What Goes Well with Ox?
Searching for an appropriate gift for the Lunar New Year, our resident wine expert finds there’s more to consider than white or red
Finding an appropriate gift for the Lunar New Year? There’s more to consider than white or red
Christmas and New Year’s Eve are over, and you may be part way through Dry January by now, but the big season for wine gifting in Asia still lies ahead.
Every Lunar New Year, the cheesier element among the world’s wine producers pumps out containerloads of bottles emblazoned with the coming year’s zodiac animal (this year, beginning February 12 in China, at least it’s an ox, a far easier sell than 2020’s rat). But what if you don’t want to be one of those gifters indifferently flinging bottles of ox-labelled red at everyone in their contact list?
Here’s how to think up some fun or even slightly off-piste ideas for wine gifts without accidentally offending everyone you know.
First of all, be realistic about your own level of wine knowledge. If you’re a novice, it’s better to invest your time in making a single, imaginative (and reasonably priced) choice, rather than try to personalise gifts for each of your friends, especially if your gift list is longer than ten. Since no one expects the wine you send to be the next sleeper cult hit, the pressure is off and you can actually have some fun with your choices, indulging in some Lunar New Year symbolism or punning. Rather than something safe and snooze-worthy, start with a wine style you know most of your crowd enjoys and then give it a little twist to earn you cred from the wine geeks (if you can’t be bothered to do the work, I’ve done it for you below).
On the other hand, if you’re a wine lover, you probably have more information about your friends’ preferences and may feel that it’s worth investing in semipersonalised choices (dictating, implicitly, how much you should spend). Your friends’ expectations are also probably higher, meaning what is inside the bottle is more important than its appearance.
However, if you have to send gifts to more than ten friends, family members or colleagues, I highly recommended you stick to a single, reasonably priced and versatile option, as trying to categorise a long contact list may cause serious social awkwardness if the recipients ever compare notes (trust me, I’ve seen it; the results are not pretty).
Also, avoid the trap of spending too much time or money picking a “statement” wine; you’ll only find yourself grumbling about pearls to swine when it’s under-appreciated or even unappreciated by those who are less enthusiastic than you are. Better to choose something with broader appeal, even if it isn’t “safe” per se, and save your treasure hunting energies for your own table.
Critically, localise. Many countries in Asia celebrate Lunar New Year, but their attitudes towards auspicious symbols, gifts and alcohol vary. In Hong Kong, you’ll want to avoid unlucky colours (black or white, or anything green that looks hat-like) or symbols (clocks, sharp objects, groups of four). Picking a vintage that ends in eight, or a label that’s red, features a fish, mandarin duck or even just a round, happy-looking shape, certainly won’t hurt. To get some insights into gift practices in other markets, I asked a few industry friends for their views.
Sunthorn Lapmul, former sommelier of the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok and currently marketing director for importer distributor Wine Dee Dee, advised that gifting is a key part of Thailand’s Lunar New Year, which falls in April and is bustling with family activities. Gifts should relate to health, luck and long life and otherwise show respect towards the recipient. Delivering by hand is an important way to signal this.
An obvious first step is to check whether the recipient drinks alcohol at all, since many Thais are Buddhist and abstain. Next, avoid black labels (a negative symbol) and try to choose a wine that has some ageing potential, since Thais will not typically consume a gift right away.
Roderick Wong, founder of Malaysia’s Wine Academy and honorary president of the Sommelier Association of Malaysia, said gifting wine is not that common there; hampers, oranges and other more traditional choices remain popular. Bringing wine along to a party would be a more normal gesture, in which case a red wine from Bordeaux or Australia would be a standard choice.
Xing Wei, a wine educator, Master of Wine student and co-founder of retailer Fusheng Wines in Beijing, said that in China, most gifters remain focused on a “fancy wine box”. He said that unlike the distilled liquor Maotai, the price of which is universally known, wine is a gift most recipients won’t be able to easily evaluate, so luxurious packaging, with elements like a heavy bottle, metal label or wax capsule, is key. Names like “Lafite” and “Penfolds” still hold cachet and even less specific terms like “Left Bank” or “legendary” are helpful cues. Somewhat more encouragingly, he notes that wine with a story (“tasted by President Xi” or “owned by XYZ celebrity”) can make a good Lunar New Year gift, although this presumably only works if the gift is delivered in person or perhaps with an explanatory note.
