North by Northwest China Wine Challenge: The Winners

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Fourteen judges gathered in the Hilton Beijing last Saturday to try two dozen Chinese wines from the north and northwestern regions of the nation. To the best of my knowledge, the wines were made solely with grapes grown in China. The operations included Grace Vineyard and Chateau Rongzi from Shanxi, Jade Valley from Shaanxi, Helan Qing Xue, Silver Heights and Domaine Helan Mountain from Ningxia, Hansen from Inner Mongolia, Sunshine Valley from Gansu, and 1421 from Xinjiang.

The challenge had four categories. The first three categories were Chardonnay under RMB150, Cabernet under RMB150, and Bordeaux varieties from RMB150 to about RMB300, since these are the white wines and red wines most commonly made and consumed in China. The last category was “open” and included more expensive wines or wines made with other varieties, including Muscat, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Gernischt. Nicolas Carre, a sommelier and wine consultant based in Beijing, arranged the tasting order.

I invited people from the wine industry, the food and beverage industry and the media to be judges, with the idea of discovering which wines each group preferred. (See here for a list of judges.) The wines were tasted “blind”. I asked the judges to score each wine in one of four categories: “I love it”, “I like it”, “I don’t like it” or “I hate it”. Judges were also asked to list their “top three” wines for each flight. (Note: I did not judge the wines, nor did I include Carre’s scores, as we both knew which wines were being tasted.)

To decide the winners, I gave four points for each “love it”, three points for each “like it”, and so on, and added the scores to find a wine industry pick, a food and beverage industry pick and a media pick. I combined the rankings of those three categories to decide the overall pick. If wines tied, I favored the wine with the most “like its” and “love its”.

I will write a wrap-up post for this contest, one that will cover the challenges of organizing an event like this, some ideas for improving it, and the key people that made it possible in the first place, but for now… the winners.

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Flight 1: Chardonnay under RMB150 / 5 wines

Overall Winner

GRACE VINEYARD CHARDONNAY 2009

 

Wine Industry Pick
1421 Admiral’s Reserve Chardonnay 2010 (Xinjiang)
“Nice tropical fruit aroma; citrus, pineapple, mineral… simple and clean”, “lots of green apple”

This wine narrowly edged the entry-level 1421 Chardonnay 2010. These two wines picked up the most top-three picks from wine industry judges, with Admiral’s Reserve getting the most number-one picks and Grace Chardonnay 2009 receiving one.

F&B Industry Pick
1421 Chardonnay 2010 (Xinjiang)
“Light balanced flavor with citrus tones”, “nice color, good flavor”, “clear, light, acidic, juicy, with a good mid-palate.”

This wine showed the most consistency: it placed in the top three for every food and beverage industry judge although no one picked it as a favorite. Instead, Helan Mountain Chardonnay 2008 received three first-place votes and Grace Premium Chardonnay 2009 received one.

Media Pick
Grace Vineyard Chardonnay 2009 (Shanxi)
“More oaky aroma, more ‘rustic’. I like that”, “Love the smell”, “Scent of truffle”

This wine made the top-three list of every media judge and was picked by two as the favorite, while three people picked Helan Mountain Chardonnay 2008 as the favorite. (Overall, Helan Mountain Chardonnay made six “top three” lists and placed first every time. Those who did like it ranked it highly.)

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Flight 2: Cabernet under RMB150 / 6 wines

Overall Winner

HELAN MOUNTAIN ‘CLASSIC’ CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2008

 

Wine Industry Pick
Helan Mountain ‘Classic’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (Ningxia)
“Balanced blue fruit”, “Red / black fruit with a classic Cabernet Sauvignon aroma… with aging potential”, “Blackberries, cassis, toasty, dark chocolate… dry vegetal green pepper.”

Helan Mountain Classic Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 not only received the highest score but also was included on every “top three” and scored two-first place votes. Helan Mountain Dry 2008 also made every “top three”, while Grace Cabernet-Merlot 2009 and Admiral’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 each picked up a first-place vote.

F&B Industry Pick
Grace Vineyard Cabernet-Merlot 2009 (Shanxi)
“Jammy and light”, “Red pepper and tobacco; tannins persist for a while but elegant [with a] good body”, “warm and fuzzy: great balance”

This flight saw a three-way tie for first, with Grace Vineyard Cabernet-Merlot 2009 taking the title since it had the most “likes”, followed by Helan Mountain ‘Classic’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 and Helan Mountain Dry Red 2008 with equal scores. The Grace Cabernet-Merlot also picked up two first place votes, with Helan Mountain ‘Classic’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 and Grace Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 picking up one each.

Media Pick
Helan Mountain ‘Classic’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (Ningxia)
“Nice deep garnet color. More delicate bouquet”, “Heavy on the tannins but not much beyond. Bit of cherry? Not bad though”

Both this wine and the Helan Mountain Dry Red 2008 made every top-three list, with each taking a first place. The Grace Cabernet-Merlot 2009 and Hansen Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 also scored a first place vote. (Note: While Helan Mountain Dry Red did not win any category outright, it performed well, especially given that I bought this one on sale for RMB29.8 at Jenny Lou’s the night before this event. All other wines were provided by the wineries or their distributors.)

