My mate in Beijing, Jim Boyce, appears to be in trouble with the French. He is the guy who operates the excellent wine blog, The Grape Wall of China (www.grapewallofchina.com) and who recently staged a tasting in Beijing in which five red wines from Ningxia (currently the most exciting wine region in China) were compared to five Bordeaux reds of similar price.
Jim, who fiercely and independently represents the consumer on a 24/7 basis, is straight. So straight that for him it was ludicrous to compare China’s finest contemporary cabernet blends with the First Growths. There’s no way, he would have said to himself, that a Chinese buyer of First Growths would even contemplate buying a Chinese wine, no matter how good it might be. And had he indeed said this to himself, I would have been the first to agree with him.
Patently a sensible guy, Jim, who also goes by the name of ‘Beijing Boyce’ for those who follow his equally excellent and hard-researched bar blog of Beijing Boyce (www.beijingboyce.com), thought it wisest to conduct his research on the basis of value for money, since Chinese wine culture had already dealt prestige out of the equation. Here is the link to the results of Jim’s tasting (http://www.grapewallofchina.
The ten judges were French and Chinese, in equal proportions. Remarkably, the top four wines were Chinese. Of these, the wines were from the Grace Vineyard (made by Australian Ken Murchison, formerly of Portree Wines, Lancefield), Silver Heights and Helan Qing Xue. I’m regularly impressed with the wines of Grace Vineyard, I have on two occasions been entirely entranced by the cabernets of Silver Heights (although I cannot say with confidence I have tasted their entries at this tasting), and I have been completely bowled over, and recently so, by the 2009 Jia Bei Lan by Helan Qing Xue.
This blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet gerniches is the very same wine that won a significant trophy at Decanter’s World Wine Awards. People have since been wondering aloud if the wine is so good, it must have been imported first. It wasn’t. I have met the winemaker and the winemaking consultant behind this wine, and I’d stake my reputation on it being genuine. While it’s a wonderful blend of red Bordeaux-originated varieties, it doesn’t taste like any wine from France, Australia, the US, Chile or wherever that I have ever experienced. That’s the good bit. China is finally learning how to express the best of its own terroirs.
The only area in which I have some reservation is that the two bottles of the 2009 Jia Bei Lan I have tasted to this time were in fact pre-bottling samples. Therefore, so were the wines tasted by the Decanter panel as well as that assembled by Beijing Boyce. The second bottle I tasted was indeed significantly inferior to the first, and in addition to experiencing several extra weeks in bottle (challenging indeed for a pre-bottling sample) had travelled from Beijing to Melbourne as well. It was aldehydic, which is exactly what you would expect from any such sample from anywhere.
I have strong thoughts on the evaluation of pre-bottling samples, and on that basis won’t publish a rating or tasting note of this wine until I see a genuinely bottled product. While this clearly puts me at odds with most of the UK and much of the US wine writing trade, trust me that Helan Qing Xue would seriously have to stuff it up for it not to be seriously impressive once properly in glass. And I mean seriously. As for its quality, I had awarded 19/20 to the first sample of the wine I tasted without even blinking. I sincerely hope its makers have captured it all.
Of key importance from this little saga are several points. Provided the wine gets safely into bottle, and that the sample I saw was representative of the entire blend, China has indeed produced a wine to be proud of, and a wine that will inspire hundreds of local makers and potential investors in the wine industry there. Jim Boyce remains the same untameable and iconoclastic bloke he always was, and the wine industry should recognise that even if he doesn’t sing from its own prescribed script, he is actually working in its favour. The emerging generation of wine drinkers in China do pay attention to price, and it is genuinely pointless to measure the top Chinese wines by anything other than the wines against which they are priced, in the same market. We do precisely that in Australia.
So, I wish all wine drinkers a Happy New Year and a stimulating and exciting 2012. I also raise a glass to those at the sharp end of wine production in China, especially since Australia is a logical beneficiary if more Chinese people turn to wine as their alcoholic beverage of choice. This is more likely to happen if from time to time, they can do so with confidence and pride in their own wine industry.
And if, from time to time, that puts them ahead of the French in terms of value for money, so be it!