But tastes have changed dramatically over the years. While the moneyed class still drinks for status, a younger, hipper generation drinks for taste.
In 2020, the prevailing trend can be summed up in two words: natural wines. While there is no certified designation to make a wine officially "natural", most makers of natural wines use organically farmed grapes and forego filtration, fining, and the addition of sulfites and other preservatives. The results can be funky, cloudy, intriguing, unpredictable.
Adjacent to this is the biodynamic movement. This is a holistic agricultural method that employs lots of legitimate practices (composting, soil management, biodiversity,) combined with a bit of hokum (planetary alignments, vortexes).
Also, orange is the new black. Allowing the skins of white grapes to macerate in the juice before pressing imparts an orange hue and extra dimensions of body and flavor. More and more places around town are offering orange wines, and they're definitely worth a try.
NERD LEVEL ONE Kru
Good for: People watching
The Story: This Taiwanese tapas and wine bar has prime real estate in the central courtyard of Yongping Li. Good for watching people while lounging in their outdoor and outward-looking seating. Kru's very user-friendly wine list is organized by characteristics, e.g. light, full-bodied, mineral, dry, fruity. It's a solid but safe selection of familiar grapes and regions. You've got your Cab blends, Tempranillos, Chards, Pinots, etc. They cost anywhere from 300 to 1,500rmb. "House" wines go by the glass or half carafe for 68-190rmb.
The Pick: The creative menu of fusion-y Taiwanese dishes makes up for a relatively tame wine list. In English, it reads like a fine dining word free-association menus: "Beef Cheek. Tomato. Red Wine. Sauerkraut. Linguine". (It's Taiwanese beef noodles.) Or "Braised Pork. Scallop. Rice." (Lu rou fan.)
Villa Le Bec
Good for: Special occasions.
The Story: In 2014, fêted French chef Nicolas Le Bec left Lyon for Shanghai. Lucky us, because he has since opened one of the finest restaurants in town. His upstairs wine bar is quiet and intimate. Pictures of his wedding are on the walls, making you feel like a house guest. Wine offerings are almost exclusively French. No surprises there.
All the requisite regions are represented along with a few surprises. Corsican dessert wine? And while you can drop some serious money here, Le Bec also imports a lot of the wines himself, passing the (relative) savings on to you.
The Pick: It's nearly impossible to go wrong here. Get a half carafe of anything and Le Bec's signature pâté en croute.
Good for: Drinks after shopping.
The Story: Wineapp is as charming as an airport lounge and its branding has an unsettling corporate sheen to it. But what it lacks in character it makes up in friendly service and a surprisingly vast wine list.
Its roughly 16 pages focus heavily on Italy, but you'll also find selections from France, South Africa, Uruguay and China. The prices are reasonable too, with some bottles going for as low as 158rmb plus an annoying 20% bottle service surcharge.
The Pick: A glass of Barbaresco for a reasonable 98rmb.
NERD LEVEL TWO Atto Primo
Good for: Italian wine tourism
The Story: Atto Primo carries some of the best Italian wines in Shanghai. The sommelier is... the chef, Gianluca Serafina. His list showcases many big-name producers from the Boot. You'll find anything from high-end Italian bubblies like Franciacorta to heavy-hitting Super Tuscans by the likes of Antinori and Frescobaldi. It also features big-name Bordeaux and some highly exclusive bottles from emergent Chinese estates, like Ao Yun, which is made in Shangri-La. As you'd expect from a place like this, the price range is vast. You can go as low 78rmb for a glass of prosecco or you can spend upwards of 3,780rmb for a bottle of Sassicaia.
The Pick: Reds from Sicily or Puglia, like Tasca d’Almerita or Nero d’Avola. Lots of value from those regions.
Epicerie & Caviste 62
Good for: Drinkers with Francophilic tendencies.
The Story: Epicerie & Caviste 62 is Nicolas le Bec's retail/café/wine bar on Xinhua Lu. The wine selection is — you guessed it — largely French with a mix of established and independent labels and even a few nice apple and pear ciders. Bottle prices start just below 300rmb with discounts for retail purchases.
If you're looking for something extravagant, like a first-growth Bordeaux, they have a secluded reserve "cellar" in back, far from the riff-raff. Not surprisingly, food offerings are excellent. There are classic sandwiches, like the croque monsieur, or the option to have them run down the street to Villa Le Bec and get you a lamb shank confit or penne pasta with black truffles.
The Pick: By-the-glass options here are 65rmb to 100rmb. They do a great job of representing different regions and varietals, and the selection changes monthly. At the time of writing, they were pouring a delicious Condrieu by Christophe Semaska. Order a glass of that.
Le Verre a Vin
Good for: A first date
The Story: Le Verre a Vin is what you get when you mix a wine bar and bistro with an izakaya. The place hews to a shabby chic aesthetic of rough hewn wood and tile mosaic floors, exposed brick and calligraphy hanging from paper overhead. Bottle offerings are on display on a shelf by the bar. Most of it comes from the more recognizable wine regions of the world but if you look closer, you'll find a few surprises, like Chinese dessert wines. By-the-glass wines constantly change, and are designated on the menu only by varietal. At 48rmb, they're a steal.
