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Meet China’s first female advanced sommelier by Dawson Tan12/01/2024  

Li Meiyu, China’s first female advanced sommelier

Sommelier, wine consultant and Chinese wine advocate Li Meiyu decants the ascent of Chinese wines, the challenges that come with it and the ones to watch

For most wine enthusiasts, Burgundy is a bucket list destination for tasting some of the world’s best wines. But for Li Meiyu, it is a special place that ignited her passion for wine, leading her on a path to being the first China’s first female advanced sommelier. While studying the French language at La Sorbonne University in Paris in 2008, she embarked on a trip to Burgundy after finding herself curious about the diversity of French culture—a big part of it being its wines and their provenance.

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That very weekend, Li found herself in the legendary Chateau de Meursault, tasting over 20 wines, from chardonnay to pinot noir, where she was particularly intrigued by the complexities of varying grape varietals and the distinct terroir of the vineyards. Since returning to Paris, her appetite for wine grew and simply tasting more wines wasn’t going to cut it. In 2010, she made the move to Bordeaux to formally pursue her wine education at the Cafa Sommelier Wine School and obtained the “La Mention Comple?mentaire en Sommellerie”—one that is equivalent to a diploma in oenology.

Wine-pairing dinner featuring China’s vineyards at 5 on 25 at Andaz Singapore

However, being a professional wine sommelier wasn’t exactly the dream. At least not until her internship stint at the Bistrot du Sommelier, a well-regarded Parisian wine restaurant by M. Philippe Faure-Brac who earned the World's Best Sommelier title in 1992. From opening the bar at nine in the morning to studying the rotating wine lists for each evening, Li worked tirelessly to satiate her thirst for wine knowledge. In that very year, she competed and won competitions such as the Best Sommelier of French Wines in China as well as China’s Best Sommelier Competition in the following year of 2011.

At that time, Mainland China had less than five sommeliers in practice, hence Li decided to return to China and join Park Hyatt Beijing as a hotel sommelier for the next three years. Her quest to better herself once again saw her uprooting and moving to London where she passed the Court of Master Sommelier exam in 2014. This solidified her status as the first female sommelier in Mainland China to attain such an accreditation, and brought her one step closer to the lionised title of Master Sommelier.

Jia Bei Lan Babyfeet Pinot Noir 2018

Today, Li runs the show at the Park Hyatt Beijing as the wine director as well as her wine consulting company, DrinkArts, where she manages the wine portfolio of over 10 Michelin-starred restaurants in Mainland China, including three-Michelin-starred Chao Shang Chao in Beijing. More recently, 5 on 25 at Andaz Singapore hosted an exciting wine-pairing dinner featuring China’s vineyards whereTatlerDining got to sit down with Li as she shed light on the ascent of Chinese wines, the challenges that come with it and the ones to watch.

How have Chinese wines evolved in terms of quality, winemaking techniques, and international recognition?
In the past, wineries often produced wines characterised by high alcohol content and intense oak flavours, aligning with the preference of the earlier Chinese market that associated these attributes with quality wine. However, with the maturation of consumer palates and a more sophisticated clientele, the landscape has shifted. More boutique wineries are emerging, where winemakers—some returning from abroad—strive to create wines with their distinctive styles while incorporating international techniques and perspectives. This, in return, helps reshape winemaking practices in China.

Today, the wine scene in China has evolved beyond cabernet sauvignon, known previously as the “world’s most dominant wine”. Winemakers are exploring a broader range of grape varieties, including indigenous ones such as Puchang Vineyard’s beichun, a crossbreed of Black Muscat and a wild grape (vitis amurensis). Another example is marselan, originally imported from France, which has now evolved into a distinctive Chinese variety.

Helan Qingyue Vineyard in Helan Mountain, Ningxia

What are the trends or innovations in Chinese winemaking that you find particularly promising?
Winemakers that are exploring innovative techniques such as biodynamic practices. One particular example is Long Ting Vineyard, a traditional Chinese boutique winery from Penglai, Shandong Province. To honour their coastal terroir, the winemakers craft high-quality ecological wines using natural farming methods with a focus on soil health—that means no chemical pesticides and fertilisers. They have also started introducing orange wines to expand their range.

What are the challenges you faced in reshaping perceptions of Chinese wines globally?
Although China has a long history of winemaking, the wine culture is not as mainstream when compared to France and other European countries. The rise of China’s wine industry is a relatively recent development that happened in the last two decades. The lack in areas such as having a well-established legal framework and a clearly defined wine style are still works in progress. However, when Chinese people are committed to achieving something, the process can be very rapid. In the recent decade, we’ve seen several Chinese wineries emerge consistently which improves the overall quality of Chinese wines.

Domaine Muxin Vineyard in Shangri-La, Yunnan

What does the future of Chinese wines on the global stage look like?
I observe an increasing emphasis on sustainability and eco-conscious practices within the industry. Wineries and hospitality establishments are progressively adopting environmentally friendly approaches, from practices in the vineyards to packaging and waste reduction. This cultural shift reflects increasing awareness and commitment to responsible practices among consumers and industry professionals alike.

Food and wine pairing are also expanding beyond traditional boundaries. More chefs and sommeliers are exploring diverse global cuisines, creating exciting fusion experiences that push the boundaries of conventional pairings. This trend allows for more creativity and versatility in crafting memorable dining experiences.

You mentioned the featured Chinese wines during that dinner pairing as some of your favourite wineries. What draws you to these particular wines?
I think what attracts me most about these wines is how each of them showcases their unique qualities, from commonly known varieties interpreted through a local lens to the expression of the terroir in which they are located. Other ones to watch are Domaine Muxin, for their expressive interpretation of the high-altitude terroir of Yunnan where wines are very delicate and balanced; Domaine des Ar?mes, for their red blend made of cabernet sauvignon and merlot cohesively redolent of brambly fruit, smoke and spice, showcasing the best of Helan Mountain Ningxia; and micro-producer Ian Dai’s Xiaopu natural wine hailing from Ningxia.

What advice do you have for aspiring sommeliers?
Understand that becoming a sommelier is tough work for women, so you’ll need to be clear about your goals and be mentally prepared for a lot of hard work—sometimes even opening hundreds of bottles a day which requires lots of physical strength. Find an established hotel or a restaurant with international standards and you’ll grow and learn faster. It is also ideal to find yourself a mentor to guide you along the way so that you can gain better insights into the industry, and understand the expectations and standards required of you and your job.

Above all, being a sommelier is also a good stepping stone for other professions. You will gain plenty of experience just by being on the front lines. That will give you an edge over others wherever you go.