YOU know wine drinking has captivated the heartland when uncle types show up in flip-flops and shorts at a community centre wine class and the instructor describes the richness of a wine as 'kopi-o-gao-gao', coffee shop talk for extra strong black coffee.
LifeStyle sat in on an intermediate wine appreciation class at Geylang Serai CC recently and besides the use of coffee shop lingo, phrases such as 'siap siap' (Hokkien for astringent), and 'the smell of D24 durians' peppered discussions on the wines sampled.
Wine drinking here has shed its hoity-toity image to become the toast of the heartland in recent years.
|EXHIBIT A VS EXHIBIT B: Lawyer Edward Tay (above), 40, is comparing wines at a wine appreciation class in Geylang Serai Community Club.
Industry players such as wine importers and retailers say this is because of a greater public awareness of wine culture, which is being promoted by wine educators, and the increasing availability of affordable wines in the heartland.
Wine drinkers also say they are imbibing for health, as red wine is supposed to lower cholesterol. A stronger economy and rising affluence have allowed heartlanders to indulge in this once chi-chi pastime as well.
There is also a more relaxed attitude towards wine drinking these days, where personal enjoyment trumps stuffy rules about wine pairing, prompting more people to start drinking wine.
Heartlanders armed with fatter wallets, a thirsty desire for the good life and an appetite for exercising their know-how about wine are sipping chardonnay with their chicken rice and briyani.
Wine preferred over hard liquor
NOT only has the wine market here burgeoned, with import volumes of wine up from 4.3 million litres in 2003 to six million litres in 2006, according to Singapore Customs, but the sales of entry-level wines at supermarkets and petrol kiosks have also been climbing.
Supermarkets such as Cold Storage, Shop N Save and Sheng Siong report growing wine sales that range between 20 and 500 per cent since they started offering wines, some as early as the 1990s.
FairPrice, which operates Cheers and FairPrice Xpress convenience stores in petrol kiosks, has also seen the sales of wines at both outlets, priced between $18 and $25 a bottle, increase by 30 per cent in the last two years.
Where wine drinking used to be associated with a meal at a Western fine-dining restaurant, home-style Chinese and Indian eateries such as Imperial Treasure La Mian Xiao Long Bao and Samy's Curry, with outlets in Tanglin Village, Tessensohn Road and East Coast, are seeing more diners clink glasses.
Mr Lee Chiang Howe, 45, who owns Teochew Restaurant Huat Kee in Amoy Street, says: 'When we first started selling wine in 1994, we sold 10 bottles a month.
'Now, we uncork between 10 and 20 bottles on a good night. Diners have progressed from drinking $40 wines to those that cost between $60 and $100.'
Wine drinking here has even trickled down to coffee shops and foodcourts. A-Star coffee shop in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 8, for example, started serving wine priced between $19.90 and $35.90 a bottle last December and has since sold more than 100 bottles. This warm reception prompted its general manager, Mr Bob Tan, to apply for a licence to sell wine at another A-Star outlet, an air-conditioned foodcourt in Fajar Road, Bukit Panjang.
The growing preference for wines over hard liquors such as brandy and cognac at traditional Chinese wedding dinners also indicates that the heartland is embracing wine.
Wine and spirits distributor Eric Chew, 51, says: 'Hard liquor was the drink of choice at traditional Chinese wedding dinners 10 years ago but now, 80 per cent of my customers have switched to ordering mostly wine.'
Ms Stella Koh, 37, a financial service consultant, opted for wine with her nine-course traditional Chinese wedding lunch at Hung Kang Teochew Restaurant in North Canal Road because most of her guests are young, wine-drinking professionals.
'But I was pleasantly surprised when my father-in-law, who is in his 70s, asked me to order more wine for his elderly friends,' she says.
Even Makansutra, a gastronomic guide to Singapore's street food haunts, will include information on the wine drinking culture here in its latest edition, due to hit shelves soon.
