Tag Archives: china

Alquimie: The Most Ravishing Drinks Magazine in the World?

Alquimie3

It looks like my days of hoarding handsome magazines have returned.

Wrapped in plain brown paper, my first copy of Alquimie arrived from an unfamiliar overseas address. Pulling it from the packaging with the excitement of an unexpected gift, I thumbed through the weighty edition’s pages, and instantly felt a potent nostalgia for the days of print. Is Alquimie the most ravishing drinks magazine to publish in the last decade?

While adopting a model of print media and shipping the cumbersome result around the world from its founders’ base in Australia sounds like a great way to turn any size pile of money into a smaller one (like owning a vineyard!), the team behind it hopes a readership yearning for beautifully written content and presentation, will support the effort.

Alquimie’s motto “breathing new life into drinks” certainly pertains to the physical attributes of the magazine, although it’s more reminiscent of a journal with its quarterly publishing schedule, matte cover, and heavy paper stock.  Each page shows careful, artistic intention both in layout and gorgeous photography. This tactile approach, meant to lure a base of practical romantics who long to hand write notes with the smooth comfort of a Mont Blanc fountain pen between the fingers, but succumb to email for the majority of their correspondence, will charm them (me) as intended. To address that important practical side, however, they’ve developed a sleek website.

Alquimie1

Fortunately, the authors, sourced from the founding team and journalists around the world, write articles as compelling to read as they look on paper.

The current edition (its third) tackles a diverse landscape of topics ranging from coffee, Armagnac, whisky, and little-known Swiss grape varieties. Food, integral to the experience of drink, also receives treatment: this quarter, author Tony Tan explores the sub-regional cuisines of China. In a section devoted to tasting and reporting on spirits and wine called The Palate, they review boutique Champagne, consider the nuances of vodka (nuance being the operative word), and compare notes on several value wine recommendations through the lens of professionals v. the lay taster.

Supplementing their subscription fees, Alquimie offers an interesting addition to the traditional media model: they sell wine. Josh Elias, the Editor in Chief, handles the selections, and although he says there isn’t a strict criterion on how he chooses the bottles, the people behind the projects share a similar narrative in that they are “small producers doing things a little bit differently.”  The wine subscription offer applies primarily to Australian residents unless foreigners have the wallet for astronomical, overseas freight charges.

So who is behind Alquimie? Four colleagues who consider themselves friends first, business partners second, according to Josh. The other three publishers and founders are James Morgan, Photographic Director; Nicholas Cary, Creative Director; and Raul Moreno Yague, Chief of Contributors.

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I emailed Josh a few questions to learn the impetus behind Alquimie’s creation, and to ask what they believe they add to the global beverage conversation. We also addressed favorite cocktails, up-and-coming producers in Victoria, Australia, and how Josh would like to be traveling in two places at once (Sicily and Piedmont).

What inspired the creation of Alquimie?

We wanted to produce a print publication that we could read ourselves. We couldn’t relate to the existing offerings. We wanted to produce something a little more democratic, less authoritarian with more of a focus on the narrative (the narrative of the story & the document). Drinks require context. Be it a dining table, or a time in history. The concept of ‘drinks in a vacuum’ never made sense to me.

What was your previous (or concurrent) profession?

I am a law graduate, who worked in a family business in the fabric industry and then spent nights working as a sommelier in fine dining. My grandfather quite rightly calls me a jack of all trades, master of none. Though, I’m studying the Master of Wine qualification at the moment, which hopefully means that one day I’ll prove him wrong. Alquimie occupies most of our time at present. Even when we are doing other tasks, working other jobs, it is on our minds.

How did you decide on the name?

It was about creation and narrative. We wanted something that hinted at a story and a science combined. We felt Alquimie — the original french derivation of Alchemy — ticked those boxes.

Did friends or family have doubts about taking the print channel, including global shipping?

For sure they were skeptical but I guess part of that comes from being protective. In terms of the evolution of print and the changing of that industry, we believe that the timelessness of our publication, our careful selection of tried and tested subject matter differentiates us from other, timelier magazines. We aim to be a reference piece. Our publication doesn’t mention current events or index the ‘hottest new releases’. Alquimie is not a guide or an index for instant answers, it is an opportunity to sit down and let your mind wander. I think our family and friends relaxed once they saw and felt the magazine. The quality of the finishes helps to create a universal acceptance of quality. Much of that is due to James’s photography and Nic’s design. They make my job, as a drinks writer, very easy.

What are you attempting to add to the world of drinks publishing? What did you think was missing?

I think it was missing accessibility and a sense of context. As an industry, drinks publishing is fairly good at communicating about the product, in isolation. However, wine media, as an example, are very much focused on the projection of their ‘objective truths’. To this end, the writing can be somewhat authoritarian and dictatorial. We wanted to step away from that style. It doesn’t benefit the consumer who may be trying to develop their own palate or embrace the beautiful variables to be found in drinks, of which there are many. Such is the problem with that phenomenal addiction known as ‘wine-scoring’. It doesn’t answer any of the ‘why’ questions. Rather, it encourages blind following. It also has the consequence of shortening the conversation with the consumer. It unduly simplifies the product to the point which, I believe, is somewhat disrespectful to the people who put all the effort into the growing, making and marketing of their product.

