|Douglas Blyde: living the high life with Yvonne Cheung, sommelier, Café Gray Deluxe, Hong Kong|
|Monday, 03 September 2012 19:37|
California-born with Chinese roots, Cheung is head sommelier at Café Gray Deluxe. "If VAT and general sales tax hadn't been removed from wine in ‘08, I quite possibly wouldn't be here," she says. "It offered a moment of accessibility which led Hong Kong to become wine centre of the world and gateway of wine to mainland China."
Glimpsed from the 49th floor vantage atop the couth Upper House Hotel in Admiralty, lasers roam the harbour this Saturday night. They recurrently cast spotlight on Hong Kong's tallest towers: the International Commerce Centre (118 floors), and Tower 2 of the International Finance Centre (88). Fortuitous number eight is woven within their fabric. Both shot to the sky following Kai Tak airport's closure in ‘98 in favour of the sleek sequel out-of-town, Lantua. Carrier, Cathay Pacific culminated the ultimate departure - one of two airlines owned by the British-born Swire Group, who also runs this hotel.
Compared to North America, Hong Kong provided Cheung a moment of awakening. "I went from a slow economy to not being able to order enough wine in a week," she recalls. In her first months at Café Gray Deluxe, Cheung heavily scrutinised "the place and its spirit". "I read a lot, and was under the impression that people would just drink expensive Bordeaux. But I was very pleasantly surprised."
"The only time I tasted the dish was just before it was finalised," says Cheung. "Luckily, I asked Joey for a spoonful of sauce and a cherry (just to gauge the level of sweetness in the final product). It changed everything! I'd originally planned a red Burgundy, but realised it would be too dry. Given its chocolate-y flavours, smooth, luscious texture, and sheer ability to wrap itself around the game-and-fruit qualities inherent in duck, Nine Popes was the best option." Cheung, who is "curious about almost anything" and "obsessed with always wanting to be smarter," has served only one red wine tonight.
Perhaps it is time to reveal her wine ambitions? "I want to re-brand white wine in Chinese culture," she says, referring to China's national spirit, ‘Baijiu'. "In Mandarin, ‘Baijiu' translates as ‘white alcohol/wine', but the connotations are strongly-steeped in distilled rice beverages. Even if someone understands that one is referring to white grape wine, the feelings associated with rice spirits aren't abated. I believe this affects how people subconsciously perceive white wine. Sure, red wine has fame and status due to its' overall ability to age, complexities, and history, but there are sensational whites out there that are discredited without intention." Cheung believes that Asians are so particular about food "so they could be very particular about white wine too."
What, I venture, does Cheung think of customers who wish to blend rare vintages with Coca Cola? "If my friends did it, I'd kick them out then call them up the next day - but I wouldn't kick out clients. But, as much as it breaks my heart, I'm not always right. I know fellow sommeliers with stories to tell about the temptations of switching wines, although I've never done that. Then again, my mum gave me processed cheese and bananas when I was a child. She read that calcium and potassium were good for the health in a magazine..."
Finally, with dessert of chocolate and cherries, Cheung chooses against making a match - "for a few different reasons". Cheung believes sweet wine should constitute a course on its own. "The Nine Popes makes for an interesting grouping, given its tendency to remind us of chocolate-covered berries. But given a second chance, I could pour Banyuls from Coume del Mas in the Roussillon."
In addition to wine's study, Cheung is an artist of oil, acrylic and clay. "Clay holds the ultimate potential: a blob of sand and water. From poking it comes an idea; something you didn't necessarily plan." She pauses for some moments. "But you have to understand the medium..."