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China Wines Knocking Off French Brands and More News

China Wines Knocking Off French Brands and More News


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In today's Media Mix, coffee to poison a lover, plus horsemeat goes off another menu

The Daily Meal brings you the biggest news from the food world.

Chef Takes Horse Meat Off Menu: After four months of getting angry letters from animal activists, a chef has decided to take horsemeat off the menu. [NBC Philadelphia]

Fake European Wines in China: Yikes; it looks like China isn't just knocking off Guccis, Fendis, and Pradas; it's also knocking off major French wine brands. [Reuters]

Restaurants Shoot for Younger Customers: Despite the fact that many millennials we know are splurging on NEXT dinners, it seems like today's generation is spending less than the baby boomers. [NY Times]

Poisoned Coffee: Here's a crazy story of an oncologist who is charged with poisoning a lover and a coworker by spiking their coffee with antifreeze. [AP]


7 Ice Pops That Break the Mold with Internationally Inspired Flavors

With coronavirus making travel a tricky and even potentially dangerous prospect this year, we’re embracing the summer staycation. All week (and all summer) long, we’ll bring you transportive flavors and travel-inspired ideas from around the world, so you can take your tastebuds on a trip and give your mind a mini vacation while you’re still at home. Here, learn how to make international ice pops, from paletas to boba popsicles.

Who doesn’t love frozen treats, especially when it’s hot outside (and maybe hot inside too)? These seven ice pop recipes are like a mini summer vacation, frozen on a stick. They’re inspired by cool treats from the Philippines, Vietnam, Mexico, China, Taiwan, Korea, and India, yet require no more effort to make than frozen juice pops. No need to pack your bags, either. Just head to the kitchen. (And if you’re missing Spain, try sangria popsicles and slushies too.)

One note on equipment: You can buy handy freezer pop molds online, which often include reusable sticks, but if they don’t, wooden popsicle sticks are also available. Or, you can go lower-tech and insert said wooden sticks into homemade molds made from waxed paper cups (think Dixie cups for mini pops). If you use smaller molds, these recipes will yield more ice pops, so plan accordingly.

Zoku Classic Ice Pop Molds, $14.95 from Sur La Table

Now, just pick your favorite flavor destination and take a virtual trip around the world.

1. Mango and Cayenne Paletas

The refreshing Latin American ice pops known as paletas usually contain fruit, and sometimes cream. Our version is dairy-free and highlights the sweet flavor of fresh mangoes. Cayenne gives them a little kick, although you can leave it out if you prefer. Get our Mango and Cayenne Paleta recipe.

2. Halo-Halo Ice Pops

No, these frozen treats have nothing to do with Halo Top, and everything to do with Filipino food, which is packed with flavor—dessert is no exception. Halo-halo (literally, “mix mix”), one of the most iconic Filipino treats, is a delicious assemblage of ube ice cream, shaved ice, evaporated milk, mung beans, corn, fruit, and coconut gelatin (among other ingredients). We couldn’t cram quite that much into these ice pops, but we did our best. Get our Halo-Halo Ice Pop recipe.

3. Honeydew Melon Ice Pops

Melona pops, popular (no pun intended) in South Korea, were the inspiration for these simple summer treats. Ripe honeydew melon, sugar, heavy cream, and a pinch of salt is all that’s called for. They’re incredibly refreshing. Get our Honeydew Melon Ice Pop recipe.

4. Red Bean Ice Pops

Sweet red bean desserts are commonly enjoyed in China, Japan, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries, and if you’ve never tried one yourself, now’s the time. These creamy pops are made with sweetened, mashed adzuki beans, which you can buy in cans online or in Asian markets. If you’d prefer a smoother bite, you can use sweetened red bean paste instead, but we like the textural contrast of the roughly mashed beans. Get our Red Bean Ice Pop recipe.

Sweetened Red Beans, $8.51 from Amazon

Add a new dessert ingredient into your rotation.

5. Vietnamese Coffee Ice Pops

A popular form of Vietnamese coffee is a combination of strong black brew combined with sweet condensed milk it’s perfect for turning into creamy frozen ice pops, but be warned: they pack a caffeinated punch. So feel free to eat one for breakfast? Get our Vietnamese Coffee Ice Pop recipe.

6. Boba Ice Pops

Bubble tea is pretty widely known and loved these days, but have you had it in the form of an icy dessert yet? The frozen tapioca pearls slowly thaw and turn delightfully chewy as the creamy black tea-flavored ice pops melt around them. Get our Boba Popsicle recipe.

