The Flying Column: Asian wines have arrived

In the first of a new series, Hong Kong-based wine consultant, Eddie McDougall, also known as ‘The Flying Winemaker’, examines the rapidly changing face of the Asian winemaking scene.

Eddie McDougall, 'The Flying Winemaker'

Eddie McDougall, ‘The Flying Winemaker’

In 2016 it’s hard not to take Asian wines seriously. Over the last three years I’ve experienced hundreds of wines across the tasting bench at international competitions including wines from China, India, Japan, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia and Taiwan.

In the short span of four years, the wines have dramatically improved in quality, as proven by the gold and silver medals awarded at elite competitions. Fifty nine medals were awarded to wines from China, India, Japan and Thailand at last year’s ‘Decanter Asia Wines Awards’.

CHINA
China remains by far the largest Asian manufacturer of grape wine. It continues to pull away from the rest of the region by volume, producing 11.5 to 13.5 million hectoliters of wine per annum in the last five years. Wine consumption has begun to transition from simply being about prestige to clearly becoming part of middle-class Chinese culture.

Since 2010, the country has annually consumed 17.5 million hectoliters of wine. If you head to the history books, wine production began in China as early as 1892, with the establishment of Changyu Winery, so it is not necessarily a new concept.

Technology at the production stage is finally catching up to the passion of China’s winemakers and is also playing a large part in the way consumers enjoy wine. This is evident in the heavy emphasis on wine apps and the online culture of sharing reviews on Chinese Language media platforms.

Significant investment in Chinese production by Pernod Ricard, Moët Hennessy, Diageo and Rothschild is enough to assure even the most ardent doubters that Chinese wine will shortly become an ever-present component of the global wine scene. The current crown of the Chinese wine jewel is the Ningxia region where MHD produces sparkling wine and Pernod Ricard leads the Helan Mountain project.

For me, it is the emergence of non-foreign backed boutique producers in China, and their quality, that displays China’s best indication yet that a firm “culture” of wine has taken hold. The cellaring potential of red wines by the likes of Silver Heights and newcomer Wens are undeniable.

INDIA
India’s viticultural history dates back to the Persian era of circa 300B.C., and was boosted by the settlement of the Portuguese in Goa centuries

Soma Vineyards - India

Soma Winery – India

later. In the 19th century, the presence of phylloxera within the European vineyards meant an unfortunate spread to India via transplanting of cuttings that resulted in a wipe out of all its grapevines.

From these rocky beginnings, India has had to reinvent itself to establish a more agriculturally sustainable and commercial wine industry. One which truly only restarted in the early 1990s. With a current count of over 90 wineries increasing steadily, there is proof that demand for local produce is on the rise.

What excites wine lovers most is that this market, compared to China, is more willing to try interesting and eclectic varietals such as Nero d’Avola, Tempranillo and Sangiovese. This less rigid approach to winemaking, which I have challenged more Asian wine producers to step up to, is the best way forward to foster an identity for Indian wine on the global scale.

For the masses, wine culture in India has not yet been embraced but it has become more popular among the expanding affluent demographic. The country shows strong potential in the wine tourism sector, which has been prioritized and marketed to both domestic and international visitors with positive reception. Visiting the Nashik region was a real treat for me in 2013 and I suggest any wine lover passing through the subcontinent add this to your itinerary.

JAPAN
Strictly speaking, the most experienced wine producing Asian nation is Japan, although it is more known for having successfully produced world beating liquor, spirits and rice wines. Through meticulous viticulture, the country is now masterfully churning out production of impressive white wines. I’ve seen wonderful examples of the Japanese white varietal Koshu, further proof coming from Grace Winery’ Gris de Koshu claiming a gold medal at the Decanter Asia Wine Awards.

For the well read winos out there, this grape is classified under the vitis vinifera category, a rare commodity for a country to uniquely have in a varietal.

Koshu of Japan

A Koshu vineyard in Japan

Outside the well-known Yamanashi Prefecture we are starting to see the emergence of Hokkaido wines, which are beginning to see success in Pinot Noir production. A modern trend that the Japanese industry has predictably taken strongly to is natural wine production.

Other eclectic methods of winemaking such as the use of qvevri, an old Georgian technique using egg-shaped fermenters, also showcases Japan’s willingness to bring artistry back to wine.

ASIA 
I am convinced that Asian wine firmly deserves its place at the dinner table. So much so that this April I have chaired a panel to produce the inaugural Asian Wine Review. But what about the rest of the industry and our consumers?

From first hand discussion with industry counterparts it is clear that professionals are aware that turning a blind eye to Asian production would be a mistake. Although traditionalist may scoff, Asian Wine is coming to a store near you, so being prepared to meet this supply and the emerging demand before your competitors is vital.

Consumers are not yet fully confident to present Asian Wines when entertaining. But much like the craft beer craze, the desire to taste more obscure wines is clearly evident, a fact that I am seeing first hand in the restaurants in Asia who have listed Asian wines.

This is seen not only from local residents and expat communities, but also in the millions of visitors to the region who are now seeing Thai, Chinese & Indonesian bottles creep onto wine lists, only to be quickly Instagramed, shared back home and given an immediate global audience.

The days of Asian wine as a gimmick are over. Some of the infrastructure, such as French château replications in Chinese fields may still scream kitsch, but what matters is the undeniable Asian wine revolution happening inside the bottle. A wealth of talent combining formally trained local winemakers, alongside international winemakers in the region, are at the forefront of this change.

Wines of Asia are no longer ‘coming’ but are well and truly ‘here’.

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