The next time you sense notes of grass jelly in your Shiraz, or aromas of lotus paste in your Chardonnay, do not discount them. No, you’re not wrong, nor is your palate out of whack. You’re simply sensing things that are familiar to you.
Afterall, our sense of smell and ability to recognize and identify flavours is something that can only be recalled or summoned if it’s already in your memory. Can anyone relate to notes of licorice or fig in their wines if they’ve never consumed those ingredients before? We think not.
Therein lies the subjectivity in wine tasting. Not everyone has the same memories and experiences associated with what’s going on in their mouth. So someone’s strawberry jam can easily be another person’s honey syrup. Both can be right. It all depends on what’s the most salient one according to the person experiencing it at that point in time.
What isn’t helping many tasters however, is that western vocabulary is too often imbued into the regular wine descriptors we use. Something more familiar to our lived experiences is needed.
Tasting as Asians do
Encouraging us all to better recognise and notice flavours in wine more in tune to the Asian palate is Daniel Chia, co-author of the Asian Wine Lexicon. The veteran Singaporean wine educator first published the booklet in 2006, together with fellow wine aficionados Edwin Soon and Jenny Tan.
The Asian Wine Lexicon, that’s actually designed as a convenient fold-out chart, offers tasting descriptors of common varietals, but with an important twist. Other than the usual descriptors we are all familiar with (like plum, cherry, oak etc.), the chart also offers vocabulary that Asians are more accustomed to.
Notes like nashi pear and longan are commonly found, so are more unusual ones like tempeh (yes, the fermented soybean dish), kumquat and roasted chestnut.
“I teach wine mostly at an introductory to intermediate level, and I find that some new wine tasters tend to start off with a healthy dose of scepticism when I start teaching them using a western lexicon as used in some of the western systematic approaches to wine tasting,” notes Chia.
He soon realizes that the problem doesn’t lie with people’s taste buds, but with the language being used. “When new tasters don’t quite sense the descriptors as used in the western context, I would suggest that they use alternative descriptors of local flavours that they are comfortable and familiar with. I also tell them that there is nothing wrong with writing a tasting note which only they can understand.”
Ahead of its time
Wine appreciation has come a long way in this part of the world. Since most Asian countries do not have an intrinsic wine culture, the (proportionally) few who picked up the hobby out of interest only gained appreciation for it over a long period of time through exposure. So it’s amazing to see that people like Chia have been so pioneering with wine education material way back in 2006.
“The Asian Wine Lexicon was meant to show Asian wine drinkers that we need not follow the wine terms which have been set by a lot of Western media. Everyone’s memory of taste is different and there is a big difference between the flavours we are exposed to in the Western vs Asian world,” he explains.
“When working on the Asian Wine Lexicon, we even realised that different parts of Asia would also have distinctly different descriptors, because of the ingredients they are exposed to. It was clear that the vocabulary would be inexhaustible, so this is just meant to be a guide.”
Fast forward to 2021, and people are still learning new things about wine (such as how wine pairs with Asian cuisine, which the chart addresses as well). Chia believes however, that the market is now in a more matured state and is ready for more.
He adds: “The consumption of wine in Asia has grown quite a lot since 2006. Wine is seen as an aspirational lifestyle product category and the palates of Asian consumers have become more sophisticated, especially in more mature wine markets like Singapore and Hong Kong.”
When Chia is not busy educating fledglings about the wonderful world of wine, he is busy with his new project: Cantina.sg.
It’s a Singapore-based online multi-vendor wine marketplace that peddles accessories such as sommelier knives, decanters, glasses and wine preservation devices.
Of course, there are wines available on the site too. Currently, around 260 different wines from seven different merchants are available.
“In Singapore, I see the growth in wine consumption and consumer sophistication, with the selection of wines available in Singapore now being more eclectic than ever, and giving the adventurous wine drinker lots of different styles and flavours to explore,” remarks Chia.
He believes that the wine market has grown not just in size, but is now also more cultivated, making this endeavour of his one that’s ripe for the picking.
About the Author
Dannon Har is the Managing Editor of Spill. Discovering his innate gift for drinking only at a ripe age, he spares no time trying to find more delicious drops to imbibe during his time on Earth. When he’s not minding every detail at Spill, he spends his time concocting luscious libations and sharing them with folks that visit his home bar.