7. Malai Kulfi Ice Pops

These fragrant ice pops are inspired by Indian kulfi. They’re ultra creamy thanks to sweetened condensed milk and whole milk, and flavored with cardamom and saffron. Roasted pistachios add a great salty crunch. Get our Malai Kulfi Ice Pop recipe.


Is vaping a healthier option?

As marijuana has gone mainstream, versions of e-cigarettes that vaporize high-inducing cannabis oil are one of the hottest-selling items, popular for those who don’t want the smoke that comes from lighting up a joint. In addition to quickly delivering a high, there’s a perception not supported by science that vaping is a healthier alternative to smoking.

In California’s legal marijuana market, the world’s largest, the state requires cannabis oil to be tested before being placed on the shelf for sale. For example, safety checks are made for the presence of 66 pesticides, mercury, lead and other heavy metals, and 21 solvents that could be used in the extraction process with which oil is pulled from cannabis.

But it can be hard for people to tell whether a product they’re buying is made by a legitimate company. The phony packaging is convincing to the untrained eye, some even carrying bogus labels that appear to carry state-required test results. Most people probably wouldn’t know the difference — until they vape it. The taste and THC level could be significantly different from the authentic product.

To add to the confusion, consumers can have trouble distinguishing legal dispensaries from unlicensed shops, which in Los Angeles sometimes operate in the same neighborhoods and appear indistinguishable.

“My biggest fear of counterfeiting is people are getting an unsafe product, an illegal product, and think it’s coming from our company, a legal company,” said Bryce Berryessa, a board member of the California Cannabis Manufacturers Assn. whose company, Skunk Feather, produces concentrates and vape cartridges.

In another warning of consumer risk related to vaping, an Associated Press investigation Monday found that some operators were substituting illegal synthetic marijuana in vapes marketed as natural CBD, a chemical in cannabis that doesn’t cause a high and promises mainly unproved health claims.


How Cognac Became a Status Symbol in China

While baijiu is the undisputed national spirit of China, cognac is the drink of choice for the country&rsquos elite imbiber.

In a pitch-black room, a spotlight beams over a crate. I’m at the Amanyangyun Hotel on the outskirts of Shanghai, surrounded by people in elegant evening clothes. The host is a handsome man who looks like a Chinese James Bond. He says it’s time for the crate to be opened, and everyone whips out their phones to capture the dramatic reveal.

Inside the wooden box is the Hennessy Paradis Impérial Trunk by Louis Vuitton. It’s a $273,000 piece of luggage stocked with four magnums of Paradis Impérial cognac, each of which would individually sell for $8,000. The crowd clamors to get closer to the trunk, photographing it from various angles.

It makes sense to debut such a statement piece in China. This is cognac country�r more so than France, where cognac is made. While baijiu is the undisputed national spirit of China, cognac is the drink of choice for the country’s elite imbiber, a tradition that started about 200 years ago. When Shanghai became a treaty port in the 1800s, the city soon welcomed foreign goods, one of them being alcohol. Some of the first companies to knock on the door of the Chinese market were cognac brands, says Andrew Khan, vice president of marketing for Moet Hennessy Diageo China. According to Khan, the spirit became popular in China starting in the late 18th century.

“Today, China constitutes the world&aposs most valuable cognac market,” says Philip M. Dobard, director of the Museum of the American Cocktail and vice president of the National Food & Beverage Foundation. “I can tell you that Chinese demand for cognac has experienced dramatic growth since the turn of century,” he says, explaining that consumption of the spirit grew by 55% between 2007 and 2011.

Cognac’s image in China is different than it is around the world. In the West, Cognac is more of an after-dinner drink to be sipped slowly on its own. It&aposs often mixed into cocktails. In China, cognac tends to be consumed neat and with food. 𠇌ocktails are a waste of good Cognac,” says Sam Wang, food and beverage outlet manager for the Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai, where most customers drink cognac straight.

This method stems from Chinese drinking culture, not necessarily any hard and fast rules of cognac. “In traditional China, drinking, eating, and socializing are all closely tied together. Nobody drinks alone,” says Christopher Lowder, general manager of Proof & Company, China. "There is frequent toasting. There is frequent 𠆋ottoms up’ in which everyone participating is expected to empty their glass or else they will lose face.”

Cognac isn’t served in snifters, but in small shot glasses or tea cups. It’s meant to go fast. “There is a saying in China: ‘to drink Cognac as if it were water,’” says Lowder. “I have seen VSOP Cognac popped in karaoke rooms, and the whole bottle is gone in 60 seconds, drained in two rounds of shots from very tiny shot glasses.” Nightlife settings are more welcoming to mixing cognac into cocktails. “In the context of a karaoke room or night club, the cognac is sometimes mixed in an iced pitcher of canned sweet tea, and then poured out into shot glasses or small rocks glasses,” Lowder says.

