China Sips and Sa­vors Chilean Wine

China Today (English) - - CONTENTS - By staff reporter RAFAEL VALDEZ

MAR­I­ANO Lar­raín, from Chile, be­gan siz­ing up China’s po­ten­tial mar­ket for Chilean wine upon his ar­rival in Bei­jing in 2011. Three years ago he opened his busi­ness, La Cava de Laoma, where he teaches the art of wine mak­ing.

Mar­i­ano com­pares the process of capturing Chi­nese wine con­sumers to wine tast­ing. The oe­nol­o­gist dis­cerns the qual­ity of a wine in three stages – vis­ual, ol­fac­tory, and gus­ta­tory. For Lar­raín, 32 years old and from San­ti­ago de Chile, cu­rios­ity about this gi­ant Asian coun­try that ev­ery­one was talk­ing about, but few re­ally knew, en­acted the first of these phases. The sec­ond came with his ar­rival in China, learn­ing the lan­guage, im­mers­ing him­self in the cul­ture, and tak­ing back­pack­ing trips, all in ef­forts to “sniff” out what kind of en­tre­pre­neur­ial scheme would work here and how to go about it. To­day, at the third stage, this young man, whose ma­ter­nal grand­fa­ther started a vine­yard in the Colch­agua Val­ley (Chile) 100 years ago, is sa­vor­ing the nu­ances of China’s wine mar­ket.

Sniff­ing the cork is the first step to tast­ing a wine. Then, af­ter pour­ing a small amount into a glass, the ves­sel should be held by the stem or base to avoid heat­ing the wine. It must then be tilted to a 45 de­gree an­gle against a white back­ground, for ex­am­ple, a sheet of type­writ­ten pa­per. The color of the wine is an im­por­tant in­di­ca­tor of its age. Young red wines gen­er­ally have a cherry or bright ruby shade, while a ma­ture wine is a deeper gar­net red.

A high den­sity wine has a higher con­cen­tra­tion of al­co­hol, which means it has been through a rel­a­tively long fer­men­ta­tion process. A wine’s den­sity is determined by re­volv­ing the glass and ob­serv­ing the rate at which it trick­les down the sides. The slower it de­scends, the higher the den­sity and, con­se­quently, the al­co­hol content.

Lar­raín’s ob­ser­va­tion of the Chi­nese wine mar­ket was sim­i­larly car­ried out. It was in 2008, the year of eco­nomic cri­sis in the U. S. and some Euro­pean coun­tries. “I am a his­to­rian, and be­fore com­ing to China I was work­ing in a for­eign in­vest­ment fund in San­ti­ago de Chile. Ev­ery­body was talk­ing about China as the lifebuoy that the rest of the world clung to. Hav­ing heard so much about China, I de­cided to come and see for my­self. At first I had no long term plan, but I knew I wanted to stay for at least two years,” Lar­raín said.

He be­gan car­ry­ing out more de­tailed re­search on the pe­cu­liar­i­ties of the Chi­nese eco­nomic model and its rapid eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment in one of the re­moter parts of China. In the same way as a wine is closely scru­ti­nized in a glass, Lar­raín an­a­lyzed what the coun­try could of­fer. China’s bur­geon­ing wine sec­tor at that time, due to massive pub­lic sec­tor pur­chases for ban­quets and big events, con­vinced him to go ahead with his project.

The sec­ond stage be­gan in Fe­bru­ary 2011. At this stage of the tast­ing, the oe­nol­o­gist sniffs the wine in the glass to as­sess its prop­er­ties and iden­tify the pri­mary aro­mas of a par­tic­u­lar grape. He then spins the glass to mix oxy­gen with the wine and so ex­pel more aro­mas. Like­wise, Lar­raín “sniffed” Bei­jing. At first, he stud­ied Chi­nese lan­guage for one semester at the pres­ti­gious Ts­inghua Univer­sity, but af­ter five months had made lit­tle progress. His spo­ken Man­darin was still halt­ing be­cause as the peo­ple he was as­so­ci­at­ing with were also for­eign­ers he was not putting it into prac­tice. So he de­cided to stop classes at the univer­sity and en­roll in an academy and at the same have classes with a pri­vate tu­tor. He thus stud­ied for eight hours a day.

When he first ar­rived in Bei­jing Lar­raín did not like the city. “Cul­tural dif­fer­ences and lan­guage dif­fi­cul­ties can drive you crazy, so you need to stop for a while, take a break, and then con­tinue,” Lar­raín said, “So I be­gan to travel to dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try ev­ery week­end and my mis­giv­ings grad­u­ally faded. It was when I went to Shanghai that I re­al­ized how in­ter­est­ing Bei­jing is.