We prefer to talk about fewer products, giving each of them the respect that they deserve. These points are true for writing about coffee, water, spirits, etc. However, wine is a good example because I believe it to be the most experienced drink, in terms of communication. Our decision to write about all drinks, also helps to break down a few of the expected ‘norms’ associated with wine writing.

What’s your favorite type of wine? Cocktail? Nightcap?

In terms of wine, I’d say that I drink either of pinot noir or nebbiolo most often. However, I try to taste widely in order to keep my palate sharp. As for spirits, I’m a sucker for Armagnac; the heat, the warmth and the sweet, spicy flavors. An old bottle of Darroze doesn’t go astray. As for cocktails, an old fashioned or a negroni are the two that you’d most likely catch me drinking.

What’s new or unique to the drink world in Victoria, Australia that people should know about?

Patrick Sullivan, BobarLinnaea winesMelbourne Gin Company, Four Pillars Gin, and Madenii Vermouth. First and foremost, these are great people. Secondly, they create products with unique personality. They have curly edges and stark flavours. Most of all, they are delicious.

If you could be traveling anywhere right now, where would you be?

That’s hard. I’d say Sicily. Usually I’d say Piedmont because Barolo is my favourite wine region. However, there is such an amazing array of viticultural styles across the island. From the zesty whites and structured reds of Etna, through to the floral reds of Vittoria or the rich fortifieds of Marsala. The seafood and the pasta dishes are sensational and a welcome accompaniment to the wines. Not to mention the beach, the sun, and the architecture. Rock formations poking out from the sky blue water…. Getting carried away here….

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What I Drank – Changyu Dry Red Wine, Vintage Unknown

Changyu Dry Red Wine (non-vintage?)

I planned to write a simple tasting note on the single bottle of Chinese wine I drank in China, while providing background info on the producer.  While looking up the winery Changyu, however, I came across a few random pieces of info on the ‘nets that struck me as comment-worthy.

1. Changyu winery just celebrated 120 years of wine-making. What?  Maybe they were fermenting Snake Wine, but I highly doubt they have been producing Bordeaux-esque, barrel-aged wines for ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY YEARS.  Well, I looked it up and YES, technically the winery and cellar were built in 1892, but they had a hell of a time producing anything worthy of consumption. In 2002, the French Castel Group teamed up with Changyu to create the first professional Chateau in China.  I guess I should retract my affront and at least give them credit for being first in trying to establish a vineyard in a non-wine drinking country (at the time).  And if that didn’t blow your mind, how about this:  Changyu is now the 10thlargest wine producer in the world!  So many new (scary?), random facts learned today. Here come some more…

Napa Town?

2.  Changyu winery announced plans at their 120th anniversary gala to build a wine theme park, twice the size of Monaco.  This “Winetropolis” would include such delights as a “wine-themed tourist town”, a vineyard, a shopping street, wine spas, bars and a chapel. Yikes. Having just returned from China and seeing the utter destruction done by the domestic tourism industry to both the natural environment and China’s ancient cities, this scares the crap out of me.  Seriously–the whole country is going full-Disney.  Why can’t domestic tourists embrace the natural beauty of their country?

Evening blight-show in center of Lijiang

Imagine putting up fluorescent, multi-colored high-beams all around El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, then holding a nightly song and dance show at the base of the mountain, set to David Guetta, using workers bused in from Appalachia, forced asked nicely to prance around in fake Native American garb, all while selling out of tickets to this disaster EVERY NIGHT; followed by a mass migration to the historic Ahwahnee Hotel, recently converted into a ginormous, disco-lit karaoke barn. This is the city of Lijiang, China.

3. A French Sommelier, while at the dubious 120th Anniversary tasting, apparently declared he was “glad to see that Changyu can produce great white wines, red wines, sweet wines and brandiesall different products but all at a very high level. They compete very well with the French wines.”  Seriously? Who is this Sommelier Pierre Barthe, and what on earth is he drinking in France?  Apparently an independent British wine consultant feels differently: “it (Changyu) has yet to improve quality in both its vineyards and winemaking.”

Oh, well. The world is officially insane. And with much ado about nothing, here are my tasting notes:

The wine draws a blank on the nose—very little aroma.  There is some perceptible, pleasant red fruit on the palate, but nothing I could pick out of a gang in a fruit line-up.  The wine has obviously had some oak treatment, reminiscent of a brown paper bag—possibly oak chips. The tannins are dry, a little scratchy but not totally offensive.  Amazingly, this is NOT the worst wine I have ever had.  For what it’s worth, we finished the bottle.  Of course, my standards may have been lowered inadvertently as a result of the sh!tty-Chinese-beer-fatigue-syndrome I was suffering from at the time.