Who’s doing the drinking? 𠇌hinese demand for [cognac] spans several age brackets and demographics,” Dobard says. “The list of consumer groups includes the Baofahu, or nouveau riche the Fuerdais, or children of the rich and those older teenagers and 20-somethings who wish to appear cosmopolitan and project membership in the international community and older businessmen and politicians.”

According to Lowder, it’s “old school” Chinese people who are responsible for the heavy lifting of cognac consumption. “Traditional in their habits and interests, this is the China of the three-hour dim sum lunch slowly spent talking across four separate bags of tea leaves,” he says. "It’s the China of long, cigarette-fueled sessions in the karaoke room. It’s the China that plays Mahjong with real tiles and not an iPad screen.”

This more traditional demographic is buying entire bottles of cognac for one sitting. They care as much about the packaging as they do the liquid inside the bottle. “There are tremendous social points to be scored by the unboxing and uncorking of a very elaborate and fancy-looking bottle,” Lowder says. “It’s a showing of your respect for the table and how much your value your relationships with the group.” Luxury cognac definitely excels at this purpose. Cognac bottles are some of the booze industry’s most ornate and extravagant. Rémy Martin’s Louis XIII decanters are made with Baccarat crystal. The latest Hennessy Paradis Impérial decanter, designed by Israeli artist Arik Levy, took thousands of trials and hundreds of people to create perfectly.

Cognac has emerged as a beverage of choice for particular cuisines. "There is also a belief that Cognac serves as an excellent pairing for seafood dishes,” Lowder says. 𠇎specially in South China and in Macau, it’s not unusual to see two or three bottles go down over the course of a round of crawfish or a session of hotpot.” That doesn’t mean it’s not welcomed with other food, though—high end and low. “I have seen four old men sit down for late night street noodles, and each one had brought his own bottle of XO cognac to share with the group,” Lowder says. 𠇊ll four bottles were opened, and all four bottles were finished.”

The challenge to keep cognac popular in China over the next two hundred years is to get younger generations as excited about the spirit as the old-school set. “The problem for cognac is that sits very clearly on the aging side of that cultural chasm,” Lowder says. “The question of how to make Cognac relevant to young Chinese people is one that the industry is yet to solve.”

At the Mandarin Oriental, Sam Wang notes that he’s seen advertising change in recent years to stir interest in cognac in younger consumers. “Some cognac brands are doing very good marketing, so you can see more and more [young] people are drink Cognac now,” he says. Brands are also pushing more for cognac cocktails. “In China, baijiu is rooted in gifting and pairing with Chinese meals. Cognac has the advantage of being much more diversified and adapts easier to everyday life,” Khan says. “The majority of younger consumers enjoy cognac on the rocks or in a mixed drink in a high-energy vibe with friends.” For now, if you’re planning on drinking cognac in China, be prepared to shoot it. Lots of it.


Best vermouths to try

Antica Formula Carpano Vermouth

Antonio Benedetto Carpano created the recipe for Antica in 1786. It’s a traditional Vermouth di Torino, made using a base of Italian grapes from Romania, Puglia and Sicily with botanicals including saffron and vanilla. With its aromas of dark chocolate, vanilla, bitter cherries and orange peel, plus chocolate orange, spice and coffee on the palate, it partners perfectly with bourbon to make a cracking Manhattan. Antica Formula was also the original vermouth used to create the Martinez cocktail. Alc 16.5%

Azaline Vermouth Saffron Roux

This characterful French vermouth is infused with Persian saffron for a distinctive take on the dry red style. It’s made by Burgundy wine producer Gabriel Boudier, using Pinot Noir as a base wine. With botanicals including cardamom, juniper and tarragon, it’s a darkly spicy vermouth, dominated by saffron aromas and flavours, with raspberry and black cherry fruit. Crisp and dry, with a lingering finish laced that’s with oriental spice and bitter cherry. Enjoy it as a spritz with soda water and a slice of orange or use it in a Saffron Negroni. Alc 17%

Cocchi Storico Vermouth di Torino

The best-selling vermouth, according to Drinks International’s Brands Report 2020 – and deservedly so. First produced in 1891, Cocchi is made with a base of Moscato grapes from Asti and a botanical recipe that includes quinine, star anise and achillea. Amber coloured thanks to the addition of burnt sugar, there’s great intensity on the palate: rich and luscious with bitter orange, cocoa, spices and whiff of smoke. Equally happy in a Negroni or a Manhattan. Alc 16%

