TASTING NOTES: Olympic tipple

By Jancis Robinson
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Grace Vineyard, China, Deep Blue

Grace Vineyard, China, Deep Blue [©Grace Vineyard]

Grace Vineyard, China, Tasya's Reserve Chardonnay
Grace Vineyard, China, Chenin Blanc
Grace Vineyard, China, Chairman's Reserve
Great Wall of China

While in China in March I seized every opportunity to taste Chinese wine, or at least the wine sold as Chinese wine.

I was particularly fortunate that purple pager Marcus Ford, who buys wine for the restaurant M on the Bund, one of the very first of Shanghai’s new wave (now an ocean) of smart restaurants, offered to set up a blind tasting for me.

He and tasting buddies Fongyee Walker and Edward Ragg of Beijing wine consultants Dragon Phoenix Fine Wine Consulting, fellow wine educator Simon Tam of Shanghai’s International Wine Centre and Dan Siebers, who buys wine for importer Summergate, kindly trawled through scores of Chinese wines before I arrived to pick out the best. They had apparently rejected the majority but selected 15 reds, one white and one pink for my delectation.

I had last visited China and tasted Chinese wines five years previously and was hoping that I would see a real improvement in quality since then. I was disappointed. With the exception of the best wines listed below, and some encouragingly authentic wines tasted at Grace Vineyard the day after this tasting (tasting notes added below), most wines still taste like very thin red bordeaux, the sort of wine that is the single most difficult to sell elsewhere in the world, funnily enough. This style is hardly the easiest for newcomers to wine of any nationality to embrace, and downright problematical to marry with Chinese food with its sweetness and sourness, texture and spice. Furthermore, technical wine faults were far, far more common than is usual today. It seems strange that the Chinese, to whom food is so important, and about which they are naturally so critical, seem to swallow substandard wine so willingly.

Perhaps this is testament to the power of image in China, wine-drinking being sold as a sophisticated western activity which brings valuable ‘face’ and status. I was told that restaurant staff are instructed never to clear empty bottles from tables. The more wine bottles you are seen to have bought, the more face is acquired. (Not a phenomenon that would go down well in the west, I think.)

Below are tasting notes on all 33 wines sold as Chinese in origin that I tasted during my visit to China. My favourite wines, highlighted below, tasted oddly un-Chinese – with the lone exception of the Grace wine. China imported enough bulk wine in 2007 to fill 130 million bottles, slightly less than the total volume thought to be sold by the biggest of the Chinese wine producers Great Wall, the other two being Changyu and Dynasty.  This volume imported in bulk, incidentally, represents more than three times the volume of wine imported in bottle in 2007 – officially. There is widespread unofficial wine traffic over the southern border from Hong Kong, an activity likely to increase considerably now that Hong Kong has abolished wine duty altogether.

Wines are listed as follows: whites, then pinks, then reds and within colour alphabetically by producer. I have given approximate retail prices in Chinese Yuan Renminbi below, along with some similar prices for wines imported in bottle. 100 Rmb is worth approximately 15 Aus$.

Best Wines

  • Catai, Superior Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 Shandong
  • Château Junding, Oriental Dry Red Bordeaux Blend 2005 Shandong
  • Grace Vineyard, Chairman’s Reserve 2005 Shanxi
  • Great Wall, Huaxia Vineyard A Bordeaux Blend 2005 Heibei (Changli)
  • Great Wall, Huaxia Vineyard B Bordeaux Blend 1998 Heibei (Changli)

Some imports for price comparisons:

  • Guigal 2003 Côtes du Rhône  - 180Rmb
  • D'Estournel 2005 Bordeaux (generic bottling from Cos) - 160Rmb
  • Antinori Peppoli 2005 Chianti Classico - 270Rmb
  • Jacob’s Creek - around 100rmb
  • Concha y Toro, Frontera range - around 100rmb


Catai, Superior Chardonnay 2003 Shangdong 10 Drink ??
Pale straw. Very dirty nose. Really very chemical – no fruit. Astringent. 36 Rmb

Grace Vineyard Chenin Blanc 2007 Shanxi 14.5 Drink 2008-09
Not blind: Very crisp and low temperature fermentation aromas but very competent New World stuff.

Grace Vineyard, Tasya’s Reserve Chardonnay 2003 Shanxi 14.5 Drink 2005-07
Not blind: Pale straw. Light nose of dilute pear juice. Nice texture. Hint of something metallic but not seriously dirty. Not much intensity at all. A second bottle had lasted very well and even developed some bottle maturation – good and dry and fresh.

Grace Vineyard, Tasya’s Reserve Chardonnay 2004 Shanxi 15 Drink 2006-08
Not blind: Medium intensity with good citrus acidity and again good texture. No obvious oak. Slightly salty.

