Say Grace: The search for seven good Chinese wines, part 1

Note: I will post the notes from the second blind tasting shortly.

Action from my at-home Chinese wine tasting (more pics below)

I’ve received numerous emails from people who are either: 1) curious about Chinese wine but unsure where to start or 2) cynical about Chinese wine after a bad experience or two with some nasty Dynasty or Great Wall. My mission: find seven decent wines made with Chinese grapes that anyone in Beijing can easily buy for less than 700 kuai for a DIY tasting with friends. As fireworks exploded (Chinese New Year!) outside my apartment on February 22, I began that mission with 11 wines and seven tasters:

Frank Siegel, who opened Beijing’s first non-hotel bar (Frank’s Place) in 1990 and runs the popular Friday night wine sessions at Sequoia Cafe in Sanlitun;

Campbell Thompson, who recently left ASC Fine Wines to pursue a Master degree in wine marketing;

Fongyee Walker and Edward Ragg, who have held and judged in many blind tastings and just moved to Beijing;

Mike Wester, GM of that’s Beijing The Beijinger, who says, “All wine tastes the same to me!”;

Maggie Huang, my co-worker, who fancies single malt but is open to wine;

Me, a novice at wine, and participating in my first blind wine tasting in China of this size.

These are my notes from the tasting of 10 Chinese wines (and one Australian) by seven people in my home on February 22 (CS = Cabernet Sauvignon).

Flight 1: Grace Chardonnay 2005, Catai Chardonnay 2005

Grace: Its creamy nose, with apple and vanilla scents, matched nicely to its equally creamy and refreshing body; hints of citrus; sour apple at the finish.

Catai: A nose described as “medicinal,” “locker room” and “disappointing”; a bit harsh going down, with a chemical taste; making out flavors was difficult.

Verdict: Everyone concurred with Maggie H that Grace (Torres: 60 kuai) beat Catai (Summergate: 44 kuai). “Grace blew the other one out of the water,” said Fongyee.

Flight 2: Catai CS 2005, Grace CS 2005, Catai Merlot 2003

Catai CS: The nose went from syrupy with dark fruit to peppery / dusty to “dead”; too tannic and not enough finish.

Catai Merlot: The nose was first dusty and “polluted” (“this one was evidently made near a highway,” said Mike), then more complex and spicy, though musky. “More structured,” said Edward; “Number two is good,” said Fongyee, although we agreed it didn’t hold up well.

Grace CS: Nose was light, fruity, with sugary apple hints, and a slight plastic-y smell; fruity body, though a bit stringent. Fongyee said it was, “fairly clean, but lacking in the middle.”

Verdict: Catai Merlot (Summergate: 44 kuai) won, followed by Grace (Torres: 60 kuai) and Catai (Summergate: 44 kuai). I agreed, though my notes suggested a different order. (I’ll get into the psychology of blind tasting in a minute).

Flight 3: Catai CS 2003 Superior, Grace CS 2003 Tasya’s Reserve, Bodega Langes CS 2003 Reserve; Penfolds Bin 128 Shiraz 2003 (Australian Shiraz added as a measuring stick)

Grace: Steady, fruity, pleasant nose, somewhat dusty at the end; a bit stringent, but with nice lingering fruit flavors. “This is the most well-rounded and likable. Definitely being made in the Bordeaux style,” said Campbell.

Catai: Spicy, syrupy nose with hints of toast; fruity body; nicely drinkable.

Bodega Langes: Nose described as “bog rot,” “musty,” “tar,” “burnt Starbuck’s coffee” (the label called it “casky”); oak flavors overwhelmed the wine’s fruitiness (wood from the China-North Korea border is used). “This is a real stinker, with aggressive, spiky tannins,” said Edward.

Penfolds: Pleasant nose; “Wow! Black currant,” said Fongyee; “This has a lot more punch than the others,” I wrote.

The Verdict: Grace (Torres: 188 kuai). I picked it, then Catai (Summergate: 236 kuai), while Frank picked the reverse. Campbell noted the Grace “could be passed off as an entry level Bordeaux.” Mike said, “I had too much to drink already.” Again, my written notes suggested I liked the Penfold’s better than I verbally ranked it (see below). The Bodega Langes (588 kuai) was the most expensive and the worst wine of the night.

Flight 4: Grace Cabernet Franc 2003 Tasya’s Reserve, Changyu Sparkling Cider

I kept no notes, but the Cabernet Franc (Torres: 198 kuai) was one of, if not the, most enjoyable wines tasted. As for the Changyu sparkling cider, this 5-percent, apple- and peach-scented fun is a great value (26 kuai, and that’s for a magnum).