Cucielo Bianco Vermouth di Torino

One of the new generation of Vermouths di Torino, made with respect for the traditional style, but with a focus on using sustainably sourced botanicals and packaging. Alongside a clove-laced Rosso, this Bianco uses a base of Trebbiano, Grillo and Ansonica grapes, with botanicals including wormwood, green apple, cardamom, pink pepper and elderflower. Very herbaceous and floral, with a distinct note of dried thyme and ripe peachy fruit on the palate. Lovely with tonic or try a Cucielo Cinque 7, with Prosecco, Angostura bitters and soda water. Alc 16.8%

Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry Dry

Producing vermouth since 1821, Dolin is the only remaining independent vermouth producer left in Chambéry, which is the only French region that has a DOC for its vermouths. Made using Alpine botanicals including wormwood, brooklime, rose and verbena, the range also includes sweeter blanc and rouge styles. Dolin Dry boasts citrus freshness, grape and lychee sweetness, dry herbal notes and some lip-smakcing salinity. Use equal parts Dry and Blanc to create a Perfect Gin Martini. Alc 17.5%

El Bandarra Al Fresco

El Bandarra Spanish vermouths hail from Barcelona and are made using Spanish grapes Garnacha and Xarel-lo, plus Mediterranean botanicals. The cool typography bottle is inspired by the tradition of hand-painting the names of dishes onto the windows of tapas bars. The range includes a Blanco and Rojo but the vibrant Al Fresco, with its bright cherry and red berry fruit, grapefruit citrus freshness and herbal bitterness is our favourite. Pair it with tonic (one part vermouth and two parts tonic) for a refreshing summer cooler that will appeal to fans of the Aperol Spritz. Alc 14.5%

Martini Riserva Speciale Rubino

The Martini brand traces its roots back to 1847. Its Rosso and Bianco are dependable big sellers, but this top-of-the-range Riserva Speciale Rubino Vermouth di Torino was introduced in 2015 and makes a knock-out Negroni. Base wines from Piedmont and small parcels of Langhe DOC Nebbiolo, are selected by Martini’s master blender, Beppe Musso, and infused with exotic botanicals including African red sandalwood, holy thistle and three different types of wormwood. Alc 18%

Noilly Prat Original Dry

The classic dry French vermouth, produced in Marseillan since 1843. Made from two base wines (Picpoul de Pinet and Clairette) which are left to age separately in barrels in the open air for a year, imparting an amber colour to the final vermouth. The botanical recipe includes bitter orange peel, nutmeg, chamomile, cloves, coriander and yellow gentian. Very herbal and peppery on the palate, with piney freshness that lifts a Dry Martini beautifully. Noilly Prat Ambre is harder to find, but well worth seeking out. Alc 18%


Dessert Recipes That Take Arab Traditions in New Directions

STILL AS SWEET Based on a centuries-old recipe, this tart has a bright hibiscus glaze and a graham-cracker crust.

I WAS 23 years old the first time I tasted sticky toffee pudding. An American in London working for the BBC, I was pulling overnight shifts and, on my days off, blearily exploring the city alone. One raw, gray day, I ducked into a pub and decided cake smothered in toffee sauce was just the thing to brighten my outlook. The steaming pudding turned out to be tooth-achingly sweet, but its power to comfort, even coddle, was undeniable. The Brits don’t call it nursery food for nothing.

The truth is I always liked the idea of sticky toffee pudding better than the real thing. So I was intrigued to find an adaptation in a new cookbook on Arab cuisine, “The Arabesque Table” (Phaidon). Its author, Reem Kassis, also discovered sticky toffee pudding during a stint in London. Her version adds creamy tahini to the cake and replaces some of the sugar in the toffee sauce with a dollop of bright date molasses and more tahini. It’s a grown-up, refreshing twist on the British classic that nevertheless preserves the childlike pleasures of the original.

Refreshing is also the best word to describe Ms. Kassis’s book, which arrives in an era when the food world is engaged in a furious, often infuriating debate about who “owns” certain foods and even who has the right to cook them. Is fried chicken a Southern dish or an African American one? Can a white chef who studied in Thailand put himself forward as an expert on Thai food? For that matter, is it wrong for a Palestinian writer to mess with sticky toffee pudding—or an American one to declare that version an improvement on the original?

Ms. Kassis is not uninterested in where those lines should fall. Her previous book, “The Palestinian Table,” was her effort to record, and define as Palestinian, dishes she grew up eating that are often referred to hazily as Middle Eastern or sometimes, incorrectly, as Israeli. In contrast, “The Arabesque Table” zooms out, examining both the history and the evolution of Arab dishes, suggesting another, richer approach to understanding food. “No cuisine is a straight line stretching infinitely back in time,” she writes in her introduction. “If there is one thing I want this book to convey, it is that we are always moving forward, learning from others, adapting and evolving.”

