How a self-proclaimed ‘arrogant’ Frenchman added European twists to Chinese rice wine

Coming from a family of winemakers in Bordeaux, Olivier Sublett’s Le Guishu is a creative blend of western and eastern wine philosophies

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2016, 12:17pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 June, 2016, 1:12pm

Frenchman Olivier Sublett has been making wine from rice for two years. The Chinese have been making rice wine for about 9,000 years, but that isn’t stopping Sublett selling them his version.

“I’m French, so I’m arrogant. I’m from Bordeaux, so I’m top of the podium for that,” says Sublett.

Perhaps he is being a bit harsh on himself. After some trial and error, the first edition (it’s not a vintage) of his rice wine was released this February.It’s a complicated offer – it tastes like grape wines, is fairly easy to drink, but with a little more complexity than the average quaff. It tastes nothing like Chinese yellow wine or Japanese sake.

Le Guishu yellow wine comes as dry, semi dry and semi sweet. I first tried the semi dry and dry at a barbecue, because I couldn’t find a polite way to turn down something I expected to taste like cooking wine. The slightly acidic dry, which is blended with 20 per cent ugni blanc grapes from France’s Cognac region, is bright, citrusy and a little salty, as is the semi dry. The flavours of grapefruit or pomelo I noticed reminded me a little of some Alsace-style white wines. Both wines went well with tandoori-style chicken straight off the charcoal grill, and at a later date with Margherita and Napoli pizzas. The semi sweet wine has a hint of cloves and a more pronounced flavour of orange zest, and makes a good match with foie gras.

Sublett says these white-like wines are a surprisingly good match with meats and, perhaps unexpectedly, oysters, but come into their own when matching many Asian cuisines. Chillies are notorious for clashing with the tannins in wine, killing much of the complexity. These wines have no tannins, so it’s not an issue.

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Sublett claims that the versatility of his wines means that they are a better match than grape wines for Asian-style meals with more than one dish on the table. “Grape wines work with one dish, perhaps a red with meat, a white with fish,” says Sublett.

The three wines should be served in large glasses at a temperature of 7 to 12 degrees Celsius, Sublett advises.

The complexity doesn’t end with the drink itself. Take the name – Le Guishu. It’s supposed to sound French but isn’t not. It’s a complicated Chinese pun. The “Le” means “Happy”, while “Guishu” contains part of the name of Olivier’s fiancée, Yuan Guizhu, and the name of the Chinese olive tree (also known as osmanthus), so it’s also a play on Olivier’s name. It works even better in French, as the tree is called Olivier de Chine. Still with us?

The logo is a character that Sublett says means yellow in an ancient Chinese language and now means east (dong) but is topped by a French beret. The first-edition labels also feature famous characters from the Tang dynasty, such as drunken poet Li Bai.

The winemaking technology is exclusively European. The Sublett family have been making wine since 1822 and Sublett says he first harvested a grape aged five, but had to turn to brewers from Carlsberg and Tuborg in Denmark to develop the secret process that produces the wine.

The rice is macerated and fermented for three weeks to release its starch and develop flavours and the 12.5 per cent alcohol content. It’s that wine-like alcohol level that partly distinguishes the drink from a beer or a sake.

The rice comes from the Camargue region of southern France, where the crop is a legacy of the country’s colonial past in Indochina. Henri Maux, a colonial administrator in Cambodia, flew over the Camargue and realised that it resembled the Mekong delta, where the Khmer had developed centuries-old irrigation systems for growing rice. Maux’s insights were put to use in 1941, when the Vichy government set 19,000 “requisitioned” Vietnamese war workers to work growing rice in southern France.

The Camargue is pollution-free and famous for flamingoes and white horses – but its name is already taken by a more famous wine.

The entrepreneurial Frenchman, who talks about using his rice wine to open markets saturated with Bordeaux wines rather than passion or terroir, is hoping to sell the rice as well.

Le Guishu yellow wine is available at Vins Gallery and i-wine Place priced at HK$140 for dry, HK$160 for semi dry and HK$180 for semi sweet