In good spirits: Southeast Asia’s rising love of wine

By: Euan Black - Posted on: December 28, 2016 | Culture & Life

After completing two years of national service in his home country of South Korea, Stanley Chang took his career in an entirely different direction by becoming a sommelier. His passion for fine wines has taken him across the world – from the US to Thailand and the Maldives – and he is now leading the drinks team at the Sanchaya resort in Bintan, Indonesia

Sanchaya sommelier Stanley ChangWhat about wine interests you?

[The industry offers] a lot of opportunities to travel, a lot of opportunities to taste some wine. Wine is a living organism – each year the vintage is different. You see the classic wine regions, but at the same time there are a lot of New World wines. For example, Chilean, Argentinian wines, US wine has a long history already, South African – there are a lot of wines that you didn’t see before. And that makes my career much more exciting. My horizons have been expanded to the sake industry and then the spirit side as well.

What do you see as the main trends in the drink industry, and what excites you at the moment in your role?

I think it’s all about diversity. The cocktail resurgence is noticeable in the last few years. In the wine industry, people are now more into natural wines, biodynamic wines, even organic wines. And now, everyone is talking about whiskey and gin – single malt whiskey, scotch and Japanese, Taiwanese.

How has the market for wine in the region changed in recent years?

I think Southeast Asia, including Singapore and Malaysia, particularly in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, those specific tourist destinations have a very developed palate and market. Jakarta, I heard that it has a very sophisticated, established market already. Bali also, due to many resorts and hotels.

But Southeast Asia is an enormous landscape; there are many places to be developed, for example Bintan and Bantan, for example Medan in Indonesia. We’re also talking about other areas in Thailand and Cambodia and Vietnam. I think the future is very bright because wine trends will be developed according to the citizens’ and national income’s development. People definitely look for better food, better drinks – that can be wine or cocktails, sake or spirits. I think in the next ten to 15 years, the market will be highly developed.

Have you noticed palates changing?

For the locals, they are looking for wine that suits their palate. For example, Thai people will look for wine with higher sugar contents, so a Riesling, an Alsace or German Riesling. But people are getting more sophisticated palates and looking for something else – a cabernet, or blended or pinot or some other grape variety from Italy or Spain. Definitely I see the development in the Southeast Asian market, and I’m sure that will come to the Indonesian market very soon. It is a Muslim country, so for the Muslim people it might be a different story, but for the non-Muslims, they will definitely look for some better products in time.

Are you worried that at some stage Indonesia might ban alcohol sales?

I think that alcohol consumption will actually increase in the future, and also I think the government wouldn’t stop alcohol consumption because it’s a major source of tax revenue for the government.

Can you describe your perfect dinner?

That’s very difficult. Well, the most expensive dinner could be the option, but I think it’s all about the people who you dine with. For example, you could go to Pierre Gagnaire or Thomas Keller, whoever, but if you dine with someone you’re not comfortable with, that dinner, that experience, it wouldn’t last long. Even if it’s just a normal dinner with the house wine it doesn’t really matter; if you have a very good time with your very close friend or your loved one, that would be more memorable.

The wine and drinks industry has been criticised for being pretentious… 

I think all industries have their own pretentious people, their own snobby attitude. It’s not only for the wine; it’s the same with lawyers or doctors, or the car or fashion industry. I can tell you that there is an internal voice among the wine industry – the sommeliers or the producers – saying that we shouldn’t be doing this. It doesn’t really matter if people drink a $5 glass of wine or a $1,000 glass, it’s all about the people’s palate and their preference. I can’t criticise you if you add ice to your white wine or rosé wine or even to red wine if it is a hot climate, like in Southeast Asia.