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Self-Improvement & Hobbies

Maturing with wine

A few sips of wine in his schooldays were all it took to get wine writer Ch'ng Poh Tiong hooked
December 3, 2012
By: Rebecca Lynne Tan
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Maturing with wine -- PHOTO: MARK CHEONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Respected wine writer Ch'ng Poh Tiong scoffed at the credibility of Chinese basketballer Yao Ming's Californian wines.

He wrote it off as just another gimmick last year when news of the former NBA star's first vintage broke.

This year, the Singaporean publisher, who is behind South-east Asia's first wine magazine The Wine Review, was the guest of honour at the launch of Yao Ming's second vintage in Shanghai last month.

"A journalist should always be very disbelieving and almost cynical. And I don't think my gut reaction was an unfair one," he tells Life! over lunch at Chinese restaurant Jade Palace at Forum The Shopping Mall.

It was only after tasting the wines - which he found had been made in a classic, elegant and balanced way - did he agree to speak about them at the event.

The 57-year-old says: "I'm not saying that my views will make or break a wine, but I just don't want to be used. For a winery, it is commercial. For me, it is my livelihood and I have a responsibility to readers."

The journalist, publisher and consultant has been writing about the fermented beverage for more than 30 years, and is practically synonymous with all-things wine. He is well known not just in wine circles here, but also around the globe, from Bordeaux - his region of expertise - to China.

But do not refer to him as a wine expert, wine connoisseur, or worse, he says, a "wine guru". "I don't think I'm an expert," he says earnestly, "I just make more discoveries than most because of my exposure to wines."

He adds: "To call anyone an expert is a bit ridiculous. That means you must be able to answer any wine-related question and I don't think I can do that."

He has a knack for putting people at ease, thanks perhaps to his soothing and almost melodic, baritone voice, a trait that has surely won over many of those he has interviewed during his journalistic career.

In 1991, he single-handedly wrote and launched The Wine Review, a then- monthly, now-annual magazine dedicated to all things wine-related. It started out as a local magazine with a print-run of 1,000, but is now distributed regionally, with 10,000 copies. He also wrote about wines for The Sunday Times from the 1980s to the late 1990s.

These days, his work also includes being the regional chair for Middle East, Far East, and Asia, for reputable UK wine magazine Decanter for which he also writes a quarterly column.

In addition, the savvy businessman, who first identified China's growing wine market back in 1999, also publishes the 12-year-old annual Chinese Bordeaux Guide, the world's first guide to Bordeaux wines in Chinese. Last year, 10,000 copies were printed, all were sold except the five per cent Ch'ng's company keeps for marketing purposes.

He also occupies countless other seats on wine tasting panels, makes appearances at wine symposiums and plays wine consultant to airlines, most recently Hainan Airlines, as well as companies such as supermarket chain FairPrice.

But aside from wine, his other interests include art, music and literature.

The walls of his conservation home in Spottiswoode Park Road, where he lives with his wife Tina Koh, 36, a housewife, and their five-year-old daughter Hui Jin, are hung with paintings by artists such as Tan Swie Hian and Tay Bak Koi.

He confesses a little abashedly that he has more paintings than he has walls to display them. His collection of antiques also includes a few large Neolithic Chinese vases.

To relax, he plays the guqin, a traditional Chinese string instrument. He has one in Singapore and another one at his home in Lorgues in the south of France, which he bought last year. It is about an hour from Nice and 30 minutes from St Tropez.

The wine writer is also into the second chapter of his first novel, set in Northern Song dynasty.

He says: "I'm 57. I don't want to end up saying that I didn't get to do this or that. Then I will have to confront myself coldly and ask, well, why didn't I?"

He has more than 5,000 bottles in his collection that is spread across eight wine fridges at home and at his River Valley office as well as storage facilities. Prized wines include a 1990 Louis Roederer Cristal Double Magnum, which he had bought at US$2,000 in 1999 (more than S$3,000 at the time). It is now worth $20,000. But none of his wines are for sale - they are meant to be drunk.

He says he has stopped following auctions mainly because he does not need any more wines although he still buys some now and again, to go with meals.

At lunch with Life!, he swirls and sniffs a glass of riesling, sipping it between mouthfuls of fine dim sum and braised tofu. "It's no secret," he says of the trick to pairing wine and food. For example, when pairing red wines with Chinese food, or any type of cuisine, the single, over-riding consideration is the quality and texture of the tannins; they should not be aggressive, angry or violent. He says: "The food will stand a better chance if the tannins are soft, resolved, evolved. And if you like a particular wine, the chances of it pairing well are also a lot higher."

The first time he tasted wine during his pre-university days in the early 1970s, he drank it with home-style Chinese cooking.

Wine had the eldest son of the second wife of a retired businessman hooked after the first few sips. His father, Mr Chng Leong Kee, 88, ran a scrap metal company at the time. His mother, Madam Chan Ah Lui, 82, lives with his father, and his father's first wife, respectfully known as Ah Yah, in a condominium in District 9. He has 12 siblings. Two have died.

