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By Jim Boyce
French wine critics Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve are in China for a week of tastings and classes. I talked to them on Friday in Beijing, just after they finished tasting 180 Chinese wines with a group of twelve judges, and asked about the state of local wines, changes in consumer attitudes, and why the UK, not France, leads in wine criticism and education.
GW [Grape Wall]: On changes in consumer attitudes they have witnessed while leading ‘Grand Tastings’ in Hong Kong since 2009, the ‘Shanghai Wine Experience’ since 2013, and other events:
MB [Michel Bettane]: We have Chinese and Chinese — Hong Kong and Singapore are completely different from cities in continental China. The situation is improving very quickly in Shanghai. I think there is a greater focus on officials and less on popular consumption in Beijing, while in Shanghai there is a good deal of fashion and more wine bars and more wine in restaurants. It’s more important in Shanghai.
TD [Thierry Desseauve]: In 2010 and 2011, when we met with Chinese people, everyone wanted to talk about Premier Cru, about Lafite, Mouton and so on. Two years later, we heard lots of people say Bordeaux is so boring, we want to hear about Burgundy. Last November, in Guangzhou, we talked for an entire lunch [about one particular winery] with a wine lover.
The other big change is there are lots of people who like good wine. Not top wines, but good wines, with a good price, in the rmb150 to rmb300 range.
GW: On their impressions of the vineyards, wineries and wines during a trip to Ningxia in 2013:
MB: What’s impressive is the speed of the enlarging of vineyards. There are thousands of hectares being added every year. There is a lot of money to build wineries with state-of-the-art equipment. But people seem to forget that the beginning of good wineries is in the vineyard. Quality grapes help make excellent wine and people [in Ningxia] don’t seem to care enough about what is being planted.
[With good equipment] you can make okay wine from a technical point of view. To express a sense of place, you need better cultivation and more experience. The drama of wine is you can only make one vintage every year [thus improvement is fairly slow.]
TD: We went to Ningxia just once, so maybe it was too short to have an exact opinion regarding the real potential, but for sure there is potential. Also, Ningxia is a special place. I don’t know other vineyards where you need to bury the vines [in the fall to protect against harsh winter weather]. That changes everything with planting and you have to understand what variety accepts this tradition. Also Ningxia is dry, with a hot wind during the summer and during harvest, and not all grape varieties are good with this weather.
GW: On critics who say winemakers in China have been too focused on Cabernet-driven, Bordeaux-style blends:
MB: We agree with this criticism. It’s usual. We saw the same criticism of Napa thirty years ago. Then California winemakers changed their minds and adapted the best grape varieties to the terroir. I think the same will happen in China.
The problem with young vines is if you try to imitate the greatest Bordeaux, you are unable to make drinkable wine. Too much oak, too much extraction is not suited to young vines. Ningxia can make fruity wines that are easy to understand and drink, that are very pretty. But complex? The region has a lack of clay, of deep soil, and the sandy soil it does have is suited to supple fruity wine.
GW: On the French wine trade facing new competitors over the past three decades, whether in terms of the U.S., Australia, Chile or elsewhere, and if China’s wine industry offers anything different:
TD: I think, and today’s tasting made it clear, that most of the [Chinese] wines are not similar to ‘new world’ styles. The balance is closer to to classic ‘old world’ styles, with lower alcohol, good acidity and lots of fresh fruit. That is quite unique when talking about a new wine country. I remember the first time I tasted American, Chilean and Australia wines, they had a very different balance than European wines. [He noted New Zealand as an exception.]
MB: Another unique point is that Chinese people are knowledgeable about refined cooking and have a natural taste for refined wine. That was not true originally in the ‘new world’. Thirty years ago, Californian food was not so good, though it quickly improved. The Chinese understood the link between food and wine much faster than the Americans.
GW: On why France is typically seen as the leader when it comes to wine production but the UK dominates wine criticism and wine education, with WSET, the MW program and many well-known critics:
TD: When you sell wine [like France does], you have to explain how to educate consumers. In France 20 years ago, we thought we didn’t need to educate.
MB: Yes, we thought we can understand wine from birth. [Bettane is being sarcastic.] It’s a stupid idea.
We lost two big battles. One was language: English is the international language but not many in France spoke it.
The other was education: 30 years ago, in the mid-eighties, we saw that the Master of Wine program was a good idea and suggested why not try something like that [in France]. We talked to the government, to the chambers of commerce, but they were not interested at all, they said we already had universities for wine-making in Bordeaux and Dijon.
We lost this battle, we lost an important way to illustrate French wines and French styles and increase knowledge, and that for me was a great loss.
TD: The French lost this battle but the Internet has already changed a lot and the information business will change a lot in the next five years. We managed RVF [La Revue du Vin de France magazine] for more than 15 years, now it’s time to have new education products and new kinds of information using the Internet. In five years, Wine Spectator, Decanter and RVF need to change or disappear. Jancis Robinson has developed a real digital presence.
On what they would like to see in future tastings of Chinese wines:
MB: More sense of place, more precise wines.
TD. More precise terroirs for different regions. It’s difficult to say this wine comes from Ningxia, this wine comes from Shandong.
More grape varieties, more diversity. Cabernet Sauvignon is not the solution.
I’m sure in two years, we will find some iconic wines. I think the highest score is 15 or 16 today. In two years, we will find 16- to 17-point wines.
MB: Two or three of the best wines were not in this tasting, wines that we previously gave 15 or 16 points. We are already tasting Chinese wines of international quality, perhaps not the level of Chateau Margaux or a great Brunello di Montalcino or Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, but which can compete with very good European wines.
Note: This interview was done at The Himalaya Club in the 798 Art District and arranged by the French Junior Chamber of Beijing (JCEFP), which organized the events for Bettane and Desseauve in Beijing, with financial support from cork producer Amorim. I will soon post about the one hundred-plus wines presented the same night during a public tasting.
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