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Consumers are gradually developing a taste for grape wine, but it still remains outside the mainstream dining culture.
In 2006, the Taiwan economy was still booming, buoyed by surging trade with the People’s Republic of China. It was a time when many Taiwanese businesspeople thought that closer economic ties with the PRC would bringing lasting prosperity to the island. Taiwan’s GDP expanded by 5.6% that year.
That summer I made the acquaintance of a businessman who was thriving thanks to his factories in China. We were both dining in the now-defunct Taipei branch of the gourmet Thai restaurant Patara, which was located just south of the flagship Eslite bookstore on Anhe Road.
We met because I spied a bottle of 1988 Château Margaux Premier Grand Cru (French for “first growth”) Classé on his table, and remarked to him that 1988 “was an excellent year.” Actually I didn’t know whether that was true, but figured it was a good way to start a conversation. I knew the winemaker was excellent because my uncle had given me a sublime 1979 (that was an excellent year) Margaux for my 21st birthday – still one of the best wines I’ve ever tasted.
He introduced himself in fluent English, and in courteous Taiwanese fashion, said that he hoped I could help him and his wife improve their proficiency as English speakers. Once we got past the niceties and a bit of small talk about the ascendant Chinese economy, he offered me a glass of the 1988 Margaux, which he had brought to Patara from his private collection.
Of course, I wanted to try it – but the problem was that we were eating Thai food. Except for the mild chicken satay, everything else was fiery and savory. We had spicy squid salad, red duck curry (typically made with crushed red chilies, fish paste, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, and ginger added to coconut milk) as well as stir-fried morning glories in a pungent shrimp sauce.
With all those Thai flavors on my palate, the wine tasted like Welch’s grape juice, which was a great shame. In a 2012 review of the 1988 Margaux, wine expert James Suckling referred to “mineral and blueberry skin and flowers on the nose,” adding such further descriptions as: “Full-bodied with minerals and silky tannins. Dusty and very pretty. Refined finish.”
In 2016, Suckling’s fellow oenophile Robert Parker wrote that the 1988 “might be considered the undiscovered gem of that prosperous decade for the chateau.”
In general, the best Margaux wines “have an extraordinarily rich bouquet; they are like a romantic woman,” says Frenchman Dominique Levy, owner of Bordeaux specialist Formosawine Vinters and a two-decade veteran of Taiwan’s wine industry.
My experience at Patara with the 1988 Margaux – which today fetches US$400-$500 a bottle in the United States and Europe – shows why it’s worthwhile to learn the basics of pairing food with wine, observes Joe Liu, a local wine expert and the editor-in-chief of the Chinese-language Wine & Spirits Digest.
“Spicy Thai food overwhelms the complex and subtle flavors of a refined Bordeaux like that – it washes them away,” he says. “You’d be better off with a sweet white wine that tastes of tropical fruit, like a Riesling or Gewurtztraminer from Germany or Alsace” [a region of eastern France known for its white wines].
Such mismatches were common a decade ago. The Taiwan market has matured considerably since, but many Taiwanese are still learning how to pair wine with food, says wine lecturer Griselda Pan. Based in Taipei, Pan teaches Taiwanese how to pair wine with many different kinds of cuisines, from Taiwanese to Italian to Indian – and even Thai. She holds themed dinners, often pairing each course with a different wine.
Pan has lived for extended periods in top wine-making countries like France, Italy, Spain, and Australia, observing how locals enjoyed wine with their native cuisines. As she learned more about wine and food, she became determined to further wine appreciation in her native Taiwan.
Taiwan is traditionally a tea-drinking culture. Grape wine is something that’s come along just in the past 25 years, she notes. “So many people here aren’t familiar with how to appreciate wine. They may think it’s something for the wealthy, or just something that’s drunk with Western food.”
A distinct wine market
“Taiwan’s wine market is continuing to grow,” says Rosaline Chen, the local representative of the California Wine Institute. “As more people in the younger generations enjoy wine drinking, it’s become a trendy lifestyle.”
