Saturday, April 10, 2021

The man who wanted to make Taiwan a wine country

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How can we imagine developing viticulture on land that does not know winter and is damaged by five typhoons per year on average? The island of Taiwan is indeed much more famous for its tea and street food than for its vines. Producing wine is always possible, but great wine is another story. Moreover, most of the bottles found in the country are closer to the piquette than to the grands crus.

It is in this context that the Vino Formosa, a sweet white wine, and the Vino Formosa Rosso, its red equivalent, designed by the eccentric Chien-hao Chen, are exceptions – their name evokes the former name of the island, Formosa. We met the 53-year-old winemaker at the end of October 2020, under a beating sun. The wine estate is called Shu-sheng, it is located on the outskirts of Taichung, the second largest city in Taiwan with 2.8 million inhabitants. Chien-hao Chen shows us around his five hectares of vines. With the exception of the Chinese characters which indicate the name of the domain, we could easily imagine ourselves spending a summer afternoon in the Perpignan region.

In almost perfect French and tinged with a recognizable Taiwanese accent, the one who combines the professions of oenologist, winegrower and sommelier – this is not common – sums up his atypical career. He left for Switzerland to find his way and began his training in catering trades in 1992 at the hotel school Les Roches in Valais. This is where his first sip of wine dates from. He retains an episode which still amuses him: he had aroused the indignation of one of his teachers by naively suggesting that he cut the wine with orange juice. He worked for a year as a chef in an Asian restaurant in Lausanne. Then in 1996, he left to study wine more specifically in Dijon and obtained a university diploma in oenology technician. He is the only Asian student in his class. And must impose itself, make its voice heard among the children of winegrowers.

Only graduate in viticulture

Chien-hao Chen can then return to Taiwan, ready to work in the vineyard, in a country where everything has to be done. We are in the mid-2000s. Independent alcohol production has only been authorized since 2002. Previously, it was a state monopoly. And it is the state that invites Mr. Chen, Taiwan’s only viticultural graduate, to lead the production of vines at Shu-sheng estate. With a cheerful approach, the new winemaker explains with a laugh: “After the liberalization of alcohol production, I was the only Taiwanese to have studied oenology and viticulture in France! “

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