This is true of so many dishes whose history we think we know. Steamed milk puddings such as Italy’s panna cotta or French blanc mange, Ms. Kassis points out, have roots in Arab milk puddings called muhallabiyeh, recorded as far back as the 10th-century cookbook Kitab al-Tabikh (though early versions also included meat, sheep’s tail fat and bread). Meanwhile, many of the ingredients of maqlubeh, the classic Palestinian upside-down rice dish, are not even native to the Levant. Eggplants arrived from Asia and tomatoes were not widely used in Palestinian cooking until the 19th century. “Does that make maqlubeh any less Palestinian? Absolutely not,” Ms. Kassis told me. “Food can be crucial to a national identity even as we recognize the cross-cultural journey it took to get there.”


Unearthing China’s Ancient Terroir in Maotai

Looking out over the misty Chishui River in the village of Maotai, Guizhou province, one of the most famous baijiu-producing regions in China.

The liquor that made the Maotai township famous is produced in long, squat buildings near the banks of the Chishui River. Inside, teams of barefoot men rush about with wheelbarrows full of sorghum, others stand ready with rakes and shovels. A thick haze of vapor rises from the stills and piles of fermenting sorghum, clouding the room.

Whereas Western grain alcohols are fermented and distilled in liquid form, the Chinese perform both processes in a solid state, extracting alcohol by running steam through the grains in stills resembling giant dim sum baskets.

The bottling line at Kweichow Moutai, the most celebrated producer in the region.

They say in Guizhou, a rough-hewn, ethereal landscape shrouded in mist and forgotten by time, that you can’t go three days without rain or three kilometers without hitting a mountain. They also say you can’t meet a person there with more than three coins in his pocket. It’s China’s poorest province, where only the faintest outlines of the industrial machine are visible. The deeper you venture into the interior, the further back you appear to travel into the past: terraced rice paddies, ox-drawn carts, stone-roofed villages.

Our van barreled through the fog over dirt roads, unpaved overpasses and unlit tunnels. I could already imagine the article in the next day’s newspaper. It ended: “There were no survivors.”

We were headed to Maotai, a remote Guizhou village precariously perched between mountains and the Chishui River. Though few have heard of it in the English-speaking world, its name elicits reverential nods in all corners of the Middle Kingdom. The harsh terrain that makes overland travel inadvisable also creates a pocket of humid, temperate air perfect for crafting Chinese grain spirits, or baijiu.

Baijiu is not China’s answer to whiskey, nor is it Chinese gin or vodka. It’s an altogether different animal—a spirit that’s evolved along an entirely distinct trajectory from its Western counterparts. Whereas Western grain alcohols are fermented and distilled in liquid form, the Chinese perform both processes in a solid state, extracting alcohol by running steam through the grains in an apparatus resembling a giant dim sum basket. The flavors and aromas are unlike those found in any liquor elsewhere.

The Chinese created the world’s oldest known alcoholic drink, but the major breakthrough came during the first millennium BC with a bit of ingenuity called qu. Roughly pronounced “chew,” it’s a Chinese invention worthy of mention alongside gunpowder and the compass. A fermentation agent, it’s nothing more complicated than water and grain mashed together and dried into clumps. But by careful manipulation, producers achieve astonishing biodiversity within the qu. Each brick can contain hundreds of distinct yeasts, molds and microorganisms, all naturally cultivated from the air. As with the French notion of terroir, even the slightest change in environment will alter the character of the alcohol.

Not only do these mini-ecosystems impart great depth of flavor, they’re also efficient. Whereas Western brewers convert a grain’s starches to sugars before adding yeast to kick off fermentation, qu simplifies the process into a single step. The resulting beverages are potent, with rich flavors at times as sweet as a port or smoky as a porter.

The liquor that made the Maotai township famous is produced in long, squat buildings near the banks of the Chishui River. Inside, they feel like something more akin to a coalmine than a distillery—a dark flurry of steam and earth, heat and frenetic energy. Teams of barefoot men rush about with wheelbarrows full of sorghum, others stand ready with rakes and shovels. A thick haze of vapor rises from the stills and piles of fermenting sorghum, clouding the room. Elsewhere steel cranes drop the grains into deep, stone-lined pits.