According to data from the Global Trade Atlas, wine consumption in Taiwan set a new record in 2016 at 20.2 million liters; in value terms, the market was worth US$152 million. Although full 2017 figures are not yet available, a modest further growth is anticipated.
French wines are the market leader, with a 46.7% share by value in 2016. The United States was second with 10.7%, and Chile third with 9%. Red wine, mainly from France, dominates the market, but its share of total consumption – once over 80% – has been declining and is now approaching 70%, say members of the wine trade. Chen notes that many younger wine consumers tend to prefer whites.
Of the American wines imported to Taiwan, some 97% are from California, according to the Agricultural Trade Office of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). The remainder come mainly from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
“Taiwan’s strong cultural predisposition to the United States has always boded well for U.S. wines in general in the market,” and they sell well at premium price points because they are viewed as prestige products, says Katherine Lee, an Agricultural Marketing Specialist at AIT. Further boosting consumption, she notes, is the tendency for sommeliers at popular Taiwan steakhouses to recommend pairings of U.S. wines with U.S. beef.
The California Wine Institute has been promoting aggressively in Taiwan, each year hosting a largescale event involving not only wine tasting but presentations by well-known sommeliers, wine writers, and other specialists. More than 600 wine importers and consumers attended the most recent DiscoverCaliforniaWines event in October.
Aside from American wines, top Bordeaux varieties are preferred by local aficionados, as they have been for several decades, observes Formosa Wines’ Levy. Collectors prize first growths from the five most famous chateaux in Bordeaux: Lafite, Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion, and Mouton. Compared to 20 years ago when he first entered the business, Taiwanese wine fanciers today are “more knowledgeable,” says Levy. “They travel to France and visit the wineries more often.”
Business is stable in the mid and high-end segments of the market, but it’s ferociously competitive at the entry level, where “there’s always someone with a cheaper price,” he says.
Cognizant of mainstream Taiwanese consumers’ frugality, mass-market chains such as Carrefour, RT Mart, and Costco are content to sell inexpensive wine in large volume here, observes Jason Chang, a wine importer and owner of the Dancing Elephant retail store. “They’re happy with 10% margins,” he says. “Most small importers need closer to 40%.”
While hypermarts make wine accessible to a wider audience in Taiwan, they’re also creating unrealistic expectations among consumers, he says. “A customer asked me recently why I didn’t have any bottles for NT$200 – she said she had bought something at Costco for that price.”
Levy cautions against consumption of dirt-cheap wine. “Not all wine is good for you – even in moderation,” he says. The price on certain wine is low because of unusually large production volume, made possible by the liberal use of pesticides and the addition of sulfites, he explains. “The sulfites are what give you a headache.”
Chang is right that NT$200 is unusually cheap for a bottle of wine in Taiwan. In 2005, I once purchased a Merlot called “Bird” – the label depicted a large fowl – from a supermarket for NT$230. It tasted rancid – as if the bottle had baked for months in the sun. A Google search reveals that a South African Merlot called “Secretary Bird” retails for an average of NT$201 globally today.
New-world wines (those from outside of Europe and the Middle East) in the NT$300-$500 range are more common here, especially those from Chile, notes Orbie Yang, director of food and beverage at The Sherwood Taipei hotel. “New-world wines are generally easier for people unfamiliar with wine to understand and appreciate,” he says. In the case of Chile, which offers many Cabernet Sauvignons, the typical Taiwanese consumer knows the grape, finds it relatively palatable, and can accept the price tag (often NT$500 or less), he says.
In her book Guide to the Taiwan Wine Trade 2016, Debra Meiburg quotes Taiwan wine writer Lin Yu-sen as saying there are similarities between French and Chilean wines, and that given Taiwan’s familiarity with the former, “Chile’s flavor profile feels reassuringly familiar.”
Among European wine producers besides France, Italy is rising in prestige and popularity here thanks to its solid value proposition, Meiburg says. In contrast, Spanish wine, a third choice among 42% of Taiwan wine importers, is usually guzzled at banquets. In Meiburg’s view, that may help importers sell inventory and appear on more hotel wine lists for now, but eventually could “saddle Spain with an image problem that will be difficult to shake off.”
