By Jim Boyce
How do we know? How do we really know it was Chinese wine? That is a question many people, particularly outside China, have asked since Jia Bei Lan 2009 became the first Chinese wine to receive an “international trophy” at the Decanter World Wine Awards. The award immediately had people asking questions — or perhaps making accusations is a better way to put it — about the wine, including the idea that perhaps it was French wine stuck in a Chinese bottle. Those questions continue nearly two months later.
I appreciate skepticism. China does face issues in terms of quality control, counterfeiting and the bottling of imported bulk wine under domestic labels. But I have also seen “skepticism” used as a cover for a deep disdain of anything related to Chinese wine — or to China itself. A true skeptic needs to be able to accept that both of these statements might be true: 1) China’s wine industry faces many problems and 2) some people in China make quality wine.
Part of the issue is a lack of context. For many outside China, the name of the region, Ningxia, the winery, Helan Qing Xue, the wine, Jia Bei Lan, the chief consultant, Li Demei, and the wine maker, Zhang Jing, no doubt came out of the blue. I believe this lack of context has led some to make snap judgments. I can’t provide a definitive response to these judgments but I do aim to add context.
- Wine consultant Li Demei might be little-known outside China but he is well-known and well-respected here. He studied at the University of Bordeaux, spent time at Chateau Palmer, consulted on other wine operations, notably the Sino-French Demonstration Vineyard outside Beijing, and is currently helping several wineries in Xinjijang. He teaches at Beijing University of Agriculture, is a member of alcohol industry groups, is active as a wine judge and on social media site Weibo, and regularly travels abroad for wine-related reasons. He has a great deal invested in China’s wine industry.
- Ningxia has a history, albeit a relatively recent one, of making better wine. Other notable operations range from tiny family-owned Silver Heights, which has being doing well-regarded Bordeaux-style blends since 2007, to Pernod Ricard-invested Domaine Helan Mountain, which is making much larger quantities of clean and pleasant wine. Highly regarded Grace Vineyard, based in Shanxi, has a vineyard in Ningxia, while Moet Chandon plans to make sparkling wine in the area.
- The wine Jia Bei Lan also has a history. I have tried JBL wines, whether in Beijing or in Ningxia, about ten times over two years, including the Bordeaux-style blends from 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009, the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Chardonnay from 2009, and an experimental rose. Each vintage has a personality as well as a complexity that pushes the bounds for Chinese wines.
- Plenty of other people, beside the Decanter judges, have tried this wine. I have seen dozens of industry folks try them, from visitors such as Jeanie Cho-Lee (writer), James Suckling (writer) and Dave Powell (Torbreck wine maker) to those based here such as Ma Huiqin (professor), Campbell Thompson (of importer Wine Republic), Nicolas Carre (sommelier), Frankie Zhao (consultant), Arcy Yin (Food and Wine editor), Bob Miao (Michelin guide), Michel Lu (barrel supplier) and David Henderson (Dragon’s Hollow wines).
Does this prove that what the Decanter judges tasted was really Chinese wine? No. But it does show that Jia Bei Lan did not come out of the blue but is from a winery with a history in arguably the country’s most promising wine region and made with help from one of its best consultants. If this is all a hoax, then it is among the best of all time. So, perhaps it is better to forget the award. The context in which Jia Bei Lan arose — and the wines I have tried — is exciting enough.
Note: This post on Polish Wine Guide offers an interesting take on the response to the Jia Bei Lan award.
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