Asian grapevine

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 December, 2011, 12:00am


Christmas is the one time I indulge in wishing and dreaming of a perfect world. Here are my wishes for a better wine world.

I wish more people would stop using toxic chemicals in the vineyard. In the area of viticulture, we have advanced by leaps and bounds from the era when the use of chemicals was widespread. However, many still continue to use far more chemicals than is necessary. Agronomists and microbiologists such as Claude Bourguignon declared in the 1980s that Burgundian vineyards were 'dead' because of the extensive use of chemicals. This alarmed owners, who reacted by turning to organic and biodynamic methods.

Despite the cost, additional labour and time involved in organic methods, wines made this way have found a strong following. Domaine Leflaive, Domaine Leroy and Domaine de la Romanee-Conti are just a handful of conscientious producers who became convinced that change was necessary. All three turned to the biodynamic method of farming. This is a holistic and sustainable approach that involves the use of specific preparations such as cow manure fermented in a cow horn and a calendar based on the elemental forces of nature, the movements of the stars, planets and moon, and a strong focus on interrelationships between living organisms on the vineyard/farm.

I have always found biodynamic wines, regardless of style, to be more alive and often more complex. Biodynamic viticulture does not guarantee better wine, however, it does ensure a healthier approach to winemaking. My wish for this Christmas is for this trend to thrive in the coming years, especially in the growing regions of China and the rest of Asia. In the same vein, I hope that more careful site selection is conducted before planting so that good quality grapes can be grown without too much chemical use.

I wish winemaking techniques would take a back seat to the wine's site expression. Too often we taste the heavy-handed toasty oak of the barrel in which the wine was aged, or the zingy, sharp acidity from added tartaric acid, rather than the wine's inherent flavours. It's very easy to make formulaic wines, adding a bit of packaged yeast, then adding powdered tannins or acidity to adjust the taste of the wine to fit a specific profile. When it is skilfully done, it is difficult to tell the wine has been manipulated. However, these types of wines rarely reach the complex expressions of more naturally made wine.

There are extremists who espouse 'natural' winemaking, adding no additives such as the natural preservative sulphur dioxide. This extreme position increases the likelihood of oxidisation and can pose problems if the wine needs to travel long distances to reach its consumer. However, there are ways to make wine more natural without going to that extreme, and this begins with being more careful and selective when it comes to adding anything that doesn't enhance wine's natural expression.

I wish for the wine world more balanced wines without excessive power and alcohol. I would like to put 'elegant' as a key positive adjective to describe quality wine to replace 'powerful' and 'big'. I would also like to volunteer other characteristics to be more highly valued. These include subtle, nuanced wines, gentle and delicate wines, and wines with great finesse. I believe the era for high-alcohol wines with massive extract should be a fad of the past. Our lifestyle, cuisines and palates in Asia demand a more refined definition of quality.

I wish there were only honest wines in this world. I wish that when we buy an expensive bottle of wine, we did not have to doubt that it is genuine or that we can trust what the label says. Fakes are becoming a serious issue since wine is relatively easy to copy; refilling empty, genuine wine bottles makes it even more difficult unless one opens the bottle and can taste the difference. Label integrity is also an important aspect of trust, between the producer and the consumer. In an ideal world, the information on the label is the guarantee of product integrity.

I wish that in the coming year more merchants will take pride in their sourcing, storage and handling. One of the key requirements for a reliable wine merchant should be scrupulous sourcing. Merchants should take pride in providing not just authentic wines with good provenance, but ones that have been handled and stored in the most careful manner. Many of us have experienced the moment when a great wine disappoints, prematurely oxidised or just dead, often arising from poor handling and storage conditions. Fine wines should be delivered in refrigerated trucks, having arrived in Hong Kong in refrigerated containers, stored in appropriate temperature-controlled environments, and delivered in the condition the winemaker intended.

My last wish is really wishful thinking, but I wish all wines could be priced below HK$2,000. This would eliminate speculative buyers, punters and those who are more interested in making money from wine than opening it and enjoying it with friends. I wish all wines, even the best, had a price cap so that we could hear the 'pop' of open bottles more often than admiring them from afar.

Jeannie Cho Lee is the first Asian Master of Wine. E-mail her at or find her at