Grace under pressure: Ningxia tops Bordeaux in Beijing wine challenge

Which are from Ningxia and which from Bordeaux? Nobody knows...


By Jim Boyce

Chinese wines took the top four spots in the Ningxia vs Bordeaux Challenge held this afternoon in Beijing. The event featured ten wines — five from Ningxia and five from Bordeaux. They were blind-tasted by ten judges — five from China and five from France. I helped organize the event with website TasteV, wine club Zun, and fellow Grape Wall contributors.

The judges were asked to rank the wines from first to tenth based on quality. First place was worth one point, second place worth two points, and so on. The wines with the lowest total scores were the winners. The top five:

1. Grace Vineyard Chairman’s Reserve 2009, 34 points (rmb488)

2. Silver Heights The Summit 2009, 42 points (rmb416)

3. Helan Qing Xue Jia Bei Lan Cabernet Dry Red 2009, 44 points (was rmb220, now pending)

4. Grace Vineyard Deep Blue 2009, 46 points (rmb288)

5. Barons de Rothschild Collection Saga Medoc 2009, 54 points (rmb350)

Top pick of the five French judges: Chairman’s Reserve. Top pick of the five Chinese judges: The Summit.

Other wines tasted (alphabetical order): Calvet Reserve De L’Estey Medoc 2009, Cordier Prestige Rouge 2008, Kressmann Grande Réserve St-Émilion AOC 2008, Mouton Cadet Reserve Medoc 2009 and Silver Heights Family Reserve 2009.

The judges were also asked to indicate whether they liked or disliked each wine. I will have those results soon.

The wines were opened, tested for quality, bagged and tagged, in the presence of several reporters, under the supervision of Philip Osenton, who works with distributor Globus and is former head sommelier at Ritz London and restaurant manager for the Savoy. He and others, including the media, witnessed computation of the scores.

The judges had 40 minutes to rank the ten wines, which were poured before they sat. They then had a 30-minute discussion about the wines, led by professor Ma Huiqin, after which the winners were announced.

The Chinese judges:

  • Ma Huiqin, professor at China University of Agriculture and wine marketing expert (head judge)
  • Frankie Zhao, owner of Pro-Wine Consultancy
  • Fiona Sun, senior editor at China edition of Revue du Vin
  • Jin Yang, wine teacher who spent five years studying in Bordeaux wine programs
  • John Gai, of wine distributor and bar operation Palatte

The French judges:

  • Nicolas Carre, sommelier and wine consultant (head judge)
  • Jerome Sabate, long involved as wine maker with Dragon Seal in Beijing
  • Nathalie Sibillet, oenologist, journalist and teacher
  • Thomas Briollet, seven years experience in China wine distribution
  • Edouard Kressman, wine maker with experience in Bordeaux, California and Argentina

I know there will be many questions about this tasting. For example, French wines face ~48% in tariffs which means they have a price disadvantage versus Chinese wines. That is true. On the other hand, the prices listed above are what Chinese consumers face. [Also, two distributors told me that when taxes in Chinese wine are taken into account, it is closer to a 20% difference. I’ll get more on this tomorrow.] I can provide other examples but will save that for later.

For now, the big “takeaway” for me is that Chinese wines have again — not for the first time, not for second time, but again — shown they can compete on a global level. The reality check: these wines represent a sliver of the China market and the industry as a whole has a long way to go. Still, for those who ask, “Can China make good wine?”, the answer is yes.

I’ll have more — and correct typos, etc — tomorrow…

The judges in action...
The top five, from left to right...

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  1. Very interesting. It would be useful to have the China “street price” listed for all of the wines in the competition.

  2. 1. anyone who deals with china , inside china, and works with MAINLAND china. should know how the game is played – Nuff said on that

    2. china is making some surprisingly good wines. I have only received directly from winery so I say that with admiration. however I ONLY will buy in HKG or took or singapore. why? CAVEAT EMPTOR ring a bell?

    3. Boyce, it’s interesting what you are doing, consider how to improve on it, some of the comments you have here, even the long ones offer good suggestions. I’ll be tracking your developments, keep it up bro. we know where china is headed, they deserve good home-grown & imported wines.


  3. My conclusion is that Wine is a commercial product. The customer ultimately decides what is perceived to be high quality. The winemaker can have a vision for what they wish to create and, providing they have the grapes and skill, can craft a wine of significance. The perception of the customer can be influenced when they tasted the wines, but they cannot be coerced to like the wines. Winemakers can set the trends or benchmarks, but in the long run the market decides what it wishes to buy and consume. It is what the wine makes them feel or sense that constitutes its worth and could be greatly influenced by the social and narrative dimensions of the wine experience.

