Gerald Chua, a sommelier at JJ Suppliers, shares with us his personal growth within the industry and sheds some light on the difference between organic, biodynamic, natural and skin contact wine.
What do you do?
I am a manager and sommelier at JJ Wine and I peddle liquid happiness in the form of wine, spirits and sake. JJ Wine is a wine and spirits retail shop at Icon City, Petaling Jaya. Our parent company, JJ Suppliers, imports its wines and distributes the wines in major Malaysian states such as Johor, Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Penang. We import wines from mostly boutique wineries whereby quality, and not quantity, is their foremost consideration. Our wines are more tailored for the middle-priced market segment where there is still a lot to explore with wines from unique wine regions or grape varietals, and also from more artisanal styles of winemaking. Wine education is also part of our work, which we do as wine tastings and classes at JJ Wine and also collaborate with our trade partners to do these activities and wine dinners at their place.
How did you get into this industry?
Six years ago, I was neither in KL (I was then in Johor Bahru) nor was I in this industry. In all honesty, I would not have imagined myself being here six years ago. This journey has always been spontaneous and unwitting. The quest at first was just to understand what I was drinking, but in 2013, I chanced upon a pair of wine enthusiasts who would later become my lifelong mentors. They were teaching about wine in JB at that time and I soon followed their classes. This is where things took an unexpected turn of events. I began studying wine professionally. It started with the Certified Specialist of Wine in 2013 and I became a Certified Sommelier in the next year while doing my WSET programme at the same time. I kicked off my WSET Diploma in Wine & Spirits programme in 2015 and to help me know my wines in a practical way, I opened a wine shop. The shop helped my studies and more importantly, it afforded me a start to work in this industry. In 2018 after completing my WSET Diploma, I joined my mentor at JJ Suppliers and continued my learning but this time in KL.
Share with us an interesting story from behind the scenes.
Wine is fraught with lingos. Some terms are seemingly harmless, yet may put you in embarrassing situations. I once had a customer asking for a glass of white wine but not too ‘dry’. Without hesitation, I offered him an off-dry Riesling thinking to myself that this recommendation will never go wrong. The next day, the customer returned not looking too happy and complaint that yesterday’s wine is too sweet for his liking. That was when I realised we had interpreted ‘dry’ very differently. The gentleman was, in fact, looking for a refreshing, fruit-forward white wine that will not cause ‘dryness’ or astringency in the mouth. Instead, I have given him a wine that is ‘sweet’ and not ‘dry’. This is a rather unfortunate lesson learnt. From then on, I do not assume that my customers understand things the way I do!
What’s the best/worst part of your job?
The best part of my job happens to be the worst as well. Our job requires us to learn constantly. Not just about the wine but the context of wine as well, such as the history, geography, social-politics and so on. You learn a lot of things just by studying wine and it helps to keep yourself abreast of developments in the wine scene. But brutally, that also means you cannot take a breather.
What is your favourite food and beverage pairing?
Best pairing would be to pair what you like to eat best with what you like to drink best! For that, I had an unforgettable experience munching KFC and quenching on a Moscato di Pantelleria by Donnafugata.
What’s one of the most inspiring things you have seen behind the scenes?
I visited London Cru, an urban winery in the city of London, and was inspired by the team and the winery. I admired their spirit of enterprise and their determination in getting the wines out. And to do that, they had to battle against scepticisms, the bureaucratic European wine laws and other logistical challenges. People question if it is a gimmick to sell a wine labelled as a ‘London Wine’, but I think you cannot simply just dismiss the amount of craft and graft put in there to make these wines.
A day in the life of a sommelier is …
Drink, drank, drunk! I think that is what the general public would think about what we do every day. In importing and distributing wines, you need to know not only the wine but also its context. You need to know what, where, who, when, and why the wines are drunk. It is all about the economics of supply and demand. It is also our duty to educate the market of other possibilities, otherwise, they would be misinformed, misconstrued and missed.
