Cover Edward Ragg MW

The co-founder of Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting on the changing status of wine in China, the regions and grapes he believes are overlooked and his favourite food and wine pairing

Less than 500 people have passed the Master of Wine exams since 1953, and there are currently just 420 Masters of Wine in the world. That’s fewer people with MW after their name than have been to space. This is partly because the exams to achieve the coveted qualification from the UK-based Institute of Masters of Wine—comprised of extensive theory learning, blind tastings and a 10,000-word research paper—are notoriously rigorous, taking a minimum of three years to complete with pass rates of around just 10%. In our series, Meet The Master, we talk to MWs about their journey to mastery, those formidable exams and what in the wine world is wowing them right now, from fun pairings to under-rated regions to the rapid developments taking place within wine in Asia.

Wine was always around when Edward Ragg was growing up, but he never envisioned a career that revolved around it. Even his captaincy and coaching of the University of Cambridge’s Blind Wine Tasting Society’s team was just a fun way to learn more about wine while he was pursuing his studies in English—he has an MPhil and a PhD. But meeting his now-wife Fongyee Walker, who also trained the Cambridge squad, and moving with her to Beijing in 2007, the couple went on to establish Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting, which today is one of the leading wine education companies in China. He also regularly writes about and judges wine.

In 2015 Ragg decided to undertake his Master of Wine, just as his wife was completing hers. Upon achieving the qualification in 2019, he was also honoured with the Robert Mondavi Award for the best performance across the MW theory papers and the Quinta do Noval Award for the best MW research paper in the 2019 exams. Here he shares his thoughts on the famously difficult MW programme and delves deeper into some of the wines and regions that he’s keen to highlight.

Related: Meet The Master: China’s Leading Wine Educator Fongyee Walker MW

Do you have any early wine memories that were significant or that impacted your decision to pursue a career in wine?

There was no ’61 claret or gateway wine that hooked me, but wine was ever-present. My older brother worked in the British wine trade and would bring back unsold bottles, and I have cousins in Switzerland who made wine—chasselas and pinot noir—and I remember going there when I was young and tasting it mixed with water in that European way. Later, I would spend summers with a friend in Sauternes, and then, when I was 18, I went to Australia for a few months and a friend’s uncle who was a wine nut took us round the Hunter Valley for a few days. We went to a number of wineries and I remember experiencing palate fatigue for the first time—I could see the difference between red and white, but I could no longer taste it. I remember he treated us to an aged Australian red, too, which I’m pretty sure in hindsight was a Penfolds Bin 707, and that got me quite excited about wine. But it was really when I went to university that I started to engage with wine a bit more seriously. I was a member of the University of Cambridge Blind Wine Tasting Society, which was something fun and a great way to learn about wine. But it still wasn’t something I thought of doing as a career. I never set out to enter the wine industry. But when Fongyee and I moved to China in 2007, we decided to do something related to wine education.

Why did you decide to attain your Master of Wine?

You can be in the wine trade or industry in a lot of ways without ever considering doing the Master of Wine. For me, when I saw Fongyee go through it—she finished it in 2016—I saw how much she gained and how it improved her as a taster and as a communicator of wine. I also saw the development of wine education in China. By this stage I was teaching the WSET diploma and wanted to improve my own level in wine.

Do you have any advice for others who might be looking to achieve the MW?

When considering the MW, think about whether you are ready in terms of your overall life situation to embark on this kind of study programme, because it’s self-study based and a lot of work that you don’t really get a sense of until you are immersed in it. Do you have enough time to devote to study? You can’t breeze your way through the MW.

For those already in it, knowing any weaknesses is important. People like to study and taste things they are familiar and comfortable with, but when you look at the breadth of the syllabus, it’s important to work on what you are less familiar with. I like to think of the MW as a place where you leave your pride outside the classroom. People who take themselves too seriously or who are very proud about their position in the wine world don’t tend to progress very well because knowing your blind spots and admitting what you are weak on is key.

Related: Meet the Master: Richard Hemming, Wine Communicator and 67 Pall Mall Singapore’s Resident Master of Wine

What is the most common question you get asked when people find out you are a Master of Wine and how do you answer it?

For those who don’t know what the MW is, it usually involves some explanation as most people think it’s a Master’s degree. For those who are aware of it, the most common question is how long did it take to finish it? The quickest you can complete the programme in is three years, but that means you have to pass the tasting and theory at the same time, which most people don’t. It took me four years.

What are the most overlooked wines/regions/grapes in your opinion and why?

I’m not sure I would bang a drum for any particular overlooked grape variety. If I did, it might be trebbiano (ugni blanc in France). It’s a grape often associated with bulk wine, but there are some unusual producers making very high level trebbiano in Abruzzo in Italy. And although these aren’t my favourite wines, I use it as an example as I don’t think people should associate a grape variety with lower quality.

For regions, I would say Maule in Chile, where you can find old vines of carignan that are about 90 years old. Like trebbiano, carignan is a grape looked down on in the wine world, largely because it’s used for bulk wine in France, but in Maule it can make a beautifully perfumed and intense wine with the capability both to show well young and also age in bottle.