“Bei­jing has a dis­tinct char­ac­ter. How­ever, from the busi­ness point of view, I didn’t know if stay­ing in Bei­jing was a good idea, be­cause the econ­omy is less pro­gres­sive here. Bei­jing is a city more at­tached to Chi­nese tra­di­tions, and as the prod­uct I sell does not re­late to them, it’s more dif­fi­cult to pro­mote. Shanghai is dif­fer­ent. There, young pro­fes­sion­als en­joy life dif­fer­ently; in Bei­jing, peo­ple are more care­ful about spend­ing.”

De­spite all the ad­van­tages he iden­ti­fied in Shanghai, Lar­raín suc­cumbed to the charm of Bei­jing, and in 2013 opened his “La Cava de Laoma” wine shop in San­l­i­tun, the thriv­ing em­bassy dis­trict of abundant bars and restau­rants in the east­ern part of the Chi­nese cap­i­tal.

There be­gan the third, gus­ta­tory phase. Dur­ing a tast­ing, the first sensation af­ter the wine hits the palate is called the “as­sault.” There are ar­eas on the tongue that specif­i­cally as­sess the four fun­da­men­tal salty, sweet, sour, and bit­ter tastes. What is known as a round wine is one that achieves a per­fect bal­ance be­tween the four.

The tongue then de­ter­mines the wine’s tex­ture – silk, vel­vet or satin – the softer the bet­ter.

Then comes the anal­y­sis of the af­ter­taste. Af­ter swal­low­ing the wine, air is ex­pelled through the nose. If the sensation lingers, this wine can be said to have a long af­ter­taste.

The lat­ter is in con­trast to the dif­fer­ent sen­sa­tions Lar­raín has ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing the three years he has been run­ning his busi­ness. He de­scribes it as a roller coaster of feel­ings and ex­pe­ri­ences.

The first jolt came when the Chi-

In the same way as a wine is closely scru­ti­nized in a glass, Lar­raín an­a­lyzed what the coun­try could of­fer.

nese gov­ern­ment launched the an­ti­cor­rup­tion cam­paign, and wine sales in the pub­lic sec­tor fell dra­mat­i­cally. How­ever, this co­in­cided with the grow­ing trend of young pro­fes­sion­als who en­joy drink­ing wine at home or with friends at restau­rants. But the vol­ume of busi­ness nev­er­the­less plum­meted. De­spite this dis­con­cert­ing sce­nario, Lar­raín is op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture in China. “The long-term prospect of the Chi­nese econ­omy is pos­i­tive be­cause of the growth of the mid­dle class, who will con­sume more and more. Many en­trepreneurs have fo­cused on the Chi­nese su­per- rich seg­ment, but I think con­quer­ing that tar­get is more dif­fi­cult be­cause they are al­most in­ac­ces­si­ble. For me, young pro­fes­sion­als will­ing to im­prove their liv­ing stan­dards are the key tar­get,” Lar­raín said.

As for Chi­nese consumer pref­er­ences, “Among red wines, Pinot Noir is a great suc­cess be­cause of its fruiti­ness. How­ever, Caber­net Sau­vi­gnon is still king be­cause of its pres­tige. On the other hand, semi-sweet dry white wines are also pop­u­lar be­cause they com­bine well with Chi­nese food in gen­eral, es­pe­cially spicy dishes.”

The af­ter­taste of a wine is very im­por­tant, and the same ap­plies to busi­ness. When the tast­ing has taken place, we must iden­tify ex­actly what fla­vor the wine has left us. It might smack of tan­nic acid, be in­def­i­nite, or even down­right un­pleas­ant, or dirty. If an af­ter­taste lingers less than two sec­onds we can de­fine it as a short fin­ish wine. That of a mod­er­ate- length wine is around nine sec­onds, whereas a 12 sec­ond af­ter­taste de­fines a long, or very long fin­ish.

Lar­raín has yet to ex­pe­ri­ence this phase in his busi­ness. He has no idea about its af­ter­taste. But as he said, “China is huge and het­ero­ge­neous mar­ket, so it’s hard to go wrong. What might not work in Qing­dao per­haps will in Ji­nan, even though both cities are in the same prov­ince. In what other coun­try in the world could you find so many con­sumers who speak the same lan­guage and think alike, and where there is an ef­fi­cient, rea­son­ably priced lo­gis­tics sys­tem?”

Mar­i­ano Lar­raín comes from a Chilean fam­ily that en­tered the wine busi­ness 100 years ago.

Lar­raín’s shop at­tracts a good num­ber of Chi­nese cus­tomers.

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