Grace Vineyard, Tasya’s Reserve Chardonnay 2005 Shanxi 15 Drink 2006-08
Not blind: Deepest gold of 2003-06. Quite rich nose with lots of ripeness and a touch of sweetness. Sufficient freshness.

Grace Vineyard, Tasya’s Reserve Chardonnay 2006 Shanxi 15 Drink 2008-10
Not blind: The first vintage to be barrel fermented. Quite a powerful aroma – more powerful pear juice! Just off dry. Slightly salty on the palate. In a global context perfectly respectable without being remarkable but quite remarkably clean and very well made by Chinese standards.

Yunnan Red Wine Company Crystal Dry 2003 Yunnan 10 Drink never
This was a deep coloured, off dry, golden wine made from hybrid grapes of which Jim Boyce of www.grapewallofchina.com gave me a taste because he had been impressed by this winery’s work on a recent visit. I’m afraid I couldn’t hack it at all. Its non vinifera quality clogged up my nose and the whole impression was extremely stale and labrusca-like. Nice packaging though.


Taillan Rosé 2005 Beijing 12 Drink 2006-07
Pale rose colour. Rosé. Acid. Bone dry. A bit stinky. No fruit, was probably better a year or two ago. 75 Rmb

Grace Vineyard Rosé 2005 Shanxi 14.5 Drink 2006-07
Starting to lose fruit and a little soft but straightforward and a good match for local Shanxi lamb and vegetable dishes.


Catai, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 Shandong 13.5 Drink 2009-10
Healthy ruby. Lively fruit but overwhelmed by some pretty strange oily oak (chip?) note…Pity. 219 Rmb

Catai, Superior Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 Shandong 15.5 Drink 2008-11
Healthy crimson with some impressive shading. Clean, fresh, well-integrated nose – quite impressive. Good mouthful of clean, ripe, almost Mediterranean fruit?! Lively tannins still there but well balanced by fruit impact. Perhaps the oak is just very slightly severe. But is it all Chinese grapes? This is the joint venture with Sella & Mosca of Sardinia. 119 Rmb

Château Junding, Oriental Dry Red Bordeaux Blend 2005 Shandong 15.5 Drink 2008-10
Dark crimson. Interesting nose. Sweet, very New World style – could almost be Australian! Acidity a bit obvious. Unusually high alcohol level at 13.5%. Ch Junding use the term Nava Valley – this is the giant CofCo’s special new ‘château’ investment. Cabernet Sauvignon with 15% Merlot. 549 Rmb!

Dragon Seal, Huailai Reserve Bordeaux Blend 2003 Beijing (Huailai) 13 Drink 2008
Light crimson – slightly watery looking. Sweet American oak dominates the nose. Then very watery on the palate. Reasonably well balanced but a bit astringent on the finish and not nearly enough fruit. Unattractive stringy finish. 358 Rmb

Dragon Seal Merlot 2003 Beijing (Huailai) 14 Drink 2008-10
Concentrated crimson. Some rather strange oak effect(?) on the nose. Very nice fruit with real roundness – but just a bit of a worry about that odd oaking. Marked acidity but good fruit impact. Even a little hint of alcohol heat on the finish – surely pretty unusual in Chinese wine? 198 Rmb

Dragon Seal, Noctilucent Cup Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 Beijing (Huailai) 14 Drink 2000-2007
Slightly dull crimson. Lots of development on the nose – rather nice! But the fruit is fading fast. 177 Rmb

Dynasty Cabernet 2006 Beijing (Tianjin) 13.5+ Drink 2007-09
Ruby with a pale rim. Light nose vaguely reminiscent of roses. Sweet palate entry and then acid and not quite enough in the middle to knit it all together. But no hideous faults – just a bit hollow. 84 Rmb

Great Wall, Huaxia Vineyard A Bordeaux Blend 2005 Heibei (Changli) 15 Drink 2008-11
Very impressive dark crimson – looks healthy. Attractive ripe, very fruity nose. Hint of coconut but clean and fruity.  716 Rmb!

Great Wall, Huaxia Vineyard B Bordeaux Blend 1998 Heibei (Changli) 15- Drink 2009-11
Lively crimson. Aromatic. Still quite a bit of tannin – pretty rustic winemaking but good fruit. Great Wall has three separate wine operations and this is the best one with the best winemakers. A special cuvée from north of Beijing. Doesn’t look at all like a 10-year-old wine. 596 Rmb!

