It tastes like a revelation, that’s what it is. That first sip of a Gewürztraminer is magic because everything finally makes sense, and I’m not just drinking it to wash down food. And all it takes is a vocabulary that I can relate to.
But before that, we train our noses. Set on the table is what looks like a perfumer’s kit of several different vials of scents. Edwin Soon one of the three founders of the Asian Wine Lexicon, removes a few vials and dips tester strips in each. We guess almond, specifically the kind you mix in as a powder for a drink; cumin, initially described as an Indian spice; Chinese medicine; and jasmine, or a white flower of some sort.
It goes on for a bit, a fun educational exercise that gets you thinking about what precisely it is that you smell. First, an association appears in your mind—possibly a food or a quality of it—and then with further sniffing, you distil it down to its component, perhaps the right spice or flower, or you might simply describe it as a type of dish that you’ve had before. It’s something that we naturally do since our senses are so tied to memory.
Coincidentally, Jiu Zhuang bar at Dempsey, where we’re at, is the same place where I’d tested the idea of improving your sense of smell to better appreciate the flavour profiles in drink (see the July 2015 issue)
And even more serendipitously perhaps, the tool that we use now to train our sense of smell was also developed by Sandy Blandin, perfume educator and founder of Nose Who Knows. Except instead of the standard perfumer’s kit that contains the common types of scents that can be found in most perfumes, this was made especially for tea, which can also be adapted for wines.
Switching to thinking about the aroma and the flavour profiles through the lens of an Asian gastronomic background somehow makes it all click. Referring to the actual lexicon, which includes both classic and Asian profiles, along with the descriptions of its character, makes the whole experience even more inviting. Now I just want to taste more and more wines just to see if the vocabulary fits.
We had been writing notes on our own, using Asian terms during wine tastings, and then we sat down and thought, ‘Look at what we’re all using!’ We seemed to be doing the same thing, so why not get together and do something,” says Soon.
Together with Jenny Tan and Daniel Chia, the trio spent about two years on research, including once-a-week tastings of wines at Soon’s before they came up with the handy, pocket-sized tool. “It’s not definitive or absolute. It’s there to be a guide, so we have suggested flavour profiles or descriptors, but we’d love it if you could add more too, because every wine is different,” adds Tan.
The Lexicon covers a good list of reds and whites, and though three of the wines we try aren’t listed in it—a Syrah-Nero d’Avola blend by Cusumano Benuara, a Valpolicella blend by Villa Girardi and a Müller Thurgau by Cembra—it’s possible to cross-reference with similar varietals that are in the Lexicon.
But this is precisely why user input is needed, and along with that, the team is also in talks with wine producers to come up collaboratively with specific charts for their wines.
Soon has written the book Pairing Wines with Asian Food, and helpfully, the lexicon has a section on that, too, including pairing suggestions. We polish off the wine with some Chinese classics done incredibly well by the Jiu Zhuang team including a whisky-infused set of xiao long baos and probably the best carrot cake I’ve ever tasted.
This reminds me a lot of a dinner I had much earlier in Newton Circus. Delicious local hawker food and paired not with a Tiger, but with wines for each course.
The best of the lot is a close tie for me: sambal stingray from Guan Kee paired with a Parxet Cava and satay from Siti Khadijah Seafood with a Zinfandel from Pedroncelli Winery.
Sounds strange? It works bloody well actually, party in the mouth and so on. Some of the other pairings are a bit of a hit and miss, but these two make so much sense in taste.
Organised by 75CL, the hawker dinner and wine pairing is called a “wine democracy”, an effort by its founder Cedric Mui to make wine more approachable and as easy-drinking in a culture as it is in Europe.
Deconstructing a dish to its component tastes and textures helps when deciding what wine to pair it with, but the problem with dining in an Asian manner is the approach to food.
Compared to having food by courses and matching wine by course, we normally dine with several different dishes to share, with each likely having a conflicting flavour profile, not to mention the multitudes of sauces that could change the taste of the dish.
For instance, we had orh luak (oyster omelette) paired with a Rosé wine and it tasted absolutely horrific—if you first dip a morsel in the accompanying chilli sauce. But taken as it is, the wine and the dish mingled nicely together.
Having the vocabulary to describe and understand wine might be the missing link to making better food pairing choices that will eventually lead to a normalisation of wine drinking locally.
The prices at 75CL are accessible; the guys go direct to the winery bypassing any middleman to get the best value, and by holding future tastings of a similar vein, wine-drinking will likely be perceived as normal as grabbing a beer to go with greasy hawker food.
A few years ago, I saw something very enviable in a San Francisco home, a gorgeous homemade focal point in the kitchen made up of wine corks from many undoubtedly happy evenings conducted with Bacchus.
It may be less possible with the alcohol tax in Singapore, but collecting mountains of corks aside, could we perhaps look to a future of wine imbibed more freely, and not just as a snooty exercise in looking flush?
It’s hardly a sacred mystery privy to only a few, and with these two groups doing their best to spread the education, there might be a rumble in the distance in the evolution of the local drinking and feasting culture.
First published in Esquire Singapore’s February 2016 issue.