This most basic form of Chinese alcohol, made by combining steamed grains and qu, is a dark amber potion called huangjiu, or “yellow wine.” Celebrated by poets, painters and emperors, it was China’s leading libation throughout dynastic times. Distillation arrived in China later, some 800 years ago, likely as a spoil of Mongolian conquest of the Middle East. Local winemakers at first simply distilled huangjiu, but soon developed distinct Chinese distillation methods and yellow wines gave way to white spirits, or baijiu.

In the centuries that followed, baijiu spread to all corners of the empire and became a fantastically diverse category of sprits. Because overland travel into the hinterland was often treacherous—if not impossible—each backwater hamlet developed production techniques in near total isolation. Some baijius are fermented in stone pots, others in vast subterranean pits of stone or mud. Most of them are distilled from sorghum but they can also be made from rice, wheat, corn, millet and even Job’s tears, or a combination thereof.

The liquor that made the Maotai township famous is produced in long, squat buildings near the banks of the Chishui River. Inside, they feel like something more akin to a coalmine than a distillery—a dark flurry of steam and earth, heat and frenetic energy. Teams of barefoot men rush about with wheelbarrows full of sorghum, others stand ready with rakes and shovels. A thick haze of vapor rises from the stills and piles of fermenting sorghum, clouding the room. Elsewhere steel cranes drop the grains into deep, stone-lined pits.

It is a labor-intensive process that involves multiple fermentation-distillation cycles over the course of a year. Fermentation pits require constant tending, and more than a hundred aged spirits go into the finished baijiu. A whiskey distillery can comfortably operate with a handful of employees, but baijiu requires an army.

Though the scale is grander today, the techniques remain much the same as they have been for centuries. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), Beijing sent its emissaries to Maotai to establish an outpost for the state salt enterprise. The Mandarins brought with them wealth and prestige, but also northern distillers. They imbued the local pit fermentation techniques with a complexity hitherto unknown in Guizhou, giving birth to a new strain of baijiu.

There are hundreds of distilleries in the region today, but none more celebrated than Kweichow Moutai (an antiquated Romanization of Guizhou Maotai). During the Chinese Civil War, the Red Army sterilized their wounds and fortified their resolve with local baijiu. After the Communist victory the government consolidated the town’s biggest distilleries into Kweichow Moutai, which became the Party’s favored brand and the official drink of state dinners. When Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai thawed Sino-American relations with a toast of Moutai. “I think if we drink enough Moutai,” Henry Kissinger later remarked, “we can solve anything.”

As China’s red star has risen, so too has Moutai’s. The price of its flagship Flying Fairy baijiu has soared from about a dollar per bottle to hundreds. Antique bottles fetch thousands at auction and the country’s movers and shakers have spent so much money on premium baijiu that the government recently outlawed official alcohol expenditures to curb corruption.

It was thus with a sense of building excitement that we descended into Maotai township. Smokestacks materialized through the fog, then tiled roofs and whitewashed walls streaked with mildew. But we could smell it before we saw it. Every inch of town is devoted to baijiu, and the thick musk of fermenting sorghum hovers in your nostrils wherever you go.

Our van pulled into the circular drive of the distillery-owned Mao Garden Hotel. There were nine in our group: Chinese, French, Thai and an Australian and American for good measure. We were soon joined by a busload of Moutai employees, local officials and their respective entourages. Lithe young hostesses in red silk cheongsam dresses led us into a private dining room. A seemingly endless stream of dishes landed on the lazy susan, chopsticks darting in and out as they spun past us.

When I wasn’t drinking I was eating. Guizhou cuisine favors aggressive flavors that run sour to spicy. And while most southwestern Chinese baijiu is sweet and citrusy, Moutai is an intensely savory experience. It is dark and earthy, like mushrooms marinated in soy sauce with notes of bitter herbs, roasted nuts and dates, all in exquisite harmony. There is so much happening that it is hard to pick out just one taste. And the strength—one hundred and six proof—doesn’t help.

When I sensed a brief respite from incessant toasting, a team of women swirled into the room. They wore gruff expressions and shabby Chinese knock-offs of expensive Western clothing. Up to this point, we had been taking thimble-sized shots—sips, really—but the women bore rice bowls and weren’t taking prisoners.

As quickly as the session reached full boil, it was yanked from the flames. We were whisked back to the lobby and our hosts receded back into the Guizhou mist. It was the kind of experience that is impossible to replicate. It was too rooted in time and place, a lot like Moutai itself.

For decades the distillery has tried to match its supply with demand, but between the mountains and the river geological constraints have proved nearly insurmountable. In the 1970s, the government attempted to build a second Moutai plant nearby. They rebuilt the factory according to the original blueprints and even transposed the dust from the ceiling beams. The production process was identical, but the resulting baijiu was not.