The Pick: The snacks. Delicious homemade pickles. Fried baby eels. Sliced pig ears marinated in yuzu and vinegar. Both are way more delicious than they sound.
Good for: Long, leisurely dinners.
The Story: This natural wine bar and café comes courtesy of the OHA Group (OHA Eatery, Dead Poet, Bar No. 3). It has the distinction of being the only restaurant I've seen with an asphalt floor.
Their 150 natural wines focus on Austria, Italy, Germany and more. Prices by the glass range from 42–89rmb, and they do half carafes as well. None of it, however, outshines the Italian-style cuisine.
The Pick: Come for the food (duck confit pizza, braised rabbit ravioli), stay for the wine.
Good for: All-day drinking.
The Story: Known more for its wanghong crowds and crepes and galettes, RAC also has an admirable wine program which comes alive at night.
Their by-the-glass list urges you to expand your horizons, like an Aligoté from Burgundy and a Chardonnay from Jura. They pour a couple of crisp Grüner Veltliners from Austria as well as an Argentine bubbly and an orange wine from Slovenia. Prices are about 55-120rmb. By the bottle, you'll also find labels from South Africa, Australia, Spain, and Germany from about 300rmb. They host a lot of "meet the winemaker" tastings and dinners as well.
The Pick: A bottle of "You Fuck My Wine?" It's a natural red blend of Jurançon Noir and Malbec. Is it any good? It has Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver on the label. Good enough for me.
Good for: Intimate drinks for two.
The Story: Open since 2017, Vinism is a Shanghai pioneer in the natural wines movement. It's small, warm, homey, and hidden. Wines here skew heavily toward Europe. They don't have a wine list. You simply step into their cellar and choose a bottle.
Prices start around 300rmb or 58-99rmb if you're drinking by the glass (options change regularly). To eat, it's China-inspired small plates like marinated ma la clams or goose gizzard with peanuts, or Western bites like beef carpaccio and tinned sardines with sourdough bread.
The Pick: The 139rmb wine flight, which gets you three 60ml pours from their by-the-glass selection.
NERD LEVEL THREE Bird
Good For: Sipping wine among the trees on a rooftop terrace.
The Place: Bird is a cozy wine bar and restaurant by Shanghai Supper Club ringleader and restaurateur Camden Hauge (Egg, Lucky Mart, Bitter). Wine offerings here tick the requisite France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and Australia boxes, of course. But you'll also find a few surprises from places like Greece and New York's Finger Lakes region, too. Natural wines are marked with an asterisk. Some entries have brief descriptions beyond the grape varietal, like "Looks good, tastes better" or "Smooth operator" — staff favorites, perhaps?
By the bottle, you'll pay anywhere between 390rmb and 690rmb. By the glass, 68rmb to 82rmb. Eats are eclectic, like Chinese-inspired dishes like "Shanghai Carbonara" or frog croquettes with Sichuan frog ragú and simple broccolini in brown butter with almonds.
The Pick: Regular themed wine tastings. Great way to spend a Sunday afternoon: catch a nice buzz for a few hundred kuai, and learn something, too.
Good for: Wine nerds.
The Story: Vinism's new sister bar takes the natural wines ethos to its next logical step. Here, the wines get even weirder, more eclectic. Czech wine?! When did that become a thing? And how come no one told me? Delicious!
Like Vinism, their bottle selection is on display in a glass cellar, and it is a collection of oddities. They carry a New Zealand field blend. That's when the winemaker just ferments whatever is growing in the vineyards (normally, a winemaker will ferment each varietal separately and blend the wines at specific ratios before bottling). They have an Austrian red aged in the "solera" system, a method of blending multiple vintages more common with Spanish sherries.
By-the-glass options are equally fun and range from 68–88rmb. The food is worth a look as well. Freddy Raoult of The Nest has put together a small menu of bar bites, like homemade charcuterie, sardines on toast or house-cured salmon with a super-thick, fried blini.
The Pick: A glass of 380 Volts, a bubbly by Czech winemaker Milan Nestarec. It's bone-dry and refreshingly acidic with a scent of Muscat grapes (68rmb).
Wine Universe by Little Somms
Good for: A classy pre-game sesh before slumming it.
The Story: Wine Universe sits right next to the Gates of Perdition, the entrance to the Specters alleyway. The proprietors are sommeliers, so this is a passion project.
By-the-glass options aren't listed; ask the staff what they're pouring that day. They poured me a crisp, toasty South African Chenin Blanc and a tart, dry German Riesling aged in terracotta — old school. Prices start in the high 60's.
If money isn't important, they stock several cult wines, like Harlan Estate from Napa and Pingus from Spain. I even saw a few bottles of La Tâche, a legendary Burgundy that can be yours "for only 35,000rmb" the proprietor told me.
They're all kept behind glass, like trophies.
The Pick: The vintage verticals of Armagnac and single-varietal Madeira. You don't see a lot of that around town.