Some people find romance in Paris, but Meiyu Li found her love for wine in 2009 — and built a career out of it. She would go on to win the title of China’s Best Sommelier in 2011 and become mainland China’s first female Advanced Sommelier, a high-level certification given by the Court of Master Sommeliers.
This period also saw the start of the grape rush in China. While global producers sought to sell their wines to China, local wine production started to take off. From 14 producers listed in the 2009 book The Vineyards of Greater China, there are now over 140 wineries in Shandong Peninsula alone, a region often called China’s Napa Valley.
Together with the rising interest in Chinese gastronomy, it is no surprise that the sommellerie industry in China has seen remarkable growth.
A vine time
Li, who is the founder of wine and management consultancy DrinkArts, was in Singapore to oversee Andaz Singapore’s inaugural Voyage to Chinese Vineyards recently. The ambitious dinner at Chinese restaurant 5 on 25, held over two nights, featured nine courses and eight wineries, with many exclusive wines rarely seen in Singapore, as they were sourced and imported specially for the event.
Li shared that while pursuing a Masters in business management in France in 2009, she discovered wine instead and decided to pivot to a sommelier course. While interning at Domaine Seppi Landmann in Alsace, she found a flavour epiphany in a glass of Gewurztraminer that the owner introduced, with such redolent aromas of rose petals and lychee that she questioned whether these elements were added to the wine. It is still the wine that she introduces to new drinkers today.
The turning point in her wine journey
The true turning point, however, was yet to come. Fresh from completing her studies, and in her words, “buoyed by newfound knowledge and confidence”, she decided to enter China’s Best French Wine Sommelier Competition in 2010. It was a relatively new contest organised by food and beverage communications company Sopexa that drew less than five Chinese participants. She came out on top in the competition.
A year later, she met Singapore wine educator Tommy Lam at her then-workplace, the Park Hyatt Beijing. Lam founded the China National Sommelier Competition (CNSC) in 2009 and persuaded Li to also try out for the 2011 CNSC. Despite some hesitation, being the sole female participant and the only sommelier from Beijing among contenders, mainly from Shanghai, she took the plunge — and the title.
“Winning the competition in 2011 brought immense joy and pride”, she recounts. She wanted her success to inspire fellow sommeliers, especially women, and contribute to elevating China’s standing in the global wine community.
Making her mark as a sommelier
She notes that the hardest part of the job is the long hours and physically demanding tasks, especially as she is on the petite side. Li cites handling heavy boxes of wine, opening up to 100 bottles a day, and holding a wine bottle or decanter with one hand as her toughest challenges. “Despite these physical challenges, being a female sommelier allows me to bring a sensitive and detail-oriented nature to the table,” she adds.
After breezing through her Sommelier Certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers, Li failed in her first and second attempts at the notoriously difficult Advanced Sommelier course. Such was her determination, however, that she resigned from Park Hyatt Beijing and moved to the United Kingdom to further immerse herself in rigorous preparation.
Taking on disciplined blind tasting and internships at the prestigious two-Michelin-starred Le Gavroche and then one-starred Medlar, she was better prepared and passed in 2014 as the first female sommelier from mainland China to achieve the qualification.
The evolution of China’s wine industry
Working in Beijing since 2015, Li observes that the industry has changed significantly. “In 2010, the emphasis was predominantly on renowned estates like Lafite. Today’s wine enthusiasts are notably more knowledgeable, delving into Burgundy and Champagne, even venturing into niche natural wines. Although the number of sommeliers has doubled since 2010, demand still outpaces supply.
Exceptional restaurants are no longer confined to hotels; many Michelin-starred establishments now grace the social dining scene. This shift is accompanied by an increasing emphasis on more nuanced regional cuisines, marking a departure from the past,” she says. In 2015, Li set up DrinkArts, her own wine consultancy, to juggle both motherhood and her career meaningfully.
There is no easy categorisation of China’s wine scene, once counted as the fifth largest wine consumer market in the world (it is currently eighth). “Shanghai stands out in both sommelier expertise and sophisticated drinkers’ preferences. The overall lifestyle in Shanghai reflects a willingness to spend.
While trailing slightly, Beijing boasts a notable distinction in hosting big spenders. With its dynamic start-up culture and relatively younger demographic, Shenzhen is making strides but may not be as established as its counterparts,” she offers.
Pairing wines with Chinese cuisine
In her approach to the Voyage to Chinese Vineyards event, Li was careful to include as many grapes as possible, not limiting to the usual preferences such as Cabernet Sauvignon and wines from Ningxia, while being mindful of the vibrant cuisine of the restaurant, driven by head chef Lim Hong Lih.
A standout pairing included crispy cubes of pork cheek marinated with soy sauce and chilli that was suitably matched to the aromatics and acidity in Longting Vineyard’s Petit Manseng Reserve 2021, a dry wine that nevertheless displays the grape’s floral, honeyed character.
This particular pairing was a challenge, with Li initially intending to pair the wine with a prawn dish. However, the tropical aromas and the wine’s natural sweetness proved an excellent match with the pork. Meanwhile, the famed winery Helan Qingxue’s Jia Bei Lan Baby Feet Pinot Noir 2018 found an ideal partner in the restaurant’s signature Golden Phoenix oolong tea-smoked duck breast with kumquat and vanilla sauces.
“Food and wine pairing is a highly personal and experiential journey for our guests. We tend to steer clear of heavier options for Chinese food, opting for red wines with less tannins — smooth, fruity, with notes of berries. Our guests also usually appreciate wines with a light to medium body, complementing less gamey food with a more tender texture, providing a ‘melt in your mouth’ sensation. Dishes like Wagyu align with their wine preferences, and you won’t tend to find robust options like a big tomahawk on our menu,” she muses.
However, the trickiest aspect of Chinese cuisine is the presence of sugar, either directly added or as part of ingredients like oyster sauce and soy sauce. Sugar can diminish the fruity notes of the wine, rendering it more acidic and astringent. Achieving the ideal harmony, to get the best of both worlds, is an ongoing process of refinement and careful consideration.
Wine trends and preferences in China
Meanwhile, in China, Western wines continue to dominate consumer preferences, Li confirms, although sommeliers are the ones who play a crucial role in promoting the local wine industry, which is now gaining momentum after roughly three decades of experimentation and growth.
She points out Domaine Muxin, paired with 5 on 25’s wagyu and foie gras course, as one of the wineries to watch, along with Célèbre (both from Yunnan). Domaine Muxin’s Cabernet Sauvignon red blend is silky and nuanced, from grapes older than the winery’s age (it started in 2020), and is made by one of China’s most promising winemakers, Chao Mu.
Given the chance, though, Li would recommend yellow wine, such as those from the historic Mansong brand, across the spectrum of Chinese cuisine — from seafood to red meats, appetisers to main courses, sweet to spicy. “I also personally drink it at home,” she asserts, noting that the versatile spirit has enough weight to match meats and a fresh umami flavour.
She notes that the horizons of the role of a sommelier are expanding these days. “From being a sommelier to a wine bar or F&B group owner, I exemplify how one can transcend traditional roles. This journey into consultancy highlights the myriad of skills required, including expertise in wine, service, food, networking, and sales. A well-exposed sommelier has ample room for growth and development, with opportunities to venture into roles such as an educator or a media personality, allowing for a diverse career that doesn’t necessarily require a constant presence on the floor,” she concludes.