Grace Vineyard, Deep Blue Bordeaux Blend 2004 Shanxi 13.5 Drink 2008
Merlot-based. Mid crimson. Light nose. Watery. Phantom wine! Pretty astringent finish.  288 Rmb

Grace Vineyard, Chairman's Reserve Bordeaux Blend 2004 Shanxi 14.5 Drink 2008-09
Mid ruby. Clean, straight fruity nose with quite a bit of tannin on the finish. Tastes like a well-meaning basic AC Bordeaux. 399 Rmb

Grace Vineyard, Tasya’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 Shanxi 13.5 Drink 2005-07
Not blind: Mid blackish ruby with an aged rim. Light varietal aroma – very simple and lacking density with a rusty edge. I would guess this is fading now. Stringy finish.

Grace Vineyard, Deep Blue 2004 Shanxi 14 Drink 2006-08
Not blind: Dark ruby with a mature rim. Intense, well balanced nose. Some sweetness on the nose and then good balance though a hint of rustiness on the finish. Attractive balance – just a little lean and chewy on the finish. Fruit intensity fading. Mainly Merlot (60%).

Grace Vineyard, Deep Blue 2005 Shanxi 14.25! Drink 2007-09
Not blind: Crimson/ruby borderline. Sweet fruit, quite clean and well balanced. Dry finish – pretty dry tannins. Mainly Cabernet Sauvignon (81%).

Grace Vineyard, Deep Blue 2006 Shanxi 14.5 Drink 2008-11
Not blind: Very different colour – much deeper and bluer than the previous vintage, made by a Frenchman rather than an Australian. Quite luscious fruit – not dried fruit. Quite different from its predecessors. Round and succulent – lots of Cabernet flavours. Though slightly dry tannins on the finish. Definitely less inkiness. Pretty equal blend of the two Cabernets and Merlot.

Grace Vineyard, Chairman’s Reserve 2003 Shanxi 14.5 Drink 2005-08
Not blind: Mid crimson. Sweet, dense, pretty marked tannins. Lots of barrel influence. Sturdy and certainly no lack of body. Fresh, robust just a bit rustic, losing fruit. 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc, 60% Merlot.

Grace Vineyard, Chairman’s Reserve 2004 Shanxi 14.5 Drink 2006-09
Not blind: Dark healthy colour. Reasonably ripe, well developed nose with decent balance though no great fruit intensity or character. Petit château level – very bordelais! Very dry finish. 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 30% Merlot. 388 Rmb

Grace Vineyard, Chairman’s Reserve 2005 Shanxi 15.5 Drink 2007-09
Not blind: Looks at least as mature as the 2004. Some perfume and a more integrated nose than the 2004. Tannins rather gentler than in the 2004. Tea leaf nose – pretty! But very precocious. Perhaps not so suitable as a Chairman’s Reserve destined to keep for ages but very agreeable in a Pichon Lalande way. 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 76% Merlot.

Grace Vineyard, Chairman’s Reserve 2006 Shanxi 15 Drink 2009-12
Not blind: Bright crimson. Sweeter, spicier nose, doubtless related to the 65-70% new oak. Definitely a different style from the previous vintages. Not the dryness and austerity of old. I could imagine this wine lasting a bit longer than some of the older vintages but it has a different character and structure. Definitely more mid palate weight. To be bottled next week, Mach 2008. 56% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Cabernet Franc, 23% Merlot.

Jade Valley Pinot Noir 2004 Shaanxi 12.5 Drink 2006-08
Very pale rim. Ruby. Sweet, ‘chemical’ nose – no obvious Pinot character on the nose though there is a more than a hint of it on the palate and then some pretty rough tannins. The fruit has been handled pretty roughly! 180 Rmb

Jade Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 Shaanxi 14 Drink 2008-09
Mid ruby colour. Sweet nose with a hint of non classic oak. Aggressive drying finish – almost like wine essence. Just lacks a bit of fresh fruitiness. Not a bad drink though… 180 Rmb

Taillan Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 Beijing 13.5 Drink up
Looks pale with a brick rim – quite mature. Light, developed nose with some bottle age character. Fades fast – very little fruit intensity on the mid palate. No screaming fault – just not much impact. Watery. Unlike the strangely youthful 1998, this seems older than a 2005. 75 Rmb

Xixia Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 Ningxia 12 Drink ??
Healthy crimson. Smells chemical. Light and dirty. 88 Rmb

Yunnan Red Wine Company, Rose Honey 2005 Yunnan 13.5 Drink 2008
Very pale red despite this company’s name – in fact the name of the wine is particularly appropriate for the wine is definitely rose-coloured and the residual sugar is quite considerable. The hybrid nature of the grapes used was much less obvious than in the Yunnan white 2003 described above. Could be a very useful introduction to wine for palates unused to tart dry drinks.


Reproduced with permission.  © Copyright 2000-2010 Jancis Robinson


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