What is the difference between organic, biodynamic, natural and skin-contact wines?
Many think that making an organic wine is just about abstaining from the use of agrochemicals in the vineyards. It actually extends beyond viticulture and into the winemaking processes. The use of sulphur dioxide, an essential but non-organic preservative in winemaking, is the most hotly debated. Many countries have different regulations when it comes to defining how much sulphur is permitted. It can still be an organic wine even if there is a minimum amount of sulphur present.
It shares the same principles of organic wine where the use of agrochemicals is disallowed. While organic is a methodology, biodynamic is a philosophy. It stems on the belief that the vineyard, with the soil underneath and other flora and fauna growing together interdependently in a holistic ecosystem, is influenced by the cosmic forces at large. Just like the way the moon pull tides and plants grow more when it is a full moon. In biodynamic, movements of the celestial bodies such as the lunar cycles determine what work should be done in the vineyards and cellars. This belief is first mooted by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner and then advocated by people like Maria Thun. It may sound like pseudoscience or alchemy, but reputable wine producers like Domaine de la Romanee-Conti (DRC) and Nicolas Joly have also taken to biodynamic cultivation.
To avoid controversy, I would call it ‘wine with minimal-interventions,’ be it intervening chemically, technologically or otherwise. Such a wine is almost always made from organically-farmed or biodynamically-cultivated grapes. In the cellar, there is nothing added or taken away from the wine except maybe adding a dash of sulphur or sometimes none. Words like hand-harvested, natural yeasts, unfined, unfiltered are usually inferring some kind of ‘natural’ wine. Although the making of ‘natural’ wines is not defined and regulated, the intent, however, is always to make a wine that can express the characteristics of the fruits and place in its most earnest form.
Skin-contact wine, or more often called ‘orange’ wine, needs neither be made from organic/biodynamic grapes nor it needs to be made in the ‘natural’ way. Orange wine is, in fact, a style of wine, just like a red, white, rose, sparkling or fortified wine. It is a wine made with white grape varietals using red winemaking techniques. Fundamentally, white skinned grapes are fermented with the skins on where alcohol extracts the colours and phenolics from the skins. As a result, orange wine is different from white wine in terms of the hues, flavour profile and the former will also have a tannic structure.
What is your view on the wine scene in KL?
KL is a cosmopolitan metropolis where the city welcomes tourists and expatriates from different countries, and they greatly influence the choices of cuisines and wines in Malaysia. On the other hand, the locals have also been travelling and have been acquainted with regional wines in places they visit. These greatly increased consumers’ exposure and knowledge to and subsequently embracing of, a wider diversity of wines. Importers and distributors will gradually have more confidence in bringing in different styles of wines and offering the market a diverse portfolio of wines. Hopefully, this would mean consumers will slowly move away from ‘play-it-safe’, popular wine brands and varietals, and also start to include wines as part of their diet than just drinking them as a social lubricant.
What is in store for you in the upcoming months?
JJ Suppliers will be bringing in more new wines in the next few months from Italy, South Africa and Australia. Some of these wines are from artisanal wineries that make small batch wines while some are from regions, rather unheard of. As always, we want to bring in wines that are value-for-money and yet have an interesting story to tell. Besides wine, we will soon be introducing a Chinese baijiu to the Malaysia market. Baijiu is a sorghum-based distilled spirits that are often accompanied by a fiery reputation. But this particular baijiu that we are bringing, Jiangxiaobai, is instead light and refreshing. It is made to suit the general taste profile of the millennials and it makes a good base spirit for concocting cocktails. In fact, we will be collaborating with some of KL’s renowned bartenders and bars to craft localised Malaysian baijiu-themed cocktails in the near future. I implore you to stay tuned and follow our Facebook at JJ Wine Icon City and Jiangxiaobai 江小白. As for myself and on a personal note, I will be doing the Certified Wine Educator examinations in this coming May. Hopefully, everything will go well for me and one day, wine education will be one of JJ’s core competencies.