AWL – how it works (Lestari Hairul of Esquire Magazine explains)

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.


Ed has contributed to various magazines, e-zines and newspapers – from Straits Times, The Peak and Medical Grapevine to Timeout, Harpers Bazaar and Krisflyer. Subjects range from travel and food to spirits, beer and wine. A stint as the wine editor for based in Chicago, led to the founding with a friend, of Singapore’s first wine-on-line shop featuring on-line wine courses (e-wineasia).  Ed contributed to, was the consulting wine editor for Appetite magazine and had a column with the Star Newspapers. He was a nominated in the VinItaly Wine Communicator of the Year and also received the Asian Wine Pioneer award.

Ed has authored several books and continues to write.

Wine with Asian Food

Review By Harvey Steiman
in The Wine Spectator magazine, May 15, 2008 issue

Asian food is the final frontier for wine matching. I still hear people recommending a single wine to go with an Asian cuisine such as Chinese, Japanese or Indian. Wrong. It should be like matching wine with any other meal. Now there’s some help. In Wine With Asian Food: New Frontiers in Taste (Tide-Mark Press, $24.95, 173 pages), Patricia Guy and Edwin Soon outline a system that divides Asian dishes into five flavor categories and wine into seven styles, three of them sweet. Guy and Soon find plenty of dishes to match with dry wines, but for the many Asian dishes that freely use hot spices, the authors recommend wines of varying degrees of sweetness. Spicy food can make a dry wine taste sharp; sweet wines may keep a better balance.

One of the best things in the book is a taste test of Asian ingredients with specific types of wine. For example, the authors suggest sampling lime juice, which appears in many Thai and Vietnamese dishes, with crisp, dry and aromatic whites such as Champagne, German and Austrian trockens, Muscadet and Sauvignon Blanc, to see the effects they have on one another.

Guy and Soon include 50 classic Asian recipes to give home cooks a chance to experiment on their own. Because these dishes are commonly available in restaurants, the recipes form a nice playbook for the next time you’re choosing wine at your favorite Asian restaurant.

Review by Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop in Newsweek, Dec 3, 2007 issue

Asian drinkers have preferred beers and liquors to wine, but that may be changing. Most restaurants in Asia now offer wine, and wine bars are cropping up in the more cosmopolitan cities. At the ultrachic French restaurant Les Amis in Singapore(, regular clients can create their own private wine lists by buying bottles from the restaurant and storing them in the cellar. Prices range from $60 to $16,500 a bottle.

New cookbooks are also helping pair Asian food with wines. “Wine With Asian Food: New Frontiers in Taste” by Patricia Guy and Edwin Soon presents a systematic approach to matching food and wines. Because Asian cuisine is characterized by a multitude of spices, the European practice of pairing the wine to the primary ingredient—a full red wine with lamb, for instance—doesn’t work. The trick is to focus on the sauce. Vietnamese shrimp rolls in rice paper call for a light, sweet Austrian Grüner Veltliner. Indian chicken korma takes Australian Shiraz. A Thai green mango salad goes well with pinot grigio.

Gourmand Best Wine and Food Book Singapore 2009;  and Gourmand finalist, Best World Wine Book 2010

Pairing Wine with Asian Food

Pairing Wine with Asian Food

Review by Jenny Tan in Sunday Times, May 31, 2009

The new book is more instructional. Soon identifies key dishes common in various Asian cuisines and then includes specific wine recommendations. “After the first book, which was targeted more at wine connoisseurs, there was a lot of feedback that a simplified approach would be educational for amateurs. This was designed so that you can bring this book out for dinner, make a quick reference and then decide on the wine.”

“Well presented, well researched and well written … I strongly recommend this book”

James Halliday, author of Australia & New Zealand Wine Companion

“You love wine. You love Asian food. But you have always been worried how to put the two together. This thoughtful, original and elegantly produced book shows you how. Thoroughly recommended”

Clive Coates MW, author of The Wines of Burgundy and Côte d’Or

“Millions of people will appreciate this book, which opens a new dimension to the enjoyment of wine. It marries cultures and cuisines with commonsense and experience”

Jeremy Oliver, author of The Australian Wine Annual

“I just got your new book yesterday.  Great reference tool.  I’ve already required that my servers read it so that they can make more informed decisions, as well.  Thanks for writing.”

Ed Rudisell, Siam Square Thai Cuisine, Indianapolis, Indiana

“Particularly useful is a one-page chart that brings together cooking method, flavors, dishes, and wines. The text is accompanied by some 30 color photographs of typical Asian dishes. Verdict- Soon covers a lot of ground but does a commendable job of presenting just enough detail to ensure that readers will find the perfect wine to highlight the subtle and complex flavors of Asian foods.”

Christine Holmes, San Jose State Univ. Lib

This is a great reference book that you can dip into whenever required. Not only does Soon gives the reader pairing advice for practically every Asian food you can think of, he offers it up in form of tips, tables and easy-to-digest text. For foodies and wine-lovers of all levels.
Deborah Goldman

The Wines of France

This text book, published by SOPEXA, relaunched at Carrefour Wine Fair, has been reprinted; it has been updated into an ebook and also been translated into Chinese.

“A rich source of information for the uninitiated and the connoisseur.” Dheeraj Bhatia, Head Sommelier, Raffles Hotel, Singapore.

“A concise book, adequate and elaborated without being difficult to comprehend.” Timothy Goh, Director of Wines, Les Amis Group.

“You will see French wines with a different eye.” ToViet, Chairman of the Saigon Sommellier Group, Vietnam.

“Highly recommended.” Roderick Wong, President Sommellier Association of Malaysia.

The 2011 revised, updated and 2nd run print of The Wines of France is now available from SOPEXA, Singapore.

Contact:  Sopexa Singapore Tel: +65 6222 5862


Tea Inspired Festivities

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The Dilmah Way of Tea