The family had lived amicably under one roof, first in Spottiswoode Park Road, then moving to houses in Pasir Panjang Hill and Shanghai Road in River Valley.

Back then, the older Mr Chng was just getting into German white wines and soon moved onto other reds and whites.

Ch'ng says with a laugh that as a teenager, "I started drinking wines mainly because it was free. There was always wine in the house".

He found wines much more enjoyable than beer, which was bitter and uninteresting. The wines' intricacies and flavours intrigued the Silat Primary School and New Town Secondary School alumnus.

He says animatedly: "Chinese people can taste the layers of flavour in steamed tofu, what is so god**** difficult about tasting wine? Our palates are so sensitive that we can eat steamed tofu and taste sweetness.

"Tasting wine is a stroll in the park compared to that because the flavours are so much more obvious."

While tasting is not the problem, he adds that maybe describing the flavours and characteristics can be tough for some.

He was exposed to more wines while at university in New Zealand, which produces the beverage. And it was there that he took to writing about it.

He read law at The University of Canterbury in Christchurch. He had completed his first year at the University of Singapore law school before transferring credits as he was unhappy with the school system here.

As a student, he freelanced for The Press, the daily Christchurch broadsheet, writing wine reviews, as well as book reviews and the odd restaurant review.

He never practised law, but instead held jobs that included wine writing for various publications, sub-editing and proofreading at the now-defunct Singapore Monitor newspaper, deejaying on Rediffusion and hosting a television show.

His only full-time job - save for a nine-month stint sometime during the early 1980s as a compere at Neptune Theatre Restaurant at Collyer Quay, every night for 21/2 hours - was as a writer, then editor at luxe lifestyle publication Diner's Club Signature Magazine, for seven years, where he experienced some of life's most memorable moments.

In 1986, on the 100th day of her presidency, he interviewed the Philippines' then-president Corazon Aquino.

But the true highlight of his career was meeting the late Mother Teresa, recipient of the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, that same year. He took nine months to track her down and found her at her charity centre in Tondo, a slum area in Manila.

He spoke to her in a small hut with no windows for all of 15 minutes. But the experience was uplifting.

"I have never met anyone who is so completely unaffected by who she meets or sees - from a beggar on the street to the wife of former Filipino politician Juan Ponce Enrile - there was no discrimination. That was very impressive," he says.

But he grew sick of attending press conferences and having to write about things he did not care for (luxe watches for one).

He decided to start a wine publication. No such magazine existed in Singapore or the South-east Asian region at the time.

The first issue of The Wine Review, which started out as a 20-page monthly, was written, designed and produced entirely by him. He even queued at the post office to buy stamps to mail them.

It cost him about $8,000, which included a new personal Apple Macintosh computer to replace his trusted Olivetti Lettera 32 mechanical typewriter. The magazine, which cost $10 then, made money from advertising from the get-go.

However, it was not until 1995, that he hired his first full-time staff member. He now has four full-time staff that include an art designer and videographer for his bilingual wine website VinoVideos.com. He still writes most of the copy. The magazine is now about 120 to 140 pages thick, but still costs $10.

He sends out a weekly e-newsletter GrapeVine to more than 7,000 subscribers around the world, one of whom is Mr Paul Pontallier, 56, managing director of famed winery Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux.

When they first met about 15 years ago, Mr Pontallier recalls how Ch'ng, who now travels to Bordeaux about four to five times a year, had come across as the "perfect gentleman" with a "great sense of humour".

Mr Pontallier says: "He appeared to me as a good example of the globalisation of the wine market. I appreciate his great culture, especially about China and its history, his great tasting skills, his kindness and his simplicity. Poh Tiong stands between the Chinese and Western cultures, and he combines the best of the two."

The thirsty wine market in China keeps Ch'ng busy.

He is happy to report that, except in very remote cities and villages, no mainland Chinese wine drinker now adds Coca-Cola to white wine and Sprite to red wine these days.

He says: "The Chinese learn so fast, it is frightening. But at the same time, it is so exhilarating."

While the rich Chinese's obsession with buying brand-name wines such as Lafite and Domaine de la Romanee-Conti has driven prices to unprecedented levels, Ch'ng says: "That is not every Chinese person."

There are more than 300 qualified oenologists, he says, and he has met genuine wine lovers, young sommeliers, educators and the odd snob, all of whom are keen to learn more about wines.

And having visited vineyards in areas such as Xing Jiang, Hubei and Shanxi, he reckons Chinese wines are getting better all the time.

But moving forward, he hopes to do less wine-related work, and focus more on his other loves of art, music, literature and family.

Ch'ng, who came into fatherhood later than most, says: "The best thing about becoming a father at 52 is that my daughter has given me the excuse to behave like a child again.

"I get a second wind, and I am forever grateful to Hui Jin for the opportunity because there is only one thing all of us have never been able to recover - innocence."

He says he wants to live as long as he can, so that he can be part of his daughter's wedding. "I would be so, so happy to give her hand away."

rltan@sph.com.sg

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