With wine consumption falling in Europe, producers are looking toward Asia as the driver of growth for the wine industry and consumers in the region have been receptive. But while there is plenty of enthusiasm for wine in Asia, consumers and sommelier students continue to struggle to understand wine labels, esoteric terminology and a descriptive language bias favoring European cuisine.
“Learning the names of the wines, wineries and people is hard.
Most are not even in English but in French or Italian,” Kim Woo-jin, a 19-year-old sommelier aspirant, says. He relies on books to build his knowledge of wine, some in English, some in Korean, but transliteration of wine terminology and names also presents its own difficulties. “Korean people pronounce names in a different way,” he says.
Since the abolishment of wine taxation in 2008, Hong Kong has become the center of the wine trade in Asia with many negociants and wine producers establishing their Asian offices there. Auction sales in Hong Kong continue to break records. Andrew Lloyd Webbers wine collection was sold by Sotheby’s for $5.6 million in January 2011.
China is also becoming an increasingly important market with both domestically produced and imported wine increasing significantly. In 2010, China’s imports of bottled wine increased 61 percent from 2009, according to the Chinese customs annual report.
In Korea, total wine imports from January to June 2011 amounted to $60.2 million, up 12.8 percent from the same period last year, says the August 2011 USDA GAIN Report.
Figures by value, provided by customs of the three countries, show France continues to be the leading exporter to Asian markets, accounting for 32 percent of imports to Korea, 46 percent to China and 56 percent to Hong Kong.
Learning to describe wine is also an important part of understanding the drink, its different styles and expressions, which presents its own challenges for students like Kim.
“Describing flavors is very difficult. For example, wine with a bright raspberry smell. I don’t even know what that is,” he says.
He plans to buy an aroma kit to help him understand more flavors.
Aroma kits don’t come cheap at 100,000 won ($92), which has deterred him from buying one so far.
Kim June-cheol, the 58-year-old president of JC Wine School in southern Seoul, has taught wine since 1997. He says Kim Woo-jin’s situation is not unique.
“Language is the biggest problem. They don’t know French, Italian, Spanish so it’s difficult to learn the wine words. It’s a big problem,” the president says. To train students, he uses an aroma kit from ingredients he prepares himself. “Before tasting the wine, they smell blackcurrant, blackberry, raspberry,” he says.
A recently published book, written by a Korean-born master of wine, addresses exactly this kind of barrier.
“The traditional language is not wrong but needs to be more relevant,” says Jeannie Cho Lee, the author of “Mastering Wine for the Asian Palate,” a book that attempts to describe wine from an Asian perspective using flavor descriptions native to the region.
The book introduces wine tasting, wine production and varietals. The majority of the book is devoted to describing wine using fruits, herbs, vegetables and spices from Asia. Hard persimmons and jasmine tea leaves are used to describe French merlots, Pomerol and St Emilion.
Lee is one of only 300 masters of wine in the world. She has been based in Hong Kong since 1994 and regularly travels to Europe and also tastes wine from Japan, China, Thailand and India. During her travels, the cultural bias in wine terminology and wine descriptors became apparent and motivated her to write her latest book.
Asian ingredients and cuisine have had a significant impact on fine dining in Europe and America with ingredients such as lemongrass, cinnamon and chili now standard in kitchens. Jeannie says while western cooking has embraced Asian ingredients, the wine world lags behind.
Jeannie hopes that by using Asian descriptors, wine drinkers in Asia will relate better to wine. “When we smell a wine, it reminds us of something from our childhood. Asian people don’t have those memories. Saying a Chardonnay smells like buttered bread is meaningless to a lot of people.”
By using Asian descriptors as the first step to understanding wine, Jeannie hopes learning about wine will become easier.
“There’s a wealth of information on a wine label. If you don’t understand the language, it’s just a jumble of sounds. ... If people can remember Reisling smells like yuja (a citrus fruit), then they have a stronger bond to the wine.”
“Mastering Wine...” was launched in Seoul on Sept. 8 during a dinner pairing Asian cuisine with wine. There was plenty of debate about the most successful pairings with a lot of the wine trade in attendance. Highlights included the 2002 Piper Heidsieck Cuvee Rare champagne paired with sea bream tartare, naju pear yuja dressing and organic sprouts.
For Lee, the purpose of the dinner was more about showcasing the ingredients as useful descriptors of wine. Riesling was described as having seaweed notes and pinot noir with savory black jelly mushrooms.
She admits she’s just scratching the surface when it comes to describing wine with Asian ingredients and had to exclude thousands of Asian ingredients and focus on the most common. She says there’s plenty of work to be done. “I would love it if someone wrote a thesis on this subject,” she says.
“Mastering Wine for the Asian Palate” is available from the Park Hyatt in Seoul at 80,000 won plus VAT for a limited time and from Amazon.com