Such is the challenge in producing baijiu, which takes the concept of terroir to heights seldom explored in spirits. Every province, town and village has something unique to bring to the bottle. And excellent baijiu requires certain natural conditions: the right climate, the right water, even the right microbes. The singular, otherworldly flavors of baijiu are an embodiment of the Middle Kingdom’s fabled landscape. To drink it is, quite literally, to drink of China.

P hotographs of the distillery from the book Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits by Derek Sandhaus published by Penguin China 2014.


It wasn't China.

Of the nations Decanter ranked, Chinese wine consumption actually saw one of the most drastic changes, dropping at a rate of 17.4% over 2019. OIV reported this was the third year in a row of a "sharp decline" in wine drinking among the Chinese. Dr. Qin Ma, a viticulture professor at the China Agricultural University, told Forbes that one cause of this decrease is that a significant segment of Chinese wine drinking is done in bars and restaurants, such as at business dinners or happy hour-type gatherings with friends—which was off the table during the pandemic.


France Defines Natural Wine, but Is That Enough?

The wine industry and many consumers have long sought a definition, but the adoption of a voluntary charter may not clarify anything.

Natural wine is healthy and pure natural wine is wretched and horrible. It’s the future of wine it’s the death of wine.

For 15 years, natural wine has been a contentious time bomb that has divided many in the wine community, creating conflicts fought with the sort of anger that stems only from extreme defensiveness.

Since 2003, when I first encountered what has come to be called natural wine at the seminal restaurant 360 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, I have been a fan, though a cleareyed one, I hope.

I believe in the promise and beauty of natural wines, while acknowledging that many examples are not good, as is true with all genres of wine. The truth is that natural wines have made all of wine better.

Natural wines could not have offered a more luminous contrast to the industrial practices of the wine industry, a business that marketed itself as pastoral. Many mainstream wines are made from chemically farmed grapes, then produced like processed foods, with the help of technological manipulations and artificial ingredients, to achieve a preconceived aroma-and-flavor profile.

Natural wines, made from organic grapes or the equivalent, and fermented and aged without additions, are unpredictable but alive, energetic, vibrant and surprising. It’s like comparing fresh cherries picked off a tree to red Life Savers.

The winemaking spectrum offers many shades and degrees. Not all conventional wines are processed wines. Not all wines called natural adhere to a strict “nothing added, nothing taken away” protocol.

But the appearance around 20 years ago of natural wines as a group challenged an industry dominated by a postwar promise of better living through chemistry and technology.

Back then, the prevailing wine culture was marked by increasing homogeneity. Wine was elevated to a luxury good, and grapes were placed in a caste system and ranked by their “nobility.”

Natural wine, on the other hand, promoted a diversity of styles. It resurrected and celebrated indigenous grapes and local traditions that had been forgotten or dismissed by wine authorities. It sought to knock wine off its pedestal with irreverence, presenting it as a delicious, fun drink that nonetheless packed emotional and cultural power.

Most of all, it reconnected wine to classic farming as it had been practiced for centuries before the rise of industry and technology. Wine as a product of the earth resonated with young people concerned with the environment, with health and with wellness in its full, and now fashionable, sense.

I’ve seen the audience for natural wines evolve from the nerdy inhabitants of a small, secret parallel universe to a curious, eager, ever-growing crowd. In the last few years, natural wine has been anointed the next big thing, the new “it” wine and all the other tiresome labels issued by professional trend spotters.

In this time, natural wines have stepped out of the underground into the sunshine. Natural wine bars are common in almost every big city, while even some high-end restaurants have devoted entire lists to natural wines.

This new popularity has forced the sort of reckoning that natural wine producers have for so long successfully avoided — namely, what exactly is natural wine and who is permitted to use the term?

In the past, it was the wine mainstream demanding a definition for natural wine, an entreaty that most producers blithely ignored. Definitions smacked of authority, orthodoxy and bureaucracy, exactly the binding forces that many natural wine producers have long viewed as inhibiting their freedom.

I always saw this refusal to be pinned down as a strength. Allowing natural wine to be strictly defined would set it up to be co-opted, the way many organic food companies are now largely profit-making subdivisions of Big Ag.

But the notion of natural wine producers as independent bohemian artisans is tough to maintain when the genre’s popular breakthrough radiates dollar signs, not only to corporate bean counters but also to small-business poseurs.

In a recent pandemic-era Zoom discussion of natural wine, Alice Feiring, a longtime proponent of natural wine and the author of the 2019 guide “Natural Wine for the People,” said she had changed her thinking on an official definition of natural wine.

“I haven’t seen the need for legislation, but that was before it became worthy of imitation,” she said.

