Wine opinion: fermenting a friendship

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 December, 2012, 9:13am

Two terraces - one where rows of tea trees grow on Mount Jingmai in Yunnan province, the other in the wine-producing region of Saint-Emilion near Bordeaux, France. About 8,700 kilometres apart, the regions have embarked upon a relationship involving an exchange of trade and culture.

Libourne, the closest city to the Pomerol and Saint-Emilion vineyards, signed a co-operation agreement last month with the region famous for producing Puer tea.

As a result, a maison du vin (wine house) will open in Puer to showcase the wines of Pomerol, Lalande-de-Pomerol, Fronsac, Saint-Emilion and its satellites, Montagne, Lussac, Puisseguin and Saint-Georges. At the same time, a salon de thé (tearoom) showcasing the range of Puer teas will debut during the Vinexpo wine fair in June in Bordeaux. It will be an outpost of the wine fair in Libourne, and there are discussions to make it a permanent feature of the city.

Since the accord was signed, two Chinese delegations have visited Libourne, and one French group travelled to Puer. That delegation - which included Libourne Mayor Philippe Buisson, and the presidents of the wine syndicates of Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Lalande-de-Pomerol and Fronsac - went to learn about the tea culture and to better understand its links with the wine culture in Bordeaux. They visited local tea producers, and wine importers.

In return, the Chinese delegates met with key Libournais wine producers, including Christian Moueix, the director of Chateau de Viaud, which is now owned by Chinese food conglomerate Cofco.

"Libourne is the most important wine city in the region outside of Bordeaux itself, with its own wine merchant and production base," said Herve Cayla, a consultant with Gailong International and an adviser to the Puer regional government, speaking from Beijing. "So when the local Puer government approached me to suggest a partnership in the region, it made sense for it to be there."

At first glance, the two cities might not seem to have much in common: for one thing, Puer has three million inhabitants; Libourne, a little more than 25,000. And while there is a large statue in Puer to Zhuge Liang, a prime minister to Emperor Liu Bei during the Three Kingdoms period (AD220-280) and seen as the father of tea cultivation, you have to look pretty hard in Libourne to find a statue to commemorate the world-famous vineyards that lie just a few kilometres from its central square.

However, there are similarities. Both regions can date the history of their local productions back almost two millennia, and they have a similar relationship to the agricultural production that surrounds them and are important centres of trade for those products.

Buisson points out there are also many similarities between the two products. "Puer tea is hand-picked at harvest each year, is labelled with a vintage, and its taste is affected by the soil it is grown in and by the weather conditions during the year of harvest," he says. "It can also undergo a fermentation process [naturally or artificially] in which microbes act on the tea leaves, causing the flavour to change to become smoother and more complex, in a process very similar to malolactic fermentation in wine.

"What's more, Puer is known for being rich in polyphenols, and is said to have health benefits, much as the 'French paradox' is said to be linked to polyphenols in wine."

Another similarity: raw Puer tea can be aged for up to 30 or 50 years without diminishing in quality, and it can attain similarly high prices as the best wines of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol - 200 grams of the best examples can reach prices of up to €1,200 (HK$12,000) - not too far away from the price of a bottle of Chateau Petrus.

"We hope Libourne can become the European centre, and shop window, for the teas of Puer," says Buisson. "Of course, we know the benefit of exports for our local winemakers, but this is as much a cultural exchange as an economic one."