What are the some of the most over-rated wines/grapes/wine regions in your opinion and why?

I think Burgundy can be significantly overrated, but it depends on what you mean by Burgundy. When engaged wine lovers talk about Burgundy, they mean the top domaines, which make fantastic wine, but there is quite a lot of disappointing pinot noir. It’s the same with a region like Bordeaux, where there are the grand cru classé properties or famous wineries, but also vast amounts of quite ordinary wines.

Related: The Best Food to Pair With Red Burgundy Wine 

What is the most unusual wine-food pairing that you enjoy?

I’m not very gung-ho about food and wine matching, at least in a prescriptive sense. One of the nice things in China is that people talk about having an “individual palate”. For example, in Sichuan, where people are used to eating a lot of chilli spice and Sichuan peppercorns, they are quite used to robust wines, so they might have a glass of shiraz with their food and love it because it really emphasises the heat, whereas that’s not something a French sommelier would necessarily recommend. I think that individual palate preferences are something that people in the West don’t take into account enough.

Personally, I really enjoy a fino sherry or a manzanilla sherry with anything that has lots of chilli or saltiness, whether that’s Xinjiang lamb or Korean kimchi. Fino, with its unusual yeasty taste, is very savoury and tends to work well with salty, chilli-rich dishes.

How often do you drink wine—for work and for pleasure? Is it challenging to stay healthy working in an industry like wine and do you have any tips for those who do? 

As an educator, I think it’s easier to stay healthy, because we are teaching most of the time rather than consuming. It’s far harder for people involved in the sale of wine, especially here in mainland China where the assumption is that you will wine and dine potential clients.

And outside of work, given that I’m married to another MW, it might be surprising that we don’t actually drink much wine at home! In a domestic context, as with most couples, we don’t talk much about wine, because it’s our work. However, that’s not to say that if it’s a special occasion, we won’t open something good and share it.

How has wine in China—its status and perception—changed during your career, particularly where you are located but also more widely in the region?

It has changed hugely. In 2007 wine was very polarised—there were top-end, icon wines and then bulk wines, and not much in between. My concern back then was whether there was a market for wine education because you didn’t need an education to understand those wines. Today there is a growing body of people who actively want to learn about wine and who are choosing wines from different countries and less famous grape varieties. They are more involved and more adventurous. There’s also been a trading down effect from more affluent consumers in China, who might have started with Pétrus and Screaming Eagle and Penfolds Grange, but as they have learned more, they have realised they get more face from friends when they turn up to dinner with, for example, an unusual, high-scoring wine from Greece. China has become more sophisticated with wine and it has happened incredibly quickly, even if the country has not yet become the huge consumer of wine that some people thought it would.

Related: Meet The Producers Who Are Redefining Chinese Wine

What do you think of wines produced in Asia itself—and in China more specifically? Are there any wines/grapes/producers/regions that you would like to highlight that you believe should be on people’s radar?

I hear good things about wines from producers in Thailand, and Japan is going through quite a revolution with high quality wines there. I’m more familiar with China, particularly as I review Chinese wines. There have been great leaps in quality here. When we moved to China in 2007, there were a lot of Chinese wines that still had very basic winemaking faults and other issues, but there has been a revolution in quality.

Regarding regions, Ningxia is often referred to as a place of interest, and it has developed a lot with about 200 wineries there, but I don’t think people should lose sight of improvements in many regions, particularly Shandong and Xinjiang. Yunnan, too, is worth mentioning as it is one of the most beautiful and remote wine regions in the world. The production is small but it’s fascinating to see what’s being made, and it’s one of the regions that excites me most.

Additionally, in the past a lot of Chinese wine at the premium level was trying to ape Bordeaux, so it was made with a lot of new oak and to a formula that works in Bordeaux most of the time but wasn’t necessarily suitable for China. What’s exciting now is we are seeing people planting different grape varieties and making different styles of wine. There’s an adventurousness now that was absent from the winemaking world until recently.

Has Covid-19 and the global pandemic affected your work in wine and if so, how?

Initially it was affected because China had the first very serious lockdown, but the great thing is that there was already a developed online culture, including for education. We were also fortunate to have met with Trust in Taste in November 2019, a company which has created a special technology to transfer full bottles of wine into small tasting samples under inert conditions. When Covid came we were able to choose wines for our classes and presentations, get them rebottled and send them out to students and continue educating and training people while ensuring they had wine in front of them in good condition.

If you had to choose your last bottle of wine, and price/availability were not a factor, what would it be and why?

The trouble is that there are so many wines I enjoy. It would have to be an aged German riesling or an aged Hunter Valley semillon, or a tokaji, be it dry or sweet, or perhaps a really old Australian red. But whatever I chose would depend on whom I was drinking it with.

What do you love most about working in wine?

I love the opportunity it affords to meet people from all over the world and to interact with languages, culture and history other than your own. Wine is also ever changing—not just different vintages and different places but winemaking technology, too. I recently read a study where ozone is being used to treat smoke-tainted grapes, which are the result of wildfires. It makes you consider why we have so many wildfires and forces us to think about the environmental crisis. It keeps me asking questions and learning—and you don’t expect that from a bottle of chardonnay.

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