F&B entrepreneurs, market analysts and even heads of state all agree: China has wine fever.
You might have read something about China’s booming wine imports, which according to recent reports, have increased by 80 percent from 2013 to 2018. But while China keeps importing wine in hangover-inducing quantities, this is still a relatively budding market in the PRC. While in a city like Beijing you can find bottles for all taste buds, you can't quite smell the aroma of a well-developed wine culture yet: You may buy portos on Taobao, but finding full-fledged wine bars or wineries like the ones you see, say, in Europe, is a different kettle of fish.
This is why The Merchants is a welcome addition to the capital wine-scape. The recently opened space is all about the grape juice – but it’s more than just a wine restaurant. The design-forward space that hosts it, dubbed M Space, nestled inside the trendy 77 C&C ‘Art District,’ is composed of a cafe, a dining space, a private lounge and a gallery.
On the ground floor, it offers a variety of rare wines for tasting and set menus, while upstairs, it hosts art exhibitions revolving around wine culture. It’s clear to us that The Merchants’ goal is not just to provide a resting spot for gallery-goers – it’s to build a community around its prized imports from all around the world. You can buy a subscription and join a club that includes everyone from industry experts to common wine lovers.
The vision is all-encompassing, if ambitious, and definitely enticing. This said, the food offerings are by no means an afterthought. Food here comes in two, four and eight-course surprise menus (RMB188 and RMB388 respectively). This means you don’t know what’s going to come to your table until it’s in front of you, which is fun for us patrons and for the chef, who can satisfy his culinary whims – and cook according to the best ingredients available.
When we visit, our menu is all about fish, and is, indeed, surprising, as we’re first presented with a corn purée-infused youtiao (the fried dough that usually accompanies soy milk in Chinese breakfasts) wrapped in a scallop. The flow of unexpected delicacies continues: tofu skin with avocado and ceviche, a cheeky, tangy Chinese-Peruvian fusion. A reinterpretation of the Taiwanese bao features fried squid instead of the usual pork belly meat but who knows, it might come with suckling pig next time.
Still, this is one of the few places where these treats are just an accompaniment to the drinks, so we focus on sampling the wines. The Merchants’ rich list features imports from Spain, Australia, France, basically anywhere top-quality wine is produced. Still, the owners were sensible enough to include picks for all pockets: While you can indulge in a Napa Valley shiraz rosé for RMB300 a glass, you might as well opt for a – still outstanding – Chateau Saint Maur from France at a more reasonable RMB85. Cocktails are also outof-the-ordinary here, featuring Pisco mixes (Peru, again – we’re starting to see a theme here) and exciting ingredients like palm dates and butterfly peas.
Nothing inside The Merchants appears predictable. After the rollercoaster menu and peeking at the restaurant’s wine collection, the clean yet somehow cold and uptight marble and gray seating makes us feel a bit disconnected, though we’re sure M Space, still in its early days, just needs a little warmup.
The Merchants is a place where you can taste red wine, and feel enlightened (or just slightly tipsy) after a good dose of cultural entertainment to match. After all, isn’t this what wine is all about?
[Images via Edoardo Donati Fogliazza/That's]