IF YOU’RE A NOVICE, TRY THESE
Torres Sangre de Toro 2018
Yes, it’s a little corny, but at least this wine always has a red bull on its label. It’s also just straightforwardly delicious and surprisingly on-trend given that wine producers around the world are waking up to the charms of Spanish-origin “Rhône” grapes like garnacha (grenache) and carineña (carignan), with their ability to produce pert-fruited, spicy reds on a lissom frame. Also, at this price point, you won’t feel like you’ve taken a bull’s horn to the wallet.
Ruinart Brut Rosé NV Champagne is a standard gift, but white isn’t a great look for Lunar New Year, so why not pick a rosé instead? Ruinart’s label and bottle are delightfully plump and harmoniouslooking, giving good seasonal vibes, and as champagne’s oldest maison, you couldn’t find a much better symbol of longevity. The wine itself is brilliantly structured and energetic, meaning it can be laid down and enjoyed many moons hence, which is fortunate, because you may not have much budget left for gifting next Lunar New Year if you pick this option.
Vega Sicilia Oremus Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos 2008
Mere mortals can send oranges while you send a wine that tastes of candied orange peel and looks like liquid gold. Usefully, this exquisitely sweet but precisely balanced elixir has the sugar to stand up to all those cheeky Lunar New Year snacks. Just make sure you get the “6 Puttonyos” and not the “5” or you’ll erase all the positivity of choosing 2008.
IF YOU’RE A WINE LOVER ... ... AND THEY’RE A WINE NOVICE
Alter Ego de Palmer 2008
It appears that the 2018 vintage of Alter Ego de Palmer, with its luxurious gold label and holidayfriendly red capsule package, is already sold out in many parts of Asia. However, the 2008 vintage of this merlot-dominant second wine is now beautifully mature, with meltingly suave tannins, mellowed dark berry fruit and a lifted, peppery quality.
... AND THEY’RE A WINE GEEK
Movia Lunar 2008
Apart from the fact that it actually says “Lunar” on the label, which is an obvious score, it’s also an orange wine (get it?). Although this is obviously not the one to send your tea-drinking aunties or your Bordeaux-loving boss, anyone on your list regularly seen experimenting with their facial hair, bowler hats or braces will appreciate this savoury, golden-fruited treat from one of the orange wine OGS.
... AND THEY’RE A WINE SNOB
Paul Bara Special Club Rosé Grand Cru 2008
Those in-the-know know that 2008 was probably a once-in-a-lifetime champagne vintage and hunting down this Special Club rosé (a real rarity) shows a level of dedication far greater than just nipping round to the shops for 2008 Dom Pérignon (though we certainly wouldn’t say no to the latter). Bara’s wines are generous, expressive and rich, something we would all like our friends to be.
... AND YOU NEED ONE WINE TO PLEASE THEM ALL
Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot 2018 With a gentle nod to good luck symbols (the duck, the year ending in “8”) and the quietly luxurious tan/yellow label with gold hot-stamping, this gift is still predominantly about the wine inside the bottle. It’s an old-school classic, appealingly rich in blackberry and red plum fruit, sweet spices and soft, woolly tannins. Plus, as a Napa Valley merlot, it boldly says, “I don’t let Paul Giamatti movies from the mid-2000s dictate my wine choices.”
Kumeu River Hunting Hill Chardonnay 2018
Much as it would sadden me to see this wine sell out again, as happened when it was served to president Xi Jinping during his 2014 visit to New Zealand, if there’s a white wine that feels appropriate to give at Lunar New Year, this is one that at least has the right story. More importantly, it’s simply a divine chardonnay— lithe and sinuous but with curves in all the right places. Plus, if you’re still looking for a hidden numerological reason to pick it, the Hunting Hill vineyard is almost exactly eight acres in size.