    George Wong, Wine MBA
    Oenologue & Consultant

  4. So you traitors to Europe helped the Chinese produce good wine. Big whoop. You can pat yourself on the back and go eat some noodles.

  5. As Bob Foster said, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that mediocre French wines were beaten by the best of China. And I would anticipate that with all of that land area, the future will find the best of France being occasionally beaten by the best of China. The fact is that the nouveau riche in China buy the best that France has to offer, and don’t worry about such wines as either the French or Chinese wines in the tasting. The bigger problem is that they probably haven’t the level of discernment to appreciate the wine these upper-end wines they can afford. I welcome the Chinese foray into wine production, but I would like to see quality way, way above where it is, and prices about at the current level. That makes possible a true export market for the Chinese, rather than having wines simply competitive for the Chinese consumer. Then there would be something worth crowing about.

  6. @ Julien,

    I am working on a second tasting. I talked to one person at a Bordeaux promotion agency — he said they cannot recommend one wine versus another wine: they have to represent all Bordeaux wines.

    If you know someone with authority — or a group of people with authority — who can help us pre-select the Bordeaux wines, please let me know.

    This tasting needs to happen!

    Cheers, Boyce

  7. Haha! The comments are funny! I wonder if the people who are shocked by the results ever tried these Chinese wines? The Chinese wine industry IS starting to produce some good wines, this is undeniable!

    Concerning the choice of the wines: the best Chinese wines in this price braket were chosen (on purpose, it’s normal), but have you also selected the best wines from Bordeaux in the same price braket available in China? I mean, why haven’t you chosen Greatwall or Changyu or other more industrial brands as they also sale some of their brands at the same price?

    Next time, I hope we can also “pre-select” the Bordeaux wines ^-^

  8. @ bl, THE awesome taster:
    Thanks for all compliments.
    You seem boring in China and boring from Sommelier job, maybe you should consider retiring?
    No hard feeling. Get a rest.

  9. @BlueFrog,

    Maybe a bit.

    Actually, an Australian wine comparison would be good or even top Chilean, which offer good value here.

    Cheers, Boyce

  10. @ BL,

    “Hmmmm…just saw that boyce was an admin….seems”

    Curious? You mean because the front page of this blog says, “Jim Boyce: Consumer, blog administrator”?

    Cheers, Boyce

    PS Who’s being serious?

  11. Oh, if you would like to send me these Chinese wines to put up against the top Colorado wines in a blind tasting I’ll gladly gather some Sommeliers and put on the challenge. If you dare. We’ll even throw in the French wines that you went up against.

  12. I wrote an e-mail to a friend and cut and pasted on this article as an afterthought(been drinking some Islay Scotch). It was really all in fun and wasn’t meant to be interpreted with such seriousness, as Boyce did. Just some musings. I’ve been too long in the wine industry to take offense. I do not think I’m an awesome taster, merely educated and not a novice. Blind tasting is really a ‘fool’s game’.
    I hope you enjoyed my post, with a grain of salt of course. I’m sure these wines from China are delicious. any new wine market is a good thing.

  13. For those who found BL’s comment too long, let me offer an interpretation…

    “The organizers are corrupt sommeliers, even though I don’t have a shred of proof of this… I have a friend in China so that makes me an expert on the place… odds are there is *some* decent wine in China… the organizers and judges are no good, and the Chinese wine is really foreign wine, even though I don’t have a shred of proof of this… [not sure about point five. I think he might have had a pet monkey write it]… I am an awesome taster and know a lot about wine history but I’m trying to appear modest…. something about penis… something else about penis… I like to add a smiley face at the end of my posts to cover up that I’m a judgmental knob.”

    Cheers, Boyce

  14. 1-The tasting organizers are assuredly a bunch of home-sick sommeliers trapped in China teaching classes, for the Western class-conscious petit-bourgeois of China. They have reviewed these wines and are talking them up because their brains are addled from living in a smog-infused, foreign, shitty city, they have acquired part ownership(not likely at all), they have been bribed by the Chinese winery owners, or have been bribed(paid well) by the Chinese government. I think the first and the last are most likely. A government that is scooping up commodities all over the globe and that is traditionally isolationist would surely want the majority of it’s increasingly wealthy population sucking down local wine, rather than importing huge quantities of Western juice, aka. a gov. program to increase agricultural self-reliance.

    2-Many sommeliers are so desperate for work or to be making a name for themselves(I’ve run into a few of these pricks and believe me, wine is the least of their concern) that they are in China trying to get on the ground floor of something and willing to talk it up at any cost. My Sommelier diploma class teacher has high integrity and is teaching classes over there right now(something that I could do-no thanks). He told us that the wine was not good at all and the “snake penis” wine that he was forced to taste was extremely nasty….lol…his stories are really funny!

