Remember when it was enough to swirl your wine around, give it a quick sniff to look knowledgeable and then get down to the serious business of drinking it? You can’t get away with that now, these days you must know your wine or lose your social street cred.
Houghton Lee, chairman of the Hong Kong chapter of the Hong Kong Society of Wine Educators says wine is being taken seriously now, both here and on the mainland.
So who are these new wine buffs? A lot of the people attending wine training courses want to sell wine or enter the trade - a lot are mid-career changers, he says. Many more are hobbyists or doing it because of peer pressure. “You know, the boss talks about wine, so they need to learn. A lot of people are like that,” he adds. Wine education attracts people of every age, from the young to older professionals, like doctors and lawyers.
Lee just returned from taking a group from his Hong Kong chapter to sample the wines of Ningxia, North West of Xian. This wine producing area of China has caught international attention. “Whenever Jancis Robinson mentions wine in China she only mentions Ningxia,” says Lee. Of China’s many wine regions, experts seemingly think Ningxia has the most potential.
Some Ningxia wine markers are foreign, some local, but the latter mainly train in France or Australia, he adds. Local government officials are very supportive; having spotted that wine has a good future. They do a lot of investment and public relations for the province, and just hosted the first meeting of the Organisation of International Viniculture (OIV) in September.
Wine tastes are being heavily influenced by the wine education bodies, Lee believes. In the days of Henry Tang’s generation, they liked wine because it tasted good, so they bought, he says. But now drinkers will give you a reason, even at a private dinner, they will mention tannins, body, different flavours. “If you don’t say that other people don’t respect you,” he observes.
“Whereas in the days of Henry Tang, if you like it and you can afford it, you just buy a case. They are still good drinkers, but they may not be able to tell you exactly why they like it. But they know their wines.”
Beware growing wine snobbery
But now, wine circle snobbery has escalated to the point where you must be able to articulate. I fear the onslaught of a sea of purple prose that may well swamp any possible pleasure. “It’s very challenging, it’s a lot of pressure,” says Lee. “So that is how the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (SWET) basically changed the consumer culture in Hong Kong,” he added. He advised the producers in China of this trend. “I said they should keep it in mind, it may happen to them.” The potential for pretentious wine bores in a country the size of China is, indeed, terrifying.
Mainland wine market cooled off
Generally after five mad years, Xi Jinping’s anti-gifting drive has cooled the mainland wine market in the last 18 months. But the cult of officials expecting you to give them wine as a gift dies hard. “The more expensive the wine, the more people will buy it, they don’t care, they won’t drink it,” laughs Lee. “They just give it to officials. Some times the officials won’t drink it; they just keep it or give it to another official.” But Since Xi Jinping clamped down, the market dropped, especially for bad wine, he adds. China’s wine consumers are also more mature and know the real price of wine. Some vineyards, like Grace, price their wine very reasonably, he thinks, adding he hopes mainland wine prices settle down to a less chaotic and more understandable level soon.” Even if overall wine sales flatten out for a while.”
So how do you set about your wine education? Lee started, like many in Hong Kong, with WSET, the most dominant bunch. Different wine programmes have since been introduced, such as the Court of Master Sommeliers, though many taking it are professionals. “It’s very practical, for example you must be able to open a bottle of champagne correctly, pour eight flutes and then carry to the examiner, all the while answering questions,” says Lee.
Most novices start with WSET, who build the whole groundwork for you, with many centres here.
There’s also the Society of Wine Educators, which offers exams and home and online study, Lee says.
Wine home study is very popular because people are too busy to go to classes. That seems a bit daft when the idea of wine is to drink the stuff with friends, not just read about it.
At the very serious end are two big camps – Master of Wine and Court of Master Sommeliers. Those seem to be your mainstream options for broad based wine education without discrimination to any specific region. Look out for region specific courses too.
But please, please, focus on the drinking and don’t turn into a crashing wine bore. A little knowledge can be a very tedious thing.