Jeannie Cho Lee, a Korean-born, Hong Kong–based master of wine, weighs in on the Chinese wine scene and why no Chinese sommelier would pair Gewürztraminer with Cantonese cuisine.

By Ray Isle
Updated May 23, 2017
Jeannie Cho Lee
Credit: Courtesy of Asian Plate

Jeannie Cho Lee, a Korean-born, Hong Kong–based master of wine, weighs in on the Chinese wine scene and why no Chinese sommelier would pair Gewürztraminer with Cantonese cuisine.

How popular is wine in China?
The Chinese have been into wine for almost a decade now. Recently, sales have slowed; government policy now curbs luxury gift-giving, and wine is seen as a part of that. But I think that’s a good shake-up. What’s happening is that the true wine lovers are still drinking—the people who are saying, “I know wine’s not that trendy or popular now, but I’m still going to drink it because I love the taste.”

Is wine a traditional part of Chinese culture at all?
No, but if you’re talking about a sophisticated beverage where there’s a quality spectrum and differences in taste, aroma and flavor, the Chinese have always had that. Think about tea. Tea has tannins and different textures, different quality levels—you can get inexpensive to very expensive tea, and green and black and everything in between. So when wine came along, it didn’t take people long to catch on. Plus, the dining scene in China has improved incredibly in the last 20 years.

It reminds me in a way of Spain, post-Franco, when the culinary scene just exploded. But how big is this change?
Enormous. Gosh, in the early ’90s, Shanghai was a dining desert. Wine was only served in a handful of five-star hotels, and all of them had really awful wine lists. It was very sad. Now you have everything from basic kinds of noodle shops to Michelin-star-quality restaurants.

You’re an author and a wine critic, and you also have a wine-education site called Asian Palate. But is there really such a thing?
I coined that term just because I knew it was going to be controversial. You can never actually define an Asian palate, just like you can’t define an American palate. But there is a difference if you grow up with rice as the main staple, with a way of dining where condiments and seasonings are much more important, dishes are far less meat-based, and a huge variety of cooking techniques are used in one meal.

What does that mean for wine?
The difference is that when you have what I call “roving chopsticks,” meaning your chopsticks dip in and out of anywhere between six to 10 dishes in front of you, it’s a much greater variety than with Western cuisine. You can take rice with chicken in one bite, the next bite could be rice and fish, and then rice and vegetables could be the bite after that. So you can’t possibly think about pairing wine with just one dish. We never eat that way. For Asian cuisine, wine needs the ability to adapt to a wildly diverse array of flavors.

Do you have any specific pairing recommendations?
In general, lighter-bodied wines with greater acidity and lower alcohol levels work better with most Chinese food, most Japanese food, and most Vietnamese and Thai food. So a cool-climate Pinot Noir works very well with a lot of Asian cuisines because of its light tannins and high acidity—which give the wine a real freshness between bites. Many white wines work for the same reasons. But I would avoid highly aromatic varieties like Gewürztraminer. Americans always recommend it with Chinese food, but to me it dominates, rather than complements. Pinot Gris or Grigio is a much better choice. Albariño, too—it’s light and floral, and it has good acidity. Honestly, I’ve never seen anyone in Hong Kong who knows anything about wine serve Gewürztraminer with Cantonese food.

What about a lightly sweet Riesling paired with Chinese food?
About the only time I pour sweeter wines is with European or North American guests who can’t handle spices! If people aren’t used to spicy food, you can just look at their faces and know they need something to save them. It’s funny: If you go to southern India or Korea or Sichuan province, they’re all drinking red wine. They love intensifying that burning sensation on the tongue with a dose of red wine tannins! It’s very much a cultural thing. If you love that sensation of having your tongue on fire, you want it to linger.

You’re originally from Korea, but you’ve lived in Hong Kong for more than 20 years. What are your favorite wine destinations in the city?
Hands down the best wine list is L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, right in Central. It’s connected to Robuchon au Dôme in Macao, which has the greatest wine list in Asia. The food is extremely good, but it’s the wine list that’s spectacular. They must have over 3,000 selections—and if you order in advance, they can also ship in wines from the Macao restaurant, which has over 14,000 wines on its list.

What about an under-the-radar favorite restaurant in Hong Kong?
Bistro du Vin. The owner loves Burgundy, and he has a great, fairly priced list. Plus, he’ll let you bring your own wine. There’s no corkage fee; he brings around a container and says, “Listen, we’re giving you glasses and wine service, and it’s up to you to tip however much you want.”

China has a huge culture of toasting with baijiu, the classic grain liquor. Is that true for wine?
A lot of wine drinking here has been “ganbei style,” though that’s changing, slowly. Ganbei literally means dry (gan) glass (bei). While the rest of the world just sips when it toasts, being polite in China means draining your glass. That’s fine with baijiu; it’s served in tiny shot glasses. But now people fill up these gigantic Riedel wineglasses and expect you to guzzle it all down in one go. It’s considered impolite if you don’t!

So do you guzzle?
I have to! But eventually I’ll tell the waiter, “My glass, I want you to just put a tiny little drop in it.” The absolute bare minimum. That way if I have to do the ganbei, I can still survive the night.