Food and wine pairing is ‘a waste of time’ in Asia

The concept of food and wine pairing in Asia is “a waste of time” due to the banqueting culture there, according to Hong Kong based Master of Wine Sarah Heller.

Sarah Heller MW believes the concept of food and wine matching in Asia is “a waste of time”

Speaking at the second International Sauvignon Blanc celebration in Marlborough last month, Heller told attendees:

“Food and wine pairing is a waste of time in Asia as there is a lot of eating off a Lazy Susan in a banquet setting involving lots of courses that are only on a table for a bit. Sommeliers should think more holistically about the style of cuisine being served and how certain wines pair with the sweetness and acidity levels in the food.”

During her talk, Heller also pointed out that Asian consumers tend to prefer more evocative descriptions when it comes to a wine’s character, rather than specific flavours that may be present in the wine.

“Producers need to be using more evocative terms and abstract images in China when it comes to wine. People think the more specific you get the easier the wine will be to understand, but Chinese people prefer terms like ‘mellow’, ‘rounded’ and ‘soft’ to describe wine,” she said.

Social media influencers like Shenghan-Wang, founder of wine platform ‘Lady Penguin’, are a good way of attracting a new audience to your wines in Asia

According to Heller, producers should be targeting millennial consumers in China, as “50% of wine consumers in China are under 30”.

She also spoke of the importance of premium packaging in order to lure new consumers into the wine category. “In China it’s important for wine to be seen as classy. Cartoon and critter labels will have a hard time selling there. People go for heavier glass bottles in Asia and they like a deep punt – there’s something oddly Freudian going on there,” Heller joked.

She also advised that gold was good when it comes to wine labels in China, but to steer clear of green. “Green is not a lucky colour in China – the phrase ‘to wear a green hat’ means being a cuckold,” she said.

Asia is a dynamic market for wine. According to Debra Meiburg there are 819 billionaires and counting in Asia. In terms of making inroads with Sauvignon Blanc in Asia, Meiberg said it will be difficult as there isn’t a culture of serving cold drinks at a meal.

“Most Asians find it strange to serve steaming hot fish with ice cold wine – they think it’s bad for your health and teeth,” she said, pointing out that fish is usually served at the end of a meal in Asia.

However, she stressed the importance of winning listings at fine dining restaurants as a way of increasing visibility. “Get into the top Michelin starred restaurants in Asia if you want to establish yourself as a luxury brand,” Meiburg said.

She also stressed the need for strong Sauvignon Blanc brands to emerge in New Zealand to compete with Cloudy Bay, as “all the labels look the same at the moment”.

Meiburg advised producers to engage with “key opinion leaders” in Asia as a way of reaching new consumers. “To do well you have to have a presence in the e-commerce market and on social media. Influencers are super powerful in Asia, there are even people who train them,” she said.

7 Responses to “Food and wine pairing is ‘a waste of time’ in Asia”

  1. Jiles Halling says:

    Another thing that I think may need to be reviewed is the arrempt to “educate” Chinese consumers to appreciate Brut champagne rather than sweeter styles which, I understand , are more suited to Chinese consumers’ natural preference. The reason behind the attempt was to avoid selling one style in western countries and another style in China which might risk Chinese consumers thinking that they were not being offered ‘The real thing’, but it’s an uphill struggle to change entire country’s habits

  2. MANJIT PABLA says:

    Thank you!

    I’ve been saying the same thing about wine and Indian food for decades…

    Essentially, you wouldn’t order a dish you didn’t like or one that doesn’t suit you. So, simply choose a wine you like to go with your meal.
    Clearly, avoid mixing rare, fine wines with really spicy-as-in-chilli-hot dishes…unless you’ve got money and taste buds to burn!

    • Sarah Heller says:

      Thanks Lucy and thanks Manjit! Fortunately I think a lot of somms in our region are embracing this approach and not getting so bogged down in the particularities of pairing specific wines to specific dishes.

  3. Lionel Lau says:

    Sorry this is utter nonsense if you are quoted correctly! It isn’t a waste of time if you really know how to do it and am sorry to say just because you are a MW doesn’t mean you are good with it especially in Asia. Finally, China isn’t Asia, that’s like saying Italy represents Europe! Nonsense article

    • Sarah Heller says:

      Lionel – thank you for sharing your view. I certainly think this is a discussion worth having. My larger point (perhaps not conveyed entirely clearly in this article, which is largely accurate but only an extract of what I said) is that the approach many people from outside the region have adopted to matching wine with food in Asia (with all the best intentions) is wrong-headed in my opinion, and doesn’t take into account the way food is commonly served. I completely agree with you that to claim China is representative of all of Asia is not right, and is not in fact something that I claimed. However, something common to many Asian food cultures is the simultaneous service of food, whereas traditional western style food and wine matching assumes that the meal is served in distinct courses. I absolutely support efforts to combine food and wine in Asia in ways that try to integrate with local food culture, and it sounds from your comment like you would agree.

  4. Stéphane Boutiton says:

    When you have no knowledge in food and wine pairing, became Master of wine and give your ignoring opinion.

    • In fact Stéphane, I would not claim that my knowledge of pairing wine with Asian food derives from acquiring the Master of Wine title, but from having been born and raised in the region in an Asian household (I am Korean and Chinese as well as German, and I have family in Hong Kong, South Korea and Thailand) and having regularly paired wine with Asian food, including many events I have organised, during my ten years in the industry here. You may not agree with my opinion, but please do not assume that it comes from a place of ignorance.

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