In an Opinion article she wrote for The New York Times in December, Ms. Feiring warned that big wine companies were creating ersatz cuvées disguised as natural wines in order to capitalize on their growing popularity. But a threat comes from the small business side as well.

Jacques Carroget, of Domaine de la Paonnerie in the Loire Valley, led a group of natural wine producers that after a decade of work won approval last year for an official, though voluntary, certification of natural wine in France. Wines that join the approved trade syndicate and follow its rules governing viticulture and winemaking will be able to label their wines Vin Méthode Nature.

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    Mr. Carroget, who joined in the Zoom discussion, said the group was motivated by the discovery that some small producers who were purporting to make natural wines had in fact used grapes sprayed with chemical pesticides.

    “We analyzed 34 natural wines and found two had residues, including a wine which came from a famous natural winemaker,” he said in an email from the Loire. “We do not want synthetic chemistry in natural wines.”

    As long as natural wines were the province of a small number of producers, he said, he saw no reason for an official definition. “Alas, the business, the greed — when we see natural wine emerge from its niche, we find unacceptable abuses,” he said.

    The Vin Méthode Nature charter requires its members to use only grapes that have been certified organic and harvested by hand. They must be spontaneously fermented with yeast found naturally in vineyards and wine cellars, and made without what the charter calls “brutal” technologies like reverse osmosis, thermovinification or cross-flow filtration.

    Only small amounts of sulfur dioxide, an antioxidant and preservative, may be used, and two different labels will distinguish between wines made with or without even this low level of sulfites.

    The use of sulfur dioxide has been a difficult issue in the natural wine world. Some producers and consumers adamantly oppose any additions, while others are more tolerant of minimal use. The effort to accept both points of view is unlikely to satisfy everybody.

    Neither will the requirement that grapes be certified organic at a minimum. Many producers work organically, biodynamically or the equivalent, but avoid certification because of the expense and the paperwork. That is unlikely to change.

    Some leading figures in natural wine like Isabelle Legeron, the author of the book “Natural Wine” and founder of the Raw Wine fairs, which bring consumers and producers together, generally favor the charter, though not without reservations.

    “I understand people’s concerns around stifling creativity and freedom by applying rules,” she wrote in an email from England, “but from my personal perspective I don’t think this is something to worry about as a definition won’t kill the spirit of natural wine.”

    But she added that practical hurdles, like the difficulty of determining what sort of yeast was used for fermentation, might make it difficult to enforce a definition. In addition, she said, big companies might be able to make wines that conform to the letter of the law even if they do not reflect the spirit of natural wine.

    “Will it actually result in a natural wine with the small imperfections that make it unique and the palpable energy from the men and women who made it?” she said. “Of course not. I hope that consumers will not be fooled either and they will continue to understand the difference between ‘establishment natural’ and ‘small, artisan-farming natural.’ ”

    That, I think, is a crucial point and perhaps indicates that regulations will not change much of anything. Natural wine is as much defined by the intention of the producer as it is by adherence to a set of rules. Most consumers of natural wines have either educated themselves to know the difference, or put their trust in retailers, sommeliers and wine journalists to point them in the right direction.

    Relying on a label to guide curious consumers shopping for wine is a halfway measure, just as produce labeled organic in a supermarket is a far cry from the carefully grown produce sold by farmers at the greenmarket.

    I’ve always thought the best way to enlighten consumers is to require bottles to carry labels identifying the ingredients and processes used in producing the wine. Only then can they make educated decisions.

    Aaron Ayscough, a blogger who is also the wine director at Table restaurant in Paris and is writing a book on natural wine, argues that labeling like “Vin Méthode Nature” asks a lot of small producers and nothing of large industrial producers.

    “It’s fundamentally regressive, because it puts the financial and administrative burden of proof on small-scale, artisanal natural winemakers rather than on industrial wine producers,” he wrote in an email. “It would be way more effective to mandate that all wine producers, natural and conventional, list the ingredients and processes used in their winemaking, and let consumers make the verdict about what’s natural enough for them.”

    He and I share that ideal, but Ms. Legeron rightly pointed out that wine labeling is little more than a dream right now.

    “We are far off this being a reality, not least because some of the biggest players in our industry have no incentive for it to be otherwise,” she said. “So given this, I am definitely not averse to a certification system for natural wine, mainly because it will set basic minimums and help avoid abuse of the category and of the term.”

    Ultimately, nothing is wrong with the French label, which is voluntary and available only to producers in France. But for people who have not educated themselves, it may merely provide the illusion of discernment. They may be buying wines that are made naturally according to a set of rules, but that are not in the end natural wines.


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