Aaron Turner, owner of monastic wine importer Chalice, says that Australian wines priced between NT$700 and NT$1000 – especially Cabernet Sauvignons – are among his best sellers. “Taiwanese like fruity, full-bodied red wine and they are increasingly familiar with Australia as a capable winemaker,” he says. “There’s an awareness that Australian wine selling for NT$400 in a supermarket doesn’t represent the country as a whole.”
Taiwan-based oenophiles say that additional wine education will facilitate healthy development of the market. “Some people are still drinking labels, but Taiwanese are increasingly interested in how the wine tastes rather than the brand,” says Tom Curry, director of International Programs at the Taiwan Wine Academy, the first institution to offer certified Chinese-language wine education in Asia. “Our mission is to awaken people’s curiosity.”
More than 9,000 alumni have graduated from the academy since its establishment in 2008. Students were initially professionals in the hospitality industry who sought wine expertise for career purposes. Today, the academy enrolls more wine hobbyists – although businesspeople still find knowledge of wine to be useful, Curry observes. “If you do business globally, you often find wine at dinners and other social functions. Having no knowledge of it can put you in an embarrassing situation.”
Wine education has caught on in Taiwan because local culture prizes erudition, observes Wine & Spirits’ Liu. “For Taiwanese, it makes perfect sense to learn about wine in a classroom setting,” he says.
In fact, Liu believes that global wine critic Robert Parker has become influential in Taiwan partially because of his lucid, quantitative approach to wine tasting. “We are exam oriented in Taiwan,” he says. “It’s easy for Taiwanese to understand a wine in terms of a numerical score – even if that doesn’t tell the whole story.”
One stumbling block to wine penetration in Taiwan is dining culture. Most restaurants here serve Chinese cuisine and lack wine lists. Whiskey, often brought in by patrons, is the most popular alcoholic beverage at dinner. In fact, Taiwan is the world’s fourth largest whiskey market by value. “Whiskey at banquets is an integral part of local dining culture – for better or worse,” says Chalice’s Turner, who formerly hosted whiskey dinners in Taiwan for a major global wine and spirits maker. For value-conscious drinkers, a little whiskey goes a long way, observes wine lecturer Griselda Pan. “If you’re focused on alcohol content, 750ml of whiskey that’s 40% alcohol beats the same amount of wine that’s 14%,” she says.
At the same time, whiskey is easy to care for and doesn’t spoil, she notes. From that standpoint, wine can be a tough sell in Taiwan. “You can’t just open a bottle of wine and store it at room temperature for a year, but that’s what whiskey drinkers are used to doing,” she says.
Will drinking preferences change? It’s quite possible, says Wine & Spirits Digest’s Liu, pointing out that brandy was the drink of choice at Taiwanese banquets in the 1990s before whiskey replaced it. “Wine has the potential to become much bigger.”
For that to happen, restaurants will need to do a better job of introducing quality wines to their guests. Industry observers say that a shortage of oenophile expertise in Taiwan could make that a challenge. “Salaries are an issue,” says Pan. “Taiwanese wine experts can earn a much better living in Shanghai, Beijing, or Hong Kong.”
There are exceptions. The Sherwood’s Toscana Italian restaurant, which specializes in dry-aged U.S. steak, offers a wide selection of Italian and California red wines to guests, says food and beverage director Yang. “We want guests to enjoy good wine with good food. That’s how you learn to appreciate wine.”
The Sherwood has invested in Coravin technology, created to open wine bottles without removing the cork. U.S.-based Coravin says that wine in bottles opened with its technology can be preserved for weeks or even months. That allows Toscana to serve a wide variety of wines by the glass, Yang says.
Looking ahead, Euromonitor expects Taiwan’s wine consumption to increase steadily in the coming years, surpassing 25 million liters in 2021.
“We’ve come a long way,” says Taiwan Wine Academy’s Curry. “Taiwan is now a wine-tasting culture, but it’s not yet a wine-drinking culture.”
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