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Flight 3: Bordeaux varietals, rmb150 to ~rmb300 / 6 wines

Overall Winner

HELAN QING XUE ‘JIA BEI LAN’ 2009

 

Wine Industry Pick
Helan Qing Xue ‘Jia Bei Lan’ Cabernet Dry Red 2009 (Ningxia)
“High extraction of color and intensity… plummy, minty, eucalyptus, dates”, “Classic style. Good presentation of grape’s character”, “Rich fruit, rich tannin”

While Jia Bei Lan had the highest score, Grace Vineyard ‘Deep Blue’ 2009 and Silver Heights ‘The Summit’ 2009 placed in the most “top threes”. Deep Blue received the most first-place votes.

F&B Industry Pick
Grace Vineyard ‘Deep Blue’ 2009 (Shanxi)
“Good nose with some toasty flavors”, “Tannins have more grip and structure, so overall more balanced with better aging potential. Nice”, “Smooth and very fruity”

Deep Blue scored consistently well with the F&B judges, and made the most top-three lists, but no one picked it as the favorite. Instead, two judges picked Jade Valley Cabernet Franc 2008 while one each picked the Helan Qing Xue and Silver Heights wines.

Media Pick
Helan Qing Xue ‘Jia Bei Lan’ Dry Red 2009 (Ningxia)
“Rich ruby color… I really liked this one”, “Pleasant light sweet smell. Nice and smooth: easy drinking”, “Great garnet color. Would have thought the bouquet more powerful. Nice full flavor that doesn’t deteriorate on the palate”

This was the closest competition, with a three-way tie among Helan Qing Xue, Grace Vineyard and Silver Heights, with the first one taking the title based on most “likes”. It also made every “top three list”, with two first-place votes. Grace Vineyard ‘Deep Blue ‘ scored two first place votes, with Silver Heights ‘The Summit’ getting one.

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Flight 4: Open category / 8 wines

Overall Winner

GRACE VINEYARD CHAIRMAN’S RESERVE 2009

 

Wine Industry Pick
Grace Vineyard Chairman’s Reserve 2009 (Shanxi)
“Elegant aromas. Black / red fruit, nice balance, chocolate, cocoa, long length”, “Clean delicate fruit and milky oak”, “guava-ish, licorice, spiced fruit… balanced, elegant, lovely fruit”

Three judges picked the Chairman’s Reserve as the favorite, with Grace ‘Tasya’s Reserve’ Merlot 2008 the only other wine to get a first-place vote.

F&B Industry Pick
Hansen Cabernet Grenischt 2010 (Inner Mongolia)
“Good body, good balance, easy to drink”, “spicy, intense, soft tannins, white pepper”, “sweet and mellow: starts with a hint of rhubarb”

Grace Vineyard Chairman’s Reserve 2009 (Shanxi)
“Good body, intense in the mouth. Flavors like cinnamon, red pepper, plum”, “tannic, young… shows promise, but not this vintage, well-balanced though”

Both of these made three “top three” lists and garnered a first-place vote. Grace Vineyard ‘Tasya’s Reserve’ Merlot 2009 had two-first-place votes.

Media Pick
Grace Vineyard Chairman’s Reserve 2009 (Shanxi)
“Very nice pleasant finish”

Grace Vineyard Tasya’s Reserve Merlot 2009 (Shanxi)
“Good scent: mysterious”, “A bit thin at first but opens up quickly”, “floral scent: light and pleasant”

These two wines finished in a dead tie and each received two first-place votes. The only other wine picking up a first-place vote was Sunshine Valley Pinot Noir 2009.

This flight was more for fun given the wide range of wines in it. The Chairman’s Reserve did best though, as far as I know, it is also the most expensive at about RMB480. We also had one white wine in this flight — Grace Vineyard ‘Symphony’ Muscat 2009 — and it generally received good scores.

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Many of the races were tight and on another day and with other judges we might see different results. And while there seemed to be some synergy between the wine industry and media judges, the food and beverage judges tended to have more divergent picks. Most important, in my opinion, is the high number of “love its” and “like its”, which suggest to me that Chinese wines, made solely with Chinese grapes, are gaining more appeal.

As noted, I will have a wrap-up post that covers analysis of the results, the challenges of doing a contest like this, how North by Northwest differs from other wine contests and ways to improve it, the prices of the wines and where they can be bought, and — last but certainly not least — the people who helped make this event possible.

For those interested in our other contests, see the results of the 2011 Grape Wall Challenge at Modo, where Chinese consumers judged wines that retail for less than RMB100 (the results from 2010 are here and from 2009 are here).

Note: If any winery would like to meet to check the scores, please email me at beijingboyce (at) yahoo.com. You can also follow me on Twitter here, Facebook here or Weibo here.

2 Comments on North by Northwest China Wine Challenge: The Winners

  1. 1421 is always my best chinese wine .

  2. Hi Jim,

    Great job! I’ve been drinking Grace, Silver Heights and 1421 these 3 last days, so it’s interesting to see this article!

    Julien

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