Wine, oh wine!

“Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.” 

Ernest Hemingway

France, Italy and Spain are countries where wine has always been part of daily life: no meal was ever served, which didn’t include a glass of wine. That tradition for sure was hard to understand in other places, but then countries such as New Zealand, Argentina and Australia happily made it theirs.

These countries have then become wine producing countries themselves and now they all, old and new, are trying both to find new markets as well asto teach and inform people about wine. They want people around the world to appreciate wine, because it is, as a matter of fact, an incomparable beverage in its variety, colour nuances and bouquets.

Wine shops in Saigon today have quite a large variety of wines, from Barolo, a virtuous and proud red wine from Northern Italy to elegant Sauvignon Blancs of New Zealand.

Wines have become more and more popular in the last 15 years in Vietnam: “There was no wine to be found when I first came here in 1999”, said Jim Cawood, an Australian business man and wine connoisseur, one of the biggest wine importers in the country and owner of the renowned VINO fine wine shops in District 1 and 2 in Saigon.

He started his business in 2005: “It was the first year that we could talk about a successful business year in the wine market. Since then I have seen a dramatic change in people’s habits and in how they conceive wine”.

Jim explained that the trend has been really positive, apart form the past two years where there’s been stagnation in the sector, due to the global crisis and to complicated domestic rules and regulations, hard to follow and often changing without notice.

But then, what is the reason Jim and other importers keep on trying? “Passion for my job and then the fact that Vietnam has great assets: people in Vietnam enjoy drinking; it’s the first country in South East Asia for beer, cognac and whisky consumption, so we have many potential wine drinkers. The population is young, many have been travelling, studying or working out of Vietnam and have seen that enjoying wine is quite common abroad. Wine brings with it a certain flair of sophistication, and that’s what people are keen in showing friends and family once they return”.

An interesting new development in the cities has been that women account for a large slice of the market: “We have groups of ladies flocking to our terrace for an after-work glass of wine, sign that society is opening up to women drinking alcohol. Wine makes it socially acceptable to drink in public, being such a refined product”, said Jim.

Francois Carteau, a wine connoisseur from France,director and sommelier at the recently opened ‘Wine Embassy’, an elegant wine bar in District 1 shared: “What I always tell my customers is that in the business world nowadays, a basic knowledge of wines could be considered essential: inviting prospective clients for dinner and choosing the right wine to go with it shows class and elegance.”

The name Wine Embassy stands for that: we’re there to represent wines, they are the main actors on the stage and that’s why we have a lot of wines by the glass; at the same time, as an embassy, we’re there to answer people’s questions regarding wines. We want people to feel comfortable in asking, so that they can self-confidently grow their appetite for new wines”.

Both Francois and Jim arrange wine tasting courses in their premises, to get people to know more about wines. They have different philosophies and the offer differs: Jim offers tailor made courses, but his specialty is the intensive 7-weeks long course, building strong foundations in wine tasting.

Francois’s signature course is a two hours course with a hands-on approach, giving the basic instruments for example to a marketing department in a company to be a little bit more confident when coming in contact with a wine bottle. As a French, he also emphasises the importance of pairing wine and food in all his courses.

And what are the wines Vietnamese usually chose to drink?

In the recent years the market has been practically invaded by the Chilean wines, also thanks to a very aggressive marketing strategy”, Francois said. “This means that people are used to quite strong, full-bodied wines”.

In addition to Chile, wines from Australia, France, Italy and South Africa are the most common.

Trends are changing, but rather slowly; Jim said it is quite common for people to ask for sweet or very aromatic wines, sign that the taste buds still need to develop to become more mature and appreciate something else.

What we need is to spread the knowledge: international wine fairs, maybe commonly organised by all the wine importing countries, where everybody is allowed to join would be a great way to get people to know more about wines”, said Francois.

The fact that wines are luxury items makes them not affordable for 70% of the population at the moment, but still Vietnam is the best possible market in South East Asia as countries such as Thailand and Malaysia have their own restraints, e.g. prohibitively high import taxes or religion.

Speaking of religion, Martin Luther, the monk who started the Protestant Reformation in Germany in the sixteenth century once said: “Beer was made by men, but wine was made by God”, a perfect portrait of the holiness that wine has by its very nature.


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