    3-Some small vineyard wines in China are getting half-decent. They’ve been growing grapes in China for thousands of years and making some sort of wine, as well. Unlike pre-WWII, information passes around so quickly and with the high standards of hygiene, exacting formulas, and flying wine-makers it’s only inevitable that they are starting to make some pretty good juice. I’m sure in some area they have fine wine making climates and soil. These are probably produced at a high cost/ bottle. Like North Carolina chardonnay, for example….:)

    4-The people running this tasting are just not good. They are idiots with no standards, who are easily duped. The judges are novices and the Chinese wines have been replaced by good international juice. The Chinese are more corrupt than Western gov., by far, and more stingy(see #1). At these tastings, I’m sure they can get away with much more than at a N. American/European tasting. Bring the wines to Europe or Canada for a showing and we’ll see what happens. Ship some to Robert Parker.

    5-The big write-ups are influenced by the Chinese government and it has nothing to do with their Agricultural program. Good wine means culture and culture means you are equal to the Western world. The more on par with the Western World you are the closer your gold-backed currency comes to dominating global finances. LOL! I threw that in for a laugh, but you have to admit it does strike a chord…Like my friend in Austin used to joke “my Dad was hood-winked by a Chinee”..the Chinese are flexing their muscles in every area.

    As in all things in life, the answer, most likely, lies somewhere in the middle; a combination of all of the above, one out-weighing the other to a small degree.

    I have a half-decent pallet. I scored highest on my sommelier diploma class in the blind-tasting and made $$$ for my store in Austin by choosing really great close-out wines based solely on my taste-buds. I say this, not to toot my horn, but rather to tell you that I have had one or two profound wine experiences that are legitimate and educated- you can’t trick me anymore; they have all been with European wines. I tasted a Burgundy from 1946 that, although I was still in my early twenties, made my brain go to a place I cannot describe. The wine was not good or bad, but actually had a human(living) personality. A character all to it’s own(these tasting notes are a cliche, but they come from legitimate experiences like this!). It was an altering experience. I looked up the wine and vintage – the year was very good, the producer was well-respected and, of course, the grape being Pinot Noir was the finest in the land. This wine was stored well and the family that produced it had been doing so for generations. The grape plot was a Grad-Cru vineyard that was most-likely selected by the Cistertian monks, who had nothing better to do than find the best growing regions in the Cote d’Or as a hobby(down to the foot), in the name of God. Before that the Romans, who were fairly good wine-makers, were on that very spot cranking out juice that would put their beloved Falernian to shame. Before that? who knows. the Gauls?? producing some sort of fermented grape juice that would make snake penis wine, well, taste like snake penis wine. Centuries of wine-making. Centuries…sure, China is old, but they are not wine-makers. They may have some tasty tid-bits over yonder, but they’ll need at least a half-century to be a legitimate commercial force and they will never compare to the finest France has to offer, ever. At least not in my mind…:)

  15. If you want a fair competition, why not choose top-growth French wines ? Instead you have gone for inferior blends, lowest-common -denominator wines. Tomorrow I sit down to a St Julien, Chateau Talbot 2004 which I bet could knock spots off every other wine in your competition.

  16. Sorry, but isn’t that a bit twisted:
    “For now, the big “takeaway” for me is that Chinese wines have again — not for the first time, not for second time, but again — shown they can compete on a global level.”

    I think one should replace global level by “on the Chinese market” which is a very different story.

    For the same price (about RMB350) on a “global level” you can get a bottle of Poyferre 2008, which (I tasted it) is a brilliant wine.

    Note that in HK (I guess we’re talking mainland here, but you can probably get them shipped accros) you can get a Lagrange 2008 for 320 HKD (still using wine searcher). There are also some ok prices on BBR HK.

  17. @ BlueFrog,

    The conclusion is not twisted if you live in in China. Those Bordeaux and Ningxia wines fall in a similar price range and it’s useful to see which ones the judges prefer.

    My guess is that faced with a Bordeaux and a Ningxia wine of the same price, the average Chinese consumer would assume the Bordeaux is better and we simply found that is not always the case.

    Cheers, Boyce

  18. I think the contest is quite interesting but the conclusion slightly twisted.
    Looking on wine searcher:
    Barons de Rothschild Collection Saga Medoc 2009 is £7 to 10
    calvet reserve de l’estey 2009 £8

    I would rather conclude that if you’re a Chinese consumer you rather buy chinese wine. It would be interesting to see the same with Australian wines which might be better priced over there.