Drinking some Changyu on the balcony in Lijiang

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Where I am going- China

Hong Kong Harbor

I feel like I haven’t been on a lengthy trip in ages, although such restlessness (and irrationality by most people’s travel standards) is common in those with wanderlust fever.  It is completely incurable, but treatable through frequent exposure to new places and wines.  So, for my annual, extended therapy session, I am headed to China.  We depart late May and return mid-June.   The itinerary consists of 3 weeks and the following stops:  Hong Kong, Guilin/Yangshuo, Shangri-La (near Tibet), Lijiang, Beijing, Shanghai and back to Hong Kong and Macau.  This trip is not immediately recognizable as being related to wine, because it is not.  Primarily, we are going to escort my 83-year-old father-in-law around the country on his final overseas voyage.  He grew up in Hong Kong and Macau, but has not stepped foot in the region in nearly 40 years. I have a feeling Macau as a gambling mecca and Hong Kong, a shopper’s paradise, will be fairly unrecognizable.

Although not an obvious wine destination, I am dedicated to uncovering what, if any, wine culture does exist there, and where it might be headed.  My WSET studies introduced me to the nascent and looking-to-be-tapped-by-exporters wine market lurking beneath the surface of the growing upper and middle classes of the mainland.  Plus, there are 6 or so notable wineries already on the mainland, winning a few Asian regional awards, producing wine of dubious quality at varying price points.  However, one wine that actually won an international trophy from Decanter—under the shadow of bribery accusations—is Jia Bei Lan of Helan Qing Xue winery in Ningxia Province.  Word on the street is the wine was released in Beijing this spring. Perhaps I will look out for it, but if the $120 per bottle price tag is correct, it will probably remain a stranger to my lips.

Rice terraces in Bali- similar to the Longsheng terraces in China

For a longer look at China’s current wine economy, keep reading…

The most obvious place to begin an assessment of Chinese wine culture and economy is Hong Kong.  Given the island’s great wealth and exposure to Western culture, it seemed only a matter of time that Hong Kongers’ taste for luxury goods would extend to wine.  The tariff on wine imports was completely abolished in 2008—it had previously been as high as 80 percent, later dropped to 40—setting in motion Hong Kong as a major player in the auction market.  No longer beholden to extraordinarily high taxes, label wh*res lovers went crazy bidding up trophy Bordeaux and Champagne bottles to stratospheric levels.  This isn’t a particularly mature attitude towards wine, since the behavior of buying the most expensive, iconic brands for adult show-off-and-tell is the complete antithesis of my perspective. Despite this inauspicious beginning (in my opinion-probably not shared by Château Lafite), there are clear signs a more thoughtful and approachable market is developing.

When I was last in Hong Kong in December 2009, there were a handful of new wines bars, including one of the first enomatic tasting machines, in the trendy Lan Kwai Fong district.  And as aforementioned, exporters have had their sights on the ever-growing middle class of China—the U.S. export market jumped 400% between 2006 and 2010.  Hong Kong even has its first urban winery the 8th Estate Winery (although they source their grapes globally, not from China).  Clearly Hong Kong has laid the foundation for importing wine, but what about actual winemaking in China, from Chinese grapes?  It exists.

Now, if you really want to get academic…

For a stellar and easy read on the “globalization of wine”, I recommend Wine Wars by Mike Veseth, AKA the Wine Economist.  I devoured this book a few weeks ago.  Mr. Veseth devotes a section on the variables and hurdles that Chinese winemakers have to contend with, and there are a lot of them, predominantly in the supply chain.  For instance, regulations don’t encourage quality grape growing and farmers are paid for quantity; growers function independently in teeny, tiny little vineyard plots, a holdover from communist era land programs—natch—which discourages best practices oversight by the winery, such as optimal pick-time.  It sounds like the key to high quality wine would be an estate vineyard, a practice which well-received newcomer Grace Winery supposedly employed in their first vineyard in Shanxi province (they now own 3 other vineyards in other regions).  More good news is that foreign partnerships are growing, giving the Chinese access to better technology and expertise.  With such a potentially huge domestic market, I would imagine, and hope, that wines would continue to evolve in quality.

Tourist Junk Boat in Hong Kong

Finally, some hurdles in developing the Chinese wine palate lie in existing cultural habits. For example, some postulate the Chinese prefer red wine because they are used to drinking warm drinks at a meal and because of the auspiciousness of the color red, though white wines might be better suited to certain fiery dishes. Also, tea is tannic, as is red wine, so they are used to tannins in their beverages.  Or perhaps the Chinese palate is not meant to be like the Western palate at all- they grew up eating different foods and may expect and appreciate different tastes and qualities in their wines. None of this should be viewed as a scientific analysis; rather speculation by wine industry folk.  Perhaps I can gain a greater insight when there on the ground, meeting fellow or future wine drinkers of China.

For those that are interested in a list of Chinese wineries—I imagine not too many of you, yet—the larger and notable names I have come across so far are the following: Great Wall, Dragon Seal, Changyu, Huadong, Domain Helan Mountain, Grace Vineyards, Helan Qing Xue.  If anyone has any other suggestions of local wines I should seek out while there, please let me know!

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