Interview: Jancis Robinson on China

By Jim Boyce

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The red bag on the table? See below for details. (Photo: Swissotel)

I sat down for a quick interview with Jancis Robinson last night at Flow Lounge & Bar in Swissotel Beijing. Besides having a popular site, Robinson writes a weekly column for The Financial Times, edits the Oxford Companion to Wine, and, with Hugh Johnson, wrote the World Atlas of Wine.

What changes have you witnessed in the wine scene during your visits to China?

This is my third visit—2002, 2003 and 2008.

I’m slightly disappointed that quality hasn’t made more progress as I can see. We’re still at the stage of diluted AC Bordeax, which is the most difficult wine in the world to sell at the moment.

Marcus Ford at M on the Bund [in Shanghai] and others organized a blind tasting of 15 reds [during her recent visit]. All I’ll say is that the range didn’t knock my socks off, although three or four I thought were pretty good. I had hope, because of my faith in the Chinese work ethic and determination, that the wines would show five years’ worth for progress, but it wasn’t there.

Which wine-producing regions have you visited in China and how do they match up?

The visits include my trip to Suntime [in Xinjiang in 2003] and a trip to Grace [Vineyard, in Shanxi] yesterday, and in 2003 a trip to a few of the wineries in Hebei. Of course, out west the terrain is so completely different. The scale—Suntime had massive vineyards that didn’t look as though they were farmer-owned, but looked like they were owned by Suntime, while around Grace they have the farmer plots.

What is your general impression of Chinese wines and the grape varieties being used?

As far as varieties, it’s rare that you taste anything other than Cabernet and Merlot. I honestly can’t think of any other country that has such a huge area planted with such a tiny portion of grape varieties.

The most common wine style, being bone dry, red and tannic, is the worst match for Chinese food.

What advice would you give to Chinese who are new to wine?

I would say don’t listen to advertising and try lots of different styles of wine. Try a white wine, a fruity wine, even a fruity red wine, depending on what you’re eating. Don’t think that wine has to be Cabernet or Merlot. That Dr Loosen Riesling [available from Summergate] is very friendly. So many people in the trade have told me that if they give it to people, they love it.

Note: I brought bottles of 2003 Crystal Dry and 2005 Rose Honey, from Yunnan Red Wine Company and made with hybrid grapes. Robinson’s quick appraisal:

“[The Rose Honey] is perhaps a little sweet to eat with food, but it’s a perfectly good entry-level wine. [The Crystal Dry] has too many foreign smells to me; it’s too non-vinifera.”

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For more by Jancis Robinson on China, see The vinification of China and My Chinese adventures – Part II. This City Weekend post includes a live blogging session and recording from Robinson’s recent talk at the Shanghai International Literary Festival.

Thanks to Swissotel for hosting. (By the way, they have a two-for-one special every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday from 5:30 to 7:30 PM in Flow). Afterwards, I sat down with Swissotel’s Dominik Hager and Nathan Wang to get their take on the wines. Neither were fond of the Crystal Dry, finding it weird (the 2003 may be past its due date, plus was far too warm). As for Rose Honey, both found it had a perfumed nose. Wang said that it lacked body, but was OK as a light wine. He has been trying Chinese wines for over a decade, so expect to see him soon featured here in an interview.

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Available in your finest Beijing supermarkets (Photo: M-Dawg)

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