Reclaim A Sense Of Adventure

In Dongguan, as elsewhere, consumers and outlets lack the confidence to go off-piste with their wine selection and risk ending up with boring, uniform wine lists which lack intrigue and stifle curiosity.

Over the 20-odd years I’ve been dabbling in, reading about, working with and drinking wine, what strikes me as most odious is the whiff of intimidation which wine professionals themselves bring to the table—the “Wizard of Oz” factor. The vast majority of people don’t know very much about wine generally, or even the specific wine they want to buy or to offer their own customers, and that’s fine. What’s bad is that they feel embarrassed about the bottle-shaped gap in their consciousness, and are easily bullied by waiters or vendors who demonstrate confidence (arrogance?) based on their knowledge of the buyer’s insecurity, more than their own oenological expertise.

Minervois, Languedoc, and Rhone regions like Ventoux all offer better value without the burden of the Bordeaux label.

This problem drives many retailers into the arms of the bigger suppliers, which is a shame, because it leads to homogeneous wine lists which—while they do guarantee continuity of supply—lack intrigue and adventure. I’d like to see more venues in Dongguan actively promoting bin-ends and “guest wines” over perfect repeatability. It’s a pity if absolute consistency prevails at the expense of the occasional, ephemeral discovery of something truly exceptional. Customers and retailers need to be more confident in their ability to appreciate and promote the best of what is available today—not simply the most accessible wines which will still be here next year. With that in mind, this column is devoted to debunking the three biggest lies about wine.

Taste the wine, sir?
The formality of tasting the freshly opened or even just-decanted bottle of wine is largely a sham. The most common fault is “corked wine,” which may not be easily detectable at first, even to a well-trained wine-waiter. It presents initially as a very subtle staleness. If you think a wine might be corked, your best bet for confirmation is to leave it up to 15 minutes in the glass, returning every few minutes for a sniff. The “corked” fault will become more pronounced over time. In a restaurant, ask to see the cork; check it for mold, stains along the length, and general condition. Also check the bottle for stickiness under the capsule. Most capsules twist freely around the bottle. If yours doesn’t, then the wine may have leaked into the capsule, meaning the cork is compromised. “False faults” like excess sulphur usually dissipate after a few seconds, leaving a flawless wine in the glass, but most real faults will follow the “corked” pattern of becoming much more obvious with time spent in the glass. So, sur, indulge in the ritual of “taste the wine.” But don’t be afraid to call the waiter back if it’s increasingly unpleasant as time goes on.

Older wine is better wine
I went to a tasting recently where the grand finale was a 2011 Bordeaux Supérieur. It was never a good wine, but it’s now seriously over the hill—thin, reedy and flat. The team running the tasting have some great wines which drink much younger with satisfying results. Fetishizing super-young wines like Beaujolais Nouveau is also a mistake, but I’d take a two-year-old regional AOC over a “prestige” vintage most of the time, particularly if budget is any consideration. Of course, if you’re impressing a client on the company dime then you might consider an exceptional year from a prestige region. In that case, visit first, and check out his excellent vintage chart to make sure you’re not buying a turkey.

Bordeaux is better than Bulgaria
This might be true if you’re buying upmarket in Europe, where famous French regions enjoy massive advantages in terms of prestige, reputation and government help. But… They’re not sending us their best. Bordeaux in particular exports some nasty, overpriced plonk to the PRC (see above) because of the perception that locals are buying labels not liquids. Minervois, Languedoc, and Rh?ne regions like Ventoux all offer better value without the burden of the Bordeaux label. Other standouts are Italian reds at DOC level and Chilean Central Valley reds. Bulgaria also has some excellent mid-market reds. Ask about them next time you’re browsing bottles.

With more confidence in our own taste buds and more faith in our ability to appreciate unfamiliar wines, perhaps we can aspire to wider selections and more flexible wine lists in Dongguan, particularly in “by-the-glass” offerings. Unencumbered by the sommelier’s sneer, Dongguan’s range of beers has gone from boring to bountiful since about 2014. Let’s hope the local wine market can enjoy comparable progress in its own way over the next few years.

Alec Forsyth started selling wine in France over twenty years ago, and is a proud holder of the Wines and Spirits Educations Trust (WSET) Higher Certificate in Wines and Spirits. He has been the head buyer for a local Dongguan wine merchant since 2011, and has been selling imported wines to the Dongguan cognoscenti for several years.