgeable about matters of wine.

They nodded almost in syncopated agreement as he stepped through the importance of regional characteristics in French wine making, the adaptability of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes and the mysterious ingredient of "savoir faire" that had been used to make wine in Burgundy for more than 2,000 years.

Renard's first impression of the Shanghainese he met is they want "to learn so much about wine" and there is already great knowledge about it's characteristics.

"I just came to have a look, to see what's happening and meet people and I hope to come back," he said.

The blobs of color he throws on his blank canvas as a teacher are drawn from the vats of Chablis, Bourgogne, Santenay, and Pouilly-Fuisse, among others, and it was these signature styles that the willing 30 tasted under his guidance.

His initial thoughts about Peking Duck matching well with Burgundy wines belied an approach symptomatic of the highly relevant food and wine matching ploys used by many wine marketers to wedge onto hotel and restaurant wine lists.

But he was already thinking deeper about how the culture of Chinese food would fit with the culture of Burgundy wine rather than getting into the often gobbledegook complexities of sweetness and acidity versus bitterness and astringency.

"Burgundy is a traditional wine area and we try to make the best with our grapes in unique growing conditions, then we hope to educate people to enjoy our wines within the complexities of their culture," he said.

It's an approach that the culturally rich and materially more prosperous Chinese might latch onto as they recognize the thinking and skill alluded to by Renard in putting the je ne sais quoi into Burgundy wines.

"You know what Louis Pasteur said?" he asked.

"There's a lot more philosophy in a bottle of wine than all the books in a library."


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