As the kids go back to school and newly arrived overseas students crowd into Haidian, there’s a buzz of learning is in the air. As the Beijing wine world continues to expand, more and more Beijingers want to learn something about the pleasures of the grape.
Just as a course in music appreciation can help you sort what’s Baroque from what’s not, a bit of wine knowledge makes it easier to tell your Cabernet Sauvignon from Cabernet Franc or, as you advance into the murky world of wine labels, your Pouilly-Fumé from Pouilly-Fuissé.
Here in Beijing, probably the easiest way to learn about wine is to get on the web – but beware! There is the predictable gamut of misinformation on the Internet with some myths posted as fact. But some sites we wholeheartedly recommend, such as those from independent experts like Jancis Robinson (www.jancisrobinson.com – whose section “For Beginners” is a good starting-point), Jamie Goode (www.wineanorak.com) or Natalie MacLean (www.nataliemaclean.com).
Wine Australia offers a great Antipodean introduction to the basics with colorful pictures and fun games. Similarly, merchants Berry Bros. & Rudd (www.bbr.com) has a great “Wine Knowledge” section with info on major wine regions, grape types and even an amusing game with virtual butler, Pickering, to test your knowledge! YouTube also has videos on everything from riddling Champagne bottles to vine pruning.
For more live action, nothing beats the antics of Gary Vaynerchuk (tv.winelibrary.com) who bravely films all his tasting experiences. For a close-up of the Chinese wine scene, Grape Wall of China (www.grapewallofchina.com) has contributions from different columnists, interesting interviews with figures in the wine world and up-to-date information on wine events.
With books, the situation is harder. Such hefty tomes as The Oxford Companion to Wine are unavailable and weigh so much they cost an “Amazonian” fortune to be delivered. Garden Books has a small range of wine literature, including a useful introductory volume by Hugh Johnson; Beijing Bookworm carries Wine Spectator magazine and has a couple of wine books for borrowing, as well as offering periodic educational tastings with various importers.
With this in mind and armed with some basic knowledge, you can sally forth into the Beijing tasting scene with a bit more confidence. However, if learning more about wine is your goal, choose your tastings carefully. Generally, the generic wine party won’t really enhance knowledge. But look out for tastings where winery owners or, better still, the actual wine-maker is present. Use the opportunity to ask questions and learn from these people’s insights. Try to talk to whoever’s pouring the wines – some staff can be very informative. But take commercial hard-talk with a pinch of salt!
Another way is to take a wine appreciation course that offers direct teaching and hands-on learning. This is perhaps the best way to learn systematically how to taste and evaluate wine. Among the most rigorous are those certified by WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust), a UK-based internationally recognized wine certification body. Courses involve international standard exams and learning packs at foundation, intermediate and advanced levels. Most of these qualifications are offered by three companies around town: ASC, our own Dragon Phoenix Fine Wine Consulting, and Easescent (which also offers classes from the International Sommelier Guild). The latter two also offer their own, more relaxed, non-certification courses. Informal wine courses are also provided by the Expat learning centre (www.beijing-classes.com).
But when looking for a wine course, do remember that any class is only as good as the teacher who teaches it. Ask about the tutor’s educational experience, language-ability (no point paying to learn incorrect pronunciations!), depth of wine knowledge and success rate. Also consider the number and breadth of wines on offer.
Learning about wine should be practical, fun and informative, not competitive. A good teacher also knows that people learn in different ways: through practical tasting, helpful power points, videos, books, matching wines with food and other exercises. Above all, relax and enjoy the journey of vinous discovery!
Select Sips and Dishes
One to quaff
2006 Touraine Sauvignon Blanc “Premiere,” Pierre Chainier, Loire Valley, France (RMB 121)
This Sauvignon Blanc from the Touraine region of France’s Loire Valley represents a good alternative to the more expensive Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé made from the same grape. Pale green color, the nose has gooseberry and green apple fruit with characteristic high acidity on the palate and refreshing length. Would make a great match with “Lagareiro,” a Portuguese dish of grilled cod, as served at Nuvem. The fresh aromas and tangy acidity of this cool-climate Sauvignon cut through the meaty richness of this dish. (Available from East Meets West, www.emw-wines.com)
One to drink
2005 Bodegas Nekeas Crianza Navarra, Spain (RMB 181)
This good-value Spanish red is made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo. Attractive purple-red color, the nose has Cabernet’s blackcurrant fruit with the juicy, mouth-filling fruits of Tempranillo, plus savory and sweet oak. On the palate, the wine has strong fruit, lifting acidity, medium chewy tannins and good length. Would make a stylish partner to the braised pork belly and red-cooked eel served at Il et Elle. Here the vibrant fruit, deft acidity and spicy oak complement the relative richness and fatty mouth-feel of this dish. (Available from Summergate, email@example.com, 6562-5800)
One to savor
2005 Mount Langi Ghiran Riesling, Victoria, Australia (RMB 273)
Beautiful green-gold color, this stylish white offers lime fruit and mineral aromas on the nose. The palate is dry with gorgeous acidity, strong fruit and good length. From Victoria, this is a more restrained Australian Riesling than some of the powerful wines of South Australia’s Clare or Eden Valleys. Would pair beautifully with Xia xie er mian huan (crispy fried noodles covered with crab eggs and shrimps), a Shanghai dish found at Absolute Cate inside Shinkong Place. The aromatic lime flavors and refreshing acidity are great with seafood in most forms. (Available from The Wine Republic, www.thewinerepublic.com, 5869 7050)