Shanghai bottle shock: Unexpected winners at Chinese Wine Summit

2014 Chinese Wine Summit by Taste Spirit and Shanghai Morning Post

By Jim Boyce

Warren Buffet recently offered a billion dollars to anyone who could pick the winners of all 63 games in the U.S. men’s national college basketball tournament a.k.a March Madness. Given the odds were one in nine quintillion for random picks and about one in 128 billion for someone who knows the sport “pretty well” — see this Slate article — it isn’t surprising no contenders remained after 25 games.

This contest came to mind while reading the results of the recent Chinese Wine Summit, where 53 local wines were judged by Jancis Robinson, Ian D’Agata and Bernard Burtschy. This trio eventually came to a consensus on seven wines to recommend.

Given the sample size and nature of the wine tasting, one would have better odds of picking that top seven than picking the March Madness winners. But it would still be extremely unlikely even — and maybe especially –  for those who know the wine scene “pretty well”.

I think most people would expect at least one wine — if not three or four or more — of the six submitted by Ningxia heavyweights Helan Qing Xue, Silver Heights and Helan Mountain to make the cut, after all, they have done well in contests and received good reviews for years. I also think well-known brands like Changyu, Great Wall and Xi Xia King would get consideration for placing at least one of their better wines. And many would likely add a dark horse, maybe newcomer Tiansai from Xinjiang, which has received early praise for its wines.

Here’s the thing: none of these wines made the top seven. Is that surprising? To me, and I think to many others, definitely. Is that a problem? No, as long as the tasting was run fair and square — and nothing I have heard so far suggests it wasn’t — that’s the way the cork crumbles. But no doubt some in the trade are everything from perplexed to upset with the results given the outcome of previous contests. More on that later.

Here are the top seven wines:

  • Chateau Nine Peaks (九顶庄园) Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2011 from Shandong, a wine that has done well in my own taste tests and that is distributed by East Meets West. You can read about the winery–and its pet donkey–here.
  • CITIC Guoan (中信国安葡萄酒业) Niya Cabernet Sauvignon Dry Red 2012 from Shandong, an operation with some marketing clout. It sponsors the Beijing Guoan football team that plays a few hundreds meters from my apartment!
  • Chateau Bolongbao (北京波龙堡酒庄) Dry Red 2010 from Hebei Province, just north of Beijing and one of the certified organic wine operations in China.
  • Ningxia Red Shapotou (宁夏红沙坡头) Cabernet Gernischt 2012 from Ningxia. Also a large producer of wolfberry wine.
  • Lanyi (兰一酒庄) Classic Merlot 2011 from Ningxia, a smaller operation to the east of the Helan Mountain range.
  • Canaan (迦南美地酒庄) Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 from Hebei Province.
  • Yuan Shi (志辉源石酒庄) Soul Mountain 2012, yet another Ningxia winery but with arguably the most extravagant design in the country — I’ll aim to get some photos up soon.

Again, I’d be surprised if anyone  guessed these would be the top seven — or even picked more than three of them. Anyway, the key issue for me is just how hard to find are most of these wines. While the likes of Silver Heights, Helan Qing Xue, Helan Mountain, Great Wall, Changyu and so on have national distribution either via their own channels or a partner, most of these seven do not, and it underscores a major weakness in the market.

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