Interested in learning more about wine culture around the world? Me too, that’s why I decided to interview a Canadian Sommelier living and working in China. Émilie Steckenborn is a certified sommelier, foodie, and host. She has lived in China for the past 10 years and has covered multiple topics around foods and beverages on her podcast, Bottled in China. In 2019, Émilie was named one of the top future influencers in the global beverage industry. Today she sits down with WanderEater to discuss the main differences and unexpected similarities between Western and Chinese drinking culture.
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Having lived in Shanghai, China, for over 10 years, Émilie oversees wine programs for top-tier businesses in Asia, including serving as the wine consultant for China Eastern Airlines. Her signature podcast, Bottled in China, shares the stories and adventures of passionate individuals, thought leaders, and business leaders in the F&B scene who are shaking things up around the world and today she is here to help educate us about wine culture on the other side of the world.
AA – What are the main differences between the West and China when it comes to food and wine pairing?
- For the most part, Chinese food is not served course by course. Instead, it is a round table dining experience, where you get to try various dishes served all at once. This makes it incredibly tricky to pair with wine, as you might have various flavour profiles all on one plate.
- Chinese food is not one dimensional. Unlike the concept of steak with a glass of Napa Cabernet, Chinese food is extremely versatile. Spices like “ma la” – which translates literally to “numbing spice” – or interesting combinations with bitter vegetables and vinegars make wine pairing both challenging and hard to grasp. But this also makes things very exciting for foodies. Natural wine with a century egg? Stinky tofu (reminiscent of blue cheese pungent character) paired with Blanc de Blanc Champagne?
- At any non-fast food location in the West, there will generally be a curated wine list or experience service that have opened bottles, previously tasted wines, and have a basic understanding of key grape varieties. Apart from fine dining and some specialty wine restaurants in metropolitan areas like Shanghai, Beijing, or Shenzhen, wine knowledge amongst front line staff is generally low. I’ve noticed that, in traditional Chinese dining, the waiter is not asked many questions about the wine. While I do see this improving with the general public learning more about wine, it’s still lacking knowledge compared to back in North America.
AA – What are the differences in China when it comes to wine trends or taste preferences?
- The color red symbolizes prosperity; therefore, red wine dominates the market.
- Like any market, I do see Rosé and sweet/sparkling wine marketed primarily to women.
- Generally speaking, because wine is mostly consumed at large business dinners, large gatherings, or purchased as a gift, the brand, packaging, and region of origin comes before taste.
AA – What is wine culture like in China? Is it changing, what do you think the future holds?
- The wine industry in China is very dynamic. In the last decade of working in the industry in China, I’ve seen the rise of wine education and appreciation, as well as a move from Bordeaux Grand Cru to Burgundy. Young and hip wine consumers who started off with traditional wines now embrace natural wines, and they are only being consumed at large business banquets with a meal.
- When I first came to China, Bordeaux wines dominated the scene, and their wines were priced either very high or extremely low (and in bulk). Today, we’re seeing a new type of consumer who is demanding better quality products and prioritizing value. Given the transparency that e-commerce has provided in China, there’s no hiding behind expensive OEM products.
- Wine e-commerce in China has accelerated at an exceptional speed, and the supply chain management is almost seamless. There’s a lot we can learn from how wine is sold online.
- What excites me the most is seeing the development and quality improvement of Chinese wines. Producers like Ao Yun in Yunnan are crafting wines that can stand alongside some of the best in the world. I do believe that the rise of locally crafted Chinese wines will only improve, and wine consumers in China will start to embrace the “Made in China” movement.
AA – What is it like being a Wine Educator in China? What brought you there, what keeps you there, what do you enjoy the most?
- I’ve been very fortunate to work in China during some of its most dynamic times. What brought me there were the endless learning opportunities and the chance to embrace a new culture alongside new experience. What kept me there were the amazing individuals whom I’ve formed lifelong friendships with.
- I enjoy the fast-paced environment and the open mindedness of individuals to experiment with new business ideas. I’m always amazed by the hard work ethic and commitment to reaching goals in the teams that I’ve led and people that I’ve worked with.
AA – What other differences/similarities are there between the west and Chinese wine culture?
- This is a tricky question as the response is quite long and we can almost write a novel! So let’s take a look at the most crucial ones.
- The differences: It has taken me nearly a decade to understand the interesting and layered business culture and dynamics of China, and even then, I’m still learning, as nothing in China is “black and white”. What you see and what your importers/buyers/wholesalers tell you is not always reality. You need to learn to read between the lines.
- The similarities: Regardless of how strong your brand is, wholesalers need to make money on your wine. Brand, promotion, and price are key for sales.