Overall, I would say all four Grace wines, the Catai Merlot, the Catai CS 2003 and the Changyu sparkling cider should pass into the second round of tasting, which I hope will include some select Dragon Seal, Huadong and Suntime wines.

Thanks to Campbell for helping to prepare and bringing the Shiraz, Frank for moderating, Fongyee and Ed for providing rating sheets, bottle covers and cider, Maggie for bringing fruit, and Mike for dragging over eight liters of water. By the way, all of the wines were paid for and provided by the tasters (I ordered a case each from Summergate and Torres, both of which provided a discount).

More pictures:

Men at Work: Campbell, Frank and Edward
We work our ways through the red
The ever-diligent Thompson (nice slippers)

Addendum: The psychology of blind tasting

The next day, I noticed my wine tasting notes didn’t match my votes, Penfolds Shiraz 2003 and Grace Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 being the biggest victims. I emailed Edward and he said such discrepancies are common. I had wine left and decided to do a “solo” blind tasting. I took identical coffee cups, wrote a number on the bottom of each and poured in some wine, then shuffled the cups until I lost track of which one held which wine. I poured the wine from the cups into glasses, then began tasting, taking notes and, eventually, voting. When I finished, I checked the bottom of each cup to see what wine each glass held. The results? Interestingly, my notes from both tastings were similar.

Flight 1: Grace CS 2005, with Catai Merlot 2005 a very close second and Catai CS 2005 a distant third. Strangely, I again described the Merlot as smelling a bit “polluted” at first (maybe dusty is a better word), but ranked it high.

Flight 2: Grace CS 2003 and Penfolds Shiraz first, with Catai CS close behind, and that Bodega Langes CS eighth.

Finally, Fongyee posted her notes to eGullet. Here are her scores, out of 20, in order of best to worst: Grace Cabernet Franc 2003 Tasya’s Reserve (16), Catai Merlot 2004 (15), Grace Chardonnay 2005 (15), Grace CS 2003 Tasya’s Reserve (15), Penfolds Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz 2003 (15), Changyu Sparkling Cider (14), Catai CS 2005 (13), Grace CS 2005 (13), Catai CS 2003 Superior (13), Catai Chardonnay 2005 (10) and Bodega Langes CS 2003 Reserve (9).

(This story, sans photos, first appeared in issue 32 of the Beijing Boyce e-newsletter, mailed on March 1, 2007, and on on March 7, 2007.)

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  1. Andrew,

    I’ve only tried that one bottle from Bodega Langes, so I would like to give it another chance, but does seem a bit pricey in any case. Which wines from Langes did you try?

    Cheers, Jim

  2. I tried Langes’ wines and frankly speaking I find them rather expensive, not to say an assault in terms of price/quality relation. Anywhere in the world I could get the same wine for at least 75% less price, so I do not understand what they are doing over there. Perhaps trying that someone pays for the stereo system for the vineyards??

  3. Hi Victor,

    Not sure when my next tasting will be, these things always seem to happen a month or so after I plan them!

    I’ll keep my ears open for Suzhou wine lovers.

    Cheers, Boyce

  4. Hi Boyce,

    Although quite close to Shanghai, Suzhou is still very new to wine and you hardly can find any wine activity here. Like you said there should be some wine lovers but just i have no idea where they are.

    Normally i will go to Shanghai during weekend to taste with a German couple who loves Italian and Spanish wine.

    When will be your next tasting?

  5. I have to say, that I could not agree with you in 100% regarding Say Grace: The search for seven good Chinese wines (part 1), but it’s just my opinion, which could be wrong :)

  6. Hi Victor,

    I was being optimistic which, in my case, usually means being unrealistic!

    I hope Deep Blue is priced closer to Tasya’s Reserve than to Chairman’s Reserve.

    As for Suzhou, they *must* be at least one or two other wine lovers down there, no?

    Cheers, Boyce

  7. Hi Boyce,

    I agree with you that their entry level wine are value for money especially rose and chardonnay.

    You can see I am comparing Grace with imported wine because there is no point to compare with other local wine as Grace is one class above.

    As for Deep blue, it is unrealistic to hope its price is closer to entry level. I would be happy if it is closer to Tasya Reserve.

    I am a lone drinker in Suzhou, hope to have friends like your group to spice up my life :-)

  8. Hi Victor,

    The Chairman’s Reserve is pricey, but I think the entry-level wines are good value, especially the Chardonnay at 60 kuai.

    By the way, I had a chance to try the yet-to-be-released Grace Deep Blue, a mix of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, and it’s tasty. I hope it’s going to be closer to the entry level than the Chairman’s Reserve price…

    Cheers, Boyce

  9. I like Grace because they are honest. The only complaint is its price since i can easily get much better wine at the same price. Take for example chairman reserve selling at Rmb388, there are so many better imported choices around for that kind of price.

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