By Jim Boyce
Chateau Valandraud‘s Jean-Luc Thuvenin, the first to create controversial “garage” wines (vin de garage) in the 1990s in Bordeaux and later dubbed the “bad boy” by leading wine critic Robert Parker, visited Beijing last Friday and shared two bottles of wine with a group of 15 people at Maxim’s of Paris. He later sat down for an interview that covered his wine-making experience wine in China, his opinion of local wine, and the changes he has seen in the market. (Thanks to Nicolas Carre of Maxim’s and Vincent Landais of distributor FTI for the translation.)
You attempted to make wine in China? What happened?
I tried to make wine in China four years ago in Shandong in partnership with a major Chinese wine company. The terroir was nice, the grape was Cabernet Sauvignon, and we sent people from our winery to help. We tried to convince our partner to make high-end wines, using proper viticulture, but it seems it was too early for them to do such a project.
There were two challenges we could not overcome. The first was that the harvests in France and China are at the same time. We obviously couldn’t be in both places at the same time, so we employed a Chinese oenologist to handle the communication. We had problems not only in translating what we wanted done, but also because the unclear chain of authority on the Chinese side resulted in the oenologist making too many decisions on his own.
Second, I think our partners considered the project to be too small. They saw no future in making small quantities of excellent wine. Instead, their goal was to make standard “Bordeaux.” The China market now sees many investors, including foreign companies, who only want to make wine that is a bit better than their local competitors in order to get quick returns.
Do you think it is possible to make good wine in China?
I am not an expert on the local soil and climate, but China is the size of a continent and I believe there must be places where you can make great wines or at least very good ones. Again, the problem is that the companies only compete with their neighbors for quick returns, rather than devote energy to making the best wine possible.
You can have the best grapes in the world, but without the right people to lead the way, you can’t make great wine. It is like giving ten chefs the same potatoes. The quality of the potatoes is important but the key factor is the chefs, as they will come up with entirely different tastes.
The same is true of wine. Some producers in France hide behind talk of terroir because many of them lack the technical skill to make great wine. But like with potatoes, you can give wine makers grapes from the same land and each one will end up with a different product. China will only have the potential to make great wines when the people here are determined to devote their energy to doing it.
You have been to China several times. What changes have you seen?
We saw a big difference when we attended VinExpo in Hong Kong last year. We found the Chinese people there to be much more knowledgeable about wine than on our previous visits. They were not just drinking this time, and there was none of the “ganbei” approach, but instead we received a lot of questions about the wine.
China is changing very quickly just as other countries have. For example, a few decades ago, Americans had a poor wine culture, with many people buying wine based on price, especially when the dollar was strong. But now Americans are very knowledgeable wine consumers.
In fact, I think New York is the best city for drinking wine, partly because people there still feel the excitement of discovering wine, whereas in France we see it as ingrained in our life. Wherever you go in New York, people are very aware of how to serve the wine, from pouring it at the right temperature to making good recommendations for customers seeking to try new wines.
I hope the same will happen in China. Now many people buy the most expensive wines, but as they learn more, they will become more discerning and want to spend their money on what they like, not on what is fashionable. Already in Hong Kong, they serve wine properly and have the right glasses, but they need more sophisticated menus, like those in Singapore. But they are on the right track.
The irony for me is that France is losing wine knowledge. Wines are more often served at the wrong temperature or in bad ways when compared to the United States or Hong Kong, so it feels like things are turning upside down.
Which Chinese wines have you tried and liked?
I liked the Bodega Langes I have tried out of the barrel. And about six years ago, I had a Great Wall from the early nineties and it tasted good. I have also tasted Grace Vineyard several times, but I didn’t really enjoy it and don’t understand the praise it gets. I felt the wines faded away. I haven’t tasted enough Chinese wines to make an overall judgment, but so far I feel all of them are overpriced.
By the way, I am aware of the Grape Wall of China Challenge because my distributor told me about it before I came here. I think it is a good way to let people in China become more aware of wine. Even in France, we have this idea that everyone knows about wine, but this is not true. These kinds of events increase the knowledge of consumers and encourage them to try new wines.