Its founder, Mr K.F. Seetoh, 45, says: 'More people here are having wine with local food as it ups their dining experience and we want to reflect this in the food guide.'
According to wine buyers for supermarkets, the heartland wine drinker is price-sensitive and unwilling to pay more than $30 for a bottle of wine.
An example is Mr Sam Lim, 43, a financial services consultant, who believes in drinking 'value-for-money wine' and opts for bottles priced below $20 from petrol kiosks. He buys four bottles every month and drinks them either as a night cap or with friends.
Mr Roel Quimba, 39, the wine, beer and spirits category manager for FairPrice, says its heartland customers prefer red over white wine, with the former making up 60 per cent of wine sales.
'Red wine is believed to be good for the heart so it's more popular with consumers,' he adds.
As for white wine, he says customers like 'the sweet stuff' such as Riesling, which is easier on the palate.
In April last year, FairPrice imported 400 bottles of Penfolds Grange 1997, a premium Australian shiraz, to add to its widening range. Retailed at a $66 discount for $299, it sold out within a month.
Mr George Wong, 48, founder of Top Wines, which imports wine and conducts wine education classes such as the one in Geylang Serai CC, attributes the acceptance of wine drinking in the heartland to its accessibility and affordability.
|SNIFF, SWIRL...: No don't guzzle, sip, people, sip. You can now pick up the finer points of wine tasting and the art of balancing dainty glasses at CCs.
He says: 'There are many distribution channels for reasonably priced wine in the heartland which makes it easier for people to pick up a bottle.'
Mr Don Tay, 57, owner of wine retail store Bacchus in Paragon, says rising affluence among heartlanders has prompted more to take up wine drinking.
'Wine drinking is often seen as a mark of sophistication. With people becoming more affluent, they can afford this little luxury,' he adds.
Wine educator Tommy Lam, 57, points to a public that is better informed about wine culture. As a weekly guest on the lifestyle programme, I M Anna, helmed by DJ Anna Lim on the Mandarin radio channel 100.3FM, he has been giving tips on wine appreciation for more than three years.
'We receive many calls from heartlanders who ask about wine drinking. This shows people are interested in wine and actually drinking it,' he says.
More pronounceable names
THE growing number of wine appreciation classes at CCs has also helped wine drinking go mainstream. Since the launch in 2004, more than 600 people have participated in the 80 classes conducted at 105 CCs islandwide, which cost between $20 and $60.
Beauty therapist Alice Chin, 48, switched from beer to wine seven years ago after reading reports that the latter is good for the heart. She now enjoys a glass after dinner with her husband at home in their Serangoon North flat and spends about $100 on a bottle of wine every month.
Wine drinking has also become a lot less intimidating, thanks to wines with more pronounceable names such as Australian labels Yellow Tail and Four Emus rather than say, Domaine Harmand-Geoffroy.
And a more accommodating environment for new initiates has helped widen its appeal.
If you choose to add ice cubes to your wine, for example, wine educator Mr Lam will not sneer at you.
He says: 'In southern France and Spain, it's not unusual for people to add ice cubes to white wine in the summer to chill the beverage or dilute its intense flavour. So unless you're trying to analyse the taste of a wine seriously, putting ice cubes in wine is not a big issue.'
FairPrice's Mr Quimba adds: 'The rule is that red wine goes with red meat, but nowadays, it is okay for rules to defer to one's preference. What matters more is that the consumer enjoys the wine his way.'
While wine drinking has crept into the heartland, wine culture here still has some way to go before consumers stop relying on a top 10 list of best-selling wines to determine what they buy at the supermarket.
Mr William Fong, 62, co-owner of wine distributor Prize Wine, says: 'I look forward to the day that heartlanders, rather than gobbling down their wine, will be able to appreciate its complex flavours and aroma and select their wines based on these merits.'
This article was first published in The Sunday Times on Mar 9, 2008.