At a recent dinner party in Shanghai, pixie-haired fashion designer Han Feng started laughing as she recalled how, not too long ago, a friend in China presented her with a special gift: a bottle of wine infused with garlic. In her spacious apartment in the Jin Jiang Hotel's 1930s Art Deco Grosvenor House, in Shanghai's former French Concession district, Han Feng was presiding over a room full of guests who, like their hostess, enjoy drinking good wine from international producers—something that hasn't always been easy to do in China.
Since most traditional Chinese prefer beer and grain-based spirits over wine, global importers didn't spend much time trying to sell wine in China until recently. And the exorbitant tariffs on imported wines didn't help, explains Christyane Quan, sales manager of ASC Fine Wines, one of the largest importers of premium wines to China. Until 2004, China added a 65 percent tax on imported wines, but in the past two years tariffs have dropped to 14 percent. Now, wine sales are growing at a faster rate than beer sales in China, and wine lists at top Shanghai restaurants rival the best in New York City and Paris. When ASC was launched a decade ago, the company sold 27,000 bottles of wine a year; today its sales exceed two million bottles annually.
As with the rise of Western-inspired fashion, art and architecture in China, the expat community has been the main force behind the wine trend. Locals, however, are beginning to appreciate fine wines too. And the Chinese government has helped increase demand by promoting wine's health benefits, a mission partly driven by the desire to save China's traditional grains for use as food instead of for beer or spirits.
The wine-savvy guests at Han Feng's dinner party included ASC's Quan; financier Lu Jihong, a wine collector who is one of Han Feng's most dependable wine sources; Handel Lee, a wine collector and director of Three on the Bund, the company behind the eponymous retail-and-restaurant development that houses the Shanghai branch of Jean Georges; George Chen, the restaurateur who launched Shanghai's Bistro Shikumen and San Francisco's Betelnut and Shanghai 1930; and actress Joan Chen. Like Han Feng, who splits her time between Shanghai and New York, many guests at the party travel frequently around the world or have homes elsewhere: El Salvador, New Zealand, Ireland, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States.
Han Feng, who created the costumes for the production of Madama Butterfly that opens in late September at New York City's Metropolitan Opera House, wore a whimsical black dress with a scooping neckline that she had designed herself. As she seated her friends around the dinner table, she pointed at the vintage 1960s tumblers she had arranged at each place setting. In the center of the table, she had placed melon-shaped bowls from her "Cantaloupe" collection, available exclusively at her Shanghai design studio and to be included in December's Triennial at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. She had created the coarse-weave, natural-colored linen chair covers and napkins especially for the party.
Like Han Feng's Shanghai neighborhood, a historic district where Asian and European commerce and ideas have long intermingled, the menu she devised for the party reflects her own Eastern and Western lives. She spiked silky pumpkin soup with pumpkinseed oil and Nuwara Eliya Ceylon tea. She reworked the familiar beetandgoat cheese combination to create "ravioli" with a creamy layer of goat cheese between slices of beet, topped with a rice vinegarsoy sauce dressing (instead of the predictable balsamic vinaigrette). She flavored tender cod with Chinese citrus tea and sake, steam-roasting the fish in a neatly tied parchment-paper package.
Quan brought wines from ASC's 850-label collection to drink throughout the dinner, among them a citrusy 2004 Brown Brothers King Valley Riesling from Australia; a bone-dry, herbaceous 2004 Henri Bourgeois Pouilly-Fumé; and an earthy 2001 Cambria Julia's Vineyard Pinot Noir from California. Previously hard-to-find wines like Riesling and Pinot Noir, Quan pointed out, are now more prevalent in China, increasingly showing up on restaurant lists.
Lu Jihong, who lives part-time in Auckland, New Zealand, and stores his 5,000-bottle wine collection there, brought some of his stash to the party too, including a 2001 Te Mata Woodthorpe Cabernet/Merlot from New Zealand. Among Handel Lee's contributions were some Chinese wines—including a 2001 Chairman's Reserve Bordeaux blend from Grace Vineyard, one of China's most respected wineries—that guests could compare to the imports. The Chinese bottlings seemed largely two-dimensional and too short on fruit, but Quan was sure Chinese wines would get better and better. "They will improve for a number of reasons," Quan said. "For one thing, there will be more joint ventures with foreign winemakers," she said. "And the Chinese are showing more interest in new wine technologies these days and are more motivated to make good wines."
George Chen opened a bottle of 1995 Domaine Thenard Le Montrachet, prompting the table to launch into a discussion about Bordeaux's exalted status in China. Christyane Quan explained that Cabernet Sauvignon has become the top-selling red wine in China now, with many affordable labels priced at $6 to $12 a bottle in local supermarkets. But as with Armagnacs and Cognacs, some Chinese still prefer their Cabs laced with soft drinks.
At many Chinese banquets, George Chen said, servers still just pour glass after glass of wine into tumblers, then stand up and announce ganbei (bottoms up). "They go through bottle after bottle," he observed, paying little attention to the quality of whatever they're pouring.
Guests debated how long it would take for the rest of China to catch up with the wine scene in big cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. Joan Chen ventured a guess: "One generation."
Handel Lee was more hopeful. "The Chinese people have the finest food and some of the finest palates in the world," he said. Even though, as China speeds into the future, its wine industry is likely to be as tumultuous as any rapidly growing business, everyone at the table agreed that it wouldn't take long for most of the country to develop a love for good wine. After a pause, a few guests chimed in to revise Joan Chen's estimate: "Half a generation."
Olivia Wu, a food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, was on assignment in Shanghai for the past six months.