Taste test: Uncorking nine Chinese wines in Beijing

– By Jim Boyce

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Tenacious taster Thompson (J. Fallows)

The mention of Chinese wine often brings smirks, mock gagging, or jokes such as “leaded or unleaded?” Given this, I enjoy getting together for a tasting of the local drop with people who express open-mindedness about it. Last Friday was such a time. Our party:

  • Lawrence Osborne, New York-based author of The Accidental Connoisseur
  • James Fallows, Beijing-based writer for The Atlantic Monthly and among the few buying, trying and writing about Chinese wine from a consumer standpoint
  • Campbell Thompson, Beijing-based wine guy, former marketing director of ASC Fine Wines, and current Master of Wine Marketing student
  • Me, consumer

We did our taste test at Dishes of Mao Zedong Hometown restaurant, behind the Hilton. I had hoped to dine at the hotel, but explaining that our patronage would bring revenue and possible coverage did not suffice to get the corkage fee waived for our eight bottles, which I can understand.

So, we headed down the street and, after Thompson explained to restaurant staff our need to open that many bottles, did our tasting in puny glasses amid vapors of meat, garlic and hot peppers. Not ideal tasting conditions, but real-world ones.

The notes are mine and, as often mentioned, I come at this as a consumer. The quotations are not attributed and meant to give some thoughts of others around the table.

Great Wall Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 (the only bottle we bought at the restaurant).

Some fruity though feeble aromas with a hint of cough syrup, and a limp body with a slight berry / cherry flavor; this one came off as fairly close to grape juice.

The table: “Palatable, but not too pleasant”; “The fruits are played out”

Suntime Red NV (RMB 28)

Dull red with a slight orange tinge, with a touch of wood and some (but too weak) black fruit; pretty much no finish (note: I’ve heard good things about Suntime from readers, so I’ll give the higher-priced bottles a try soon.)

The table: “I’m glad it’s not more than 28 kuai.”

Catai Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (~RMB 45)

A light fruit (black cherry) nose; the body had some dark fruit, jamminess and a hint of spice

The table: “Some varietal definition, but a bit thin”

Grace Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (RMB 60)

The nose had light and pleasant fruit, with the fruit and tannin working well together, though the color made it seem as though it were an older vintage.

The table: “Tastes like a perfectly American wine”; “It’s a step up from Catai”; “They’re trying to achieve something restrained.”

Chateau Bolongbao Grand Vin 2005 (~RMB 195)

There is a lot of wood (sawdust?) on the nose, a bit much for the dark fruit jamminess below; the same with the body

The table: “The wood is weird and heavy,” “like a carpentry shop”, “like pine resin”; “I like this: interesting wood and fruit flavors to savor”; “you could find people who love this and who hate it”

Taillan Rose 2005 (RMB 60)

Orange-pink, with a mushroom-y nose and some fruit (peach? light red fruit?) beneath; similar fruit in the mouth; if you plan to try this one, it’s best to do so now rather than later

“It’s struggling against adversity – it’s an honorable effort”

Huadong Dry White (Riesling) 2002 (RMB 76)

Very ripe, almost fermented, apples on the nose; slightly sour, with some tropical fruit (pineapple?), but lacking adequate acid and finish

“There’s no acidity to it, no core – you can’t make Riesling like that”; “It’s past its time”; “It doesn’t finish clean”

Grace Chardonnay 2006 (RMB 60)

Some toasty aromas on the nose; the body has oak and green apple, though it tastes slightly unripe

“It’s disjointed,” “the acidity is out of balance”, “it doesn’t have any delicacy”

Sino-French Demonstration Vineyard Chardonnay 2005 (sampled provided during a winery visit)

Light, creamy and with some freshness; subtle light fruit in the body, though not much finish

“It doesn’t have that buttery angle,” “it isn’t overly commercial,” “that’s the only wine so far that I think you could pass off as a foreign wine”

On the whole, the Grace Cabernet Sauvignon, Bolongbao, and Sino-French Chardonnay fared best. In any case, as always, it was good fun to work our way through these wines.

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Lined up and ready to go (J. Fallows)

Thanks to a large backpack, I trucked the nine bottles home, where I later met Palette Vino’s Stefan Fleischer, and we went through the wines again, this time sans the odor of garlic and hot peppers. I’ll have his evaluation tomorrow.

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