By Jim Boyce
I sat on the judges panel for the Time Out Beijing food awards this year and one of the categories up for grabs was “best wine experience“. Beijing is tricky as a wine city. A superb range of wine is available here, top restaurants tend to have diverse lists, and it is possible to attend tastings and dinners with visiting wine makers and winery owners at low cost.
On the other hand, prices are high (due to tariffs, economies of scale and other factors), sales have traditionally gone to knee-jerk Bordeaux and Chinese options, and a good wine bar scene is something we still await. Beijing has some good places, from Modo (under renovations) and Pudao Wines with their enomatic machines to hutong hideaways Palatte Vino and Vineyard Cafe to the reliable shops Jenny Lou’s and Jenny Wang’s to some of the city’s fine dining establishments — but the beer, whiskey and cocktail scenes are much healthier.
Anyway, we were asked to nominate venues for best wine experience, which meant restaurants, given food is a key part of that experience. Based on my memory of dinners and tastings past and on visits to about a dozen establishments to recheck the wine lists, these are the notes about the three nominees I submitted to Time Out. There must have been some agreement at HQ since all three received at least a merit award.
“TEMPLE RESTAURANT BEIJING
“Wine fluidly fits into any experience at Temple, whether in the form of a bottle with dinner or Sunday brunch or a glass in the bar overlooking the venue grounds. And it fits most any budget, from lower-priced bottles such as Pikes White Mullet from Clare Valley in Australia for rmb210 and a Ferraton Pere et Fils from Cotes du Rhone in France at rmb220 to top-end Burgundy and Bordeaux for tens of thousands of rmb. In between are some 700+ wines on a list that leans toward France but not too heavily and includes more than a dozen countries thus making it possible to please most any palate. Temple has stocked some of China’s better wines, more than a dozen, including options from Grace Vineyard (Shanxi), Helan Qing Xue (Ningxia), Sunshine Valley (Gansu) and 1421 (Xinjiang). You can also splash out on Yao Ming Family Reserve for rmb12,5000. Add excellent food and service, placid surroundings, and proximity to the Forbidden City, and this ranks as a top wine experience in the city. And for those simply seeking liquid refreshment, you can order any bottle off the menu at the bar.
“GRILL 79 / ATMOSPHERE
“Beijing’s highest restaurant and bar [on the 79th and 80th floors of China World Summit Wing] also field one of the city’s most diverse wine lists. The main wine guide, at Grill 79, includes more than 600 options. There are 14 wines by the glass, including a Champagne and a rose, and a well-balanced selection from the world’s major wine regions and some minor ones, too. Those upstairs at Atmosphere Bar can enjoy bottles off the same menu, and the same spectacular views of the city, although the bar has its own by-the-glass list. The bottle prices are fair for a venue of this caliber, with Billi Billi Shiraz from Mount Langi Ghiran in Victoria in Australia at rmb340 and Warwick Old Bush Pinotage from Stellenbosch in South Africa at rmb375. The menu includes nice picks from producers like Shaw & Smith in Australia and Springfield Estates in South Africa, plenty of Grand Cru, China favorites Silver Heights and Helan Qing Xue, and seventeen wines in half-bottle format for lighter tipplers. The combination of price, choice, service and setting make for a good wine experience.
“Boulud’s wine list comes in two volumes — one for whites and one for reds. There are the obvious French choices and also an impressive Champagne list, with nearly 80 options, including a good selection of vintage bubbly. The California selections are also notable for its who’s who of quality Cabernet blends from Napa Valley as well as other wines, including Cabernet Francs, Zinfindels and Pinot Noirs and bottles from northern neighbors Oregon and Washington. France, Spain and other major regions are well-represented and there are also some fun finds, whether it is in terms of grape varieties, such as Sylvaner, or countries, such as Lebanon’s Chateau Musar. There are 13 wines by the glass, starting at rmb70, and affordable bottles for around rmb300. If you want to splurge, there is a bottle of 2000 Petrus for rmb106,666. Given its historical surroundings, the food and service, and the option of imbibing in the bar, the dining room or a private space, this is a good place for a wine experience.