December 9, 2008 / 9:47 AM / 10 years ago

Forget wine rules: Asia guru says only freshness is key

SINGAPORE (Reuters Life!) - The duty of wine is to please the palate, so drink what you want, with the food that you fancy, as long as it refreshes the mouth, advises one of Asia’s leading experts on fine wines.

A grape picker cleans a bunch of grapes during a day of grape harvest at le Clos Saint Vincent vineyard in Bellet, on the outskirts of Nice, south-eastern France September 21, 2005. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Aged 81, Singaporean NK Yong, a former cardiologist turned vintage collector, has been immersed in the wine business for at least two decades. He advises regional and local restaurateurs on what to stock, as well as writing a book with his wife Melina on which wines go best with Asian food.

His friends include some of the best boutique vintners in Italy and he has converted the huge swimming pool in his home into a wine cellar that stocks some 12,000 bottles — and he knows where to find each one in an instant.

Yong, who is also an avid smoker, recently spoke to Reuters about the growing popularity of wine in a region where vintages were once regularly diluted with sweet sodas and how the old rules of white wine with fish and red wine with beef don’t apply any more.

Q: Do you see wine growing in popularity in Asia?

A: “Absolutely. Wine is replacing bottles of whisky and brandy at weddings. And it’s more and more young people who are interested in wine, the young executives, the business people, they are broadening the base. The bulk drink cheaper wines, but as they grow older and their incomes rise, I am sure they will go for the more expensive, better-known names, so the market is set to grow even further.”

Q: Asia has not always been a wine-drinking region, has it?

A: “Wine has only become popular in the region in the past decade or so. I have always been interested in wine, but here in Singapore, even a few years ago, buying wine was a hazardous business. You could only find it in the supermarket, it was normally very expensive, not very good and very badly stored. Even the five-star hotels didn’t store it properly — if a hotel doesn’t allow you into their cellar, you know that something is wrong. I used to buy all my wines from Europe and London but in the early 1990s, a few wine shops opened here and then there was greater interest, the market grew and now you can find wines in coffee shops and even very local restaurants here.”

Q: What type of wine do Asians like?

A: “Asians like red wine. Across the region, it’s red, red, red, which is odd because, with the exception of a few countries, its normally hot all year round and you’d think a chilled white would be more popular. Red, however, is considered to be a status symbol — its the color of blood and its also seen as an aphrodisiac. It’s also less acidic than white wine, and suits the Asian digestive system better. That’s why champagne is not really the favorite drink here, its too acidic.

Q: Do you see wine becoming an investment in this region, like it is in other parts of the world?

A: “Wine is definitely a better investment than stocks, bonds and other pieces of paper. Even while the world’s financial institutions are collapsing, wine prices have only dropped by 20 to 40 percent. Many assets are not worth the paper they are printed on, but a bottle of wine only gets better — and more valuable — with age. It’s much more enjoyable. So if you’ve got the spare cash, buy wine. And nobody is going to stop buying wine, even during a recession.”

Q: What about the perennial “Old World” versus “New World” debate? What do you recommend?

A: “Be open-minded and be prepared to taste different things — you don’t have to like everything, but you need to try it to make a choice. That said, New World wines tend to be grown in regions where there is very little climate variation, and it’s this variation from year to year that gives a wine complexity. They also tend to have more sugar, and more alcohol, so they are more jammy and less fresh. I personally prefer Old World wines, that’s what I grew up drinking. They have variation, and a long tradition of wine-making. That makes a difference.”

Q: What about pairing wine with food? Are there any rules?

A: “Asians tend to drink the wines they want with the food they want, which is fine, because it’s a personal choice. Also, there is no need to stick to the old pairings of red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat. The only guidelines to consider are the levels of acidity, or freshness, in the wine. Fruity Old World wines have a very good acidity which works well with spicy food. Acidity refreshes the palate, it is necessary to enjoy food. Wine should please, not tire, the mouth. So avoid drinking heavy, sugary wine with food, as it is like drinking cough syrup.”

Writing by Miral Fahmy; Editing by Paul Tait

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