The China Syndrome

Asia's economy may be ailing, but its taste for fine wine is as healthy as ever

Mr. Chui looked most thoughtful. "I am informed that people are drinking wine with their food now. Is that so?" he asked. "Yes," I agreed, knowing that I was on somewhat irrefutable ground and prepared as well to have one of my periodic, occasionally elliptical, chats with Mr. Chui. Chui Wai Kwan that is, Number Seven Big Brother and proprietor of Fook Lam Moon in Hong Kong, perhaps the finest seafood restaurant on the planet. "And any restaurant of certain high repute should have a house wine, a good house red wine. Is it not so?" he persisted.

"Most do," I replied, nodding.

"Then we must have my house wine," Mr. Chui said with a sly grin, beckoning over his right shoulder with a forefinger as if to say, come. At once a bottle appeared at his right elbow, a bottle of 1982 Château Lynch Bages, a fifth-growth Bordeaux which, if not great, is certainly grand. It is surely the best wine that has ever been suggested to me as a house wine, particularly as an accompaniment to shrimp-filled dumplings, yellow-oil crab and a steamed fat green wrasse.

Once this mischievous playlet would have been unique. No more. Or an aberration. No longer. These days, all of Asia is bobbing on a swelling tide of wines. Western wines, specifically, are the wines it demands, collects and drinks without pause: the most glittery bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy, the biggest of the big Barolos and Barbarescos, any wine from Australia as long as it says "Penfolds" on the label, everything that Robert Mondavi can ship west to east--actually anything red, made from grapes, in bottles.

Cases of wines, no, not cases, but rather whole ship containers, arrive in Asia stacked with red wines that are spoken for before they even reach port. They become possessions, or futures to hold for eventual profit, adornments that confer even more status than the ubiquitous gold Rolex that circles the wrist of Asia's tycoon du jour. These wines are, it must be said, also drunk.

No matter that in Japan and Malaysia it is not altogether unusual to order a vintage Margaux or La Tâche for the banquet table along with a bottle of cola for a mixer to cut, I suppose, any residual acidity. No matter that ice cubes are, more often than not, added to glasses of classic reds, as Mr. Chui did that afternoon with his Lynch Bages and, at a subsequent meal, with a bottle of 1989 Château Haut-Brion. Or that ice water quite often tops a goblet of good red.

What about another famous wine, Château d'Yquem?

It's sweet. And white. And Asians accustomed to the often sweet rice, sorghum and rose flower wines, the choux of China, like it even though it isn't red. It is surely to Yquem's advantage in today's Asia that it is expensive, so very expensive that to own it is simply good business, comparable to having unbreakable blue chips under the mattress or leveraging a neat buyout, perhaps of a Kuala Lumpur shopping mall chockablock with Armanis and Hermès, Guccis and Chanels (the success of which, by the way, would be celebrated these days with a Burgundy, not a Cognac, the drink of celebration in years past).

The Western wine world--growers, blenders and shippers--has become absolutely giddy about all of this. Few of them care, really care, of course, that their wines are generally not nosed, aerated, sipped, swirled and drunk according to the traditions and practices espoused by the published princes of wine. What matters is that Asia is buying at extraordinary levels without questioning price.

Any red from Fat Guo, or the "Expanded Country," as France is known in China, is snapped up sight unseen, usually on the basis of printed vintage charts. The same goes for wines from Mei Guo, the "Beautiful Country," America; or Oh Jau, the "City" of Australia; or Ee Dai Lei, the charming phonetic for Italy. Christie's auction house sells wines to Asians in New York, while Sotheby's sells to Asians in Hong Kong. Both regularly set records. Other auction houses from Singapore to Japan find that all they need do is announce a wine sale and jack up the reserve limits, and the money rolls in. And in Hong Kong, the Island Shangri-La Hotel, an outpost of luxury consumption, has little trouble selling out $4,000-per-person wine dinners, or an occasional $17,000 bottle of 1906 Pétrus (the hotel stocks 44 vintages). Those are, by the way, U.S. dollars.

I must, however, be fair. Not all is chaotic commerce. New chapters of the Commanderie de Bordeaux and the Confrérie des Chevaliers de Tastevin are springing up like mushrooms in damp cellars, and the region is beginning to appreciate, and to drink, its own whites and reds from Chinese producers with names like Dynasty, Great Wall and Dragon Seal. Glossy wine magazines and newsletters show up in Singapore and Hong Kong, one of which, published by the Wine Institute of Asia, recently took drinkers like Mr. Chui to task in a scolding article, "Seafood and Bordeaux Reds? Won't Do!"

What will?

The Wine Institute's ponderous tasting notes suggest that the rich fruit of, say, a 1993 Pomerol would be perfect with long-cooked pork shank, but that barbecued suckling pig is better wedded to an Italian Barbera and that braised abalone and goose feet are absolutely perfect with an Australian Pinot Noir.

I expect this development is more desirable than the relatively new Taiwanese wine practice of chewing freshly chopped raw onions after mouthfuls of Bordeaux. At a festive Taiwanese meal, one's host orders Bordeaux--the more expensive the better--has it poured, raises his glass and shouts "Gan bei!" or "Bottoms up!," and the wineglasses are drained. Then a platter of raw onions is passed around. Why? Why on earth, why? Apparently the Taiwanese believe that the sharp, contrasting swallows confer a temporary buzz that can be associated with certain native health drinks.

I am not certain whether drinking French reds in tandem with raw onions is any better or worse than spiking Cheval Blanc with cola. It is of a piece, however, with the Hong Kong shipping magnates and their tai tai, or "ladies who lunch," washing down dim sum with Burgundies and Bordeaux.

Halfway up Hong Kong's Victoria Peak is a small restaurant with the delightful name Classic Passion. I am not at all certain that its name connotes a place for dim sum trysting, but it is where the rich, idle or otherwise, eat dumplings. During a recent lunch there when I was idle, pretending to be rich, I noticed a wood-grained portable wine refrigerator standing against one wall. Curious, as I am, I had a look. There, standing like a small regiment of royal guards in a perfectly frosted state, were Mouton Rothschilds and Palmers, Romanée-Contis and Richebourgs. All reds. All fine. All cold. Helpful, as I always try to be, I asked for the manager. I apologized for interjecting myself into the operation of his restaurant but suggested that not only should none of his wines be chilled, they should not be stored upright. He smiled at me as if I were someone to be humored, nodded to indicate that he might even agree with me, but he shrugged. "It is all right. They will all be sold soon."

Oh, okay.

FRED FERRETTI is a writer and a lover of wine, no matter how unlikely its occasional accompaniments.

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