  19. @ Karen,

    “Maybe” I am French?

    Maybe you can’t read?

    Only one judge has been involved in making or selling Chinese wines.

    Several of the French judges were definitely *not* intimate with Chinese wines.

    And Grace has an operation in Ningxia and it uses grapes from there for its top brands.

    If you are going to make accusations, please use some proof — and logic — for support.

    Cheers, Boyce

  20. Also, I would want a chemical composition test before I drink anything from China. There seems to be quite a lot of lead and other toxic or cancer-causing particles in Chinese products.

  21. I do not think it right to give Ningxia the credit for the top wine, as you do in the title of your article, when the best wine really came from another area – just because it’s “not sexy?”. Maybe you are French.

    As well, I would be concerned about the “French” judges – who all seem to be involved in making or selling Chinese wines. Sounds very old-style Chinese propaganda to me. A good winemaker, distributor or Sommelier can name a wine from taste and smell, and can easily pick the ones that they want to win.

    Maybe next year the competition will be more accurately titled “Best of China” and give credit to appellations where credit is due -as all the best wine enthusiasts would appreciate. And consider some expert panel that is not intimately familiar with Chinese wines. Now that would be a fair competition.

    But whoever expects either the Chinese or French to be fair?

  22. @ Bob,

    Actually, it is a surprise. If you asked most people ahead of time which ones would win, I doubt many would pick the Chinese wines. And even those of us involved in the process, and that includes some very experienced people in the wine industry, wondered what would happen.

    Hindsight is 20/20, Bob.

    Cheers, Boyce

  23. So you take the best of the Chinese wines and compare them to mediocre wines from Bordeaux. Gosh what a surprise that the Chinese wines did well.

  24. @ Peter and Dan,

    We took the perspective of what a consumer has to pay in China. The Ningxia and Bordeaux wines generally fall into the same price range. There is plenty of room for future contests that use other Bordeaux wines.

    Cheers, Boyce

  25. Great event!! It was very well organised and interesting.

    Do wish the French wines were better though … it would have made the outcome much more interesting? Win or lose, benchmarking against the best sets the standards that the industry is striving for?

    But I do agree that the message to Chinese consumers is important, and every step in the right direction helps.

  26. HI there,
    I would also ask who choose the Bordeaux on offer?
    Its a minefield trying to find decent Bordeaux in China at those kind of prices- as it is a minefield trying to find good Chinese wines. The field is a bit narrower for Chinese wines and the cream has risen to the top. For Bordeaux you also need good guidance to find the right stuff!! Not sure that the research was as thorough for the Bordelais offering?

  27. ok i have the asnswer here are some of the Bordeaux challenged:
    -Calvet Reserve De L’Estey Medoc 2009
    -Cordier Prestige Rouge 2008
    -Kressmann Grande Réserve St-Émilion AOC 2008 -Mouton Cadet Reserve Médoc 2009.

    Not serious …, you’ll find everywhere in the world better and cheaper wines than these Bordeaux, ESPECIALLY …in Bordeaux
    By the way , not a single Chateau above, only blendings by merchant wines …

  28. well, i suppose as long as the movie version doesn’t turn you into a hockey-obsessed, overly-polite, coonskin cap-wearing stick figure, with a flappy head and black beady eyes who pronounces “about” and “sorry” in funny ways and ends every sentence with “eh?”…

    or even worse, they just change your character outright, into a fat texan rancher with a big cowboy hat and gaudy belt buckle. yeehaw!!!

  29. Hi, per your comment on the wines used being controversial, is this a apples to apples comparison?

    Aren’t Grace wines very expensive, and the Bordeaux wines from the names seem quite moderate in price (simple Medocs, not classed growths)?

    What are the retail prices of all the wines?

  30. oh yea this is great, i’m tired of the French needing to have their butts kissed all the time, they do indeed have some great wine in China

  31. And, may the best winea win.

    Have a fair competition without the behind the scenes games of favoritism, you will get an honest and good outcome.

  32. @ Xenon,

    Who knows.

    The big issue will be about the wines we used, whether it is a fair comparison, I guess. The reality is that wines like The Summit and Saga cost about the same in China and I would guess most people would assume the latter is better. But The Summit — at least in this contest — not only held its owned but topped Saga. That alone is a significant outcome…

    Cheers, Boyce

  33. Good question, Alexey, and I’m surprised no one asked it this afternoon. Grace is based in Shanxi but has a vineyard in Ningxia, so I included it since that meant we would have what I would argue are the three best operations in China. Guess the contest could have been called Ningxia & Shanxi vs Bordeaux Challenge, but it isn’t as sexy…

    Cheers, Boyce

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