Note: The following post recently appeared in Agenda magazine in Beijing (see online version here).
By Jim Boyce
Beijing stores shelves are lined with hundreds of imported wines that retail for less than RMB100 [USD16 / 10 Euros]. Choice is certainly not a problem, although deciding which wines are best is not always easy. This is especially true when it comes to making recommendations to Chinese consumers because so little research has been done on which wines they tend to like.
Given this, I teamed up with local sommelier Nicolas Carre and consultant Frankie Zhao, two fellow contributors to the Grape Wall of China blog, to hold a wine contest [called The Grape Wall Challenge] earlier this year. Our goal was simple: To ask panels of Chinese wine consumers and professionals to blind taste about forty imported wines priced at less than RMB100. (We asked local wine distributors to provide up to four wines each – two red and two white.) Our process was also simple: We asked the judges to put each wine into one of four categories – “I love it,” “I like it,” “I dislike it” or “I hate it.”
The professionals gravitated toward grape varieties that are common worldwide, picking Cedar Creek Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 from Australia (sold by Top Cellar for RMB92) as the top red, while Concha y Toro Frontera Sauvignon Blanc 2007 from Chile (Summergate, RMB79) and Bushman’s Gully Semillon-Chardonnay 2008 from Australia (Links, RMB92) tied as the top white wines.
This isn’t the case for consumers. They tended toward less commonly found wines and chose Zonin Terre Palladiane Soave from Italy (Torres, RMB96) as the top white and Foot of Africa Pinotage 2006 from South Africa (Torres, RMB99) as the top red, alongside Paso del Sol Merlot 2007 from Chile (DT Asia, RMB95).
What does this all suggest? That taste is subjective and that consumers do not necessarily like the same things as experts: not exactly groundbreaking findings, but important to point out. More interesting is that both the professionals and consumers scored white wines much higher than red wines, which is surprising given that more than 80 percent of the wine sold in China is red.
Other [high-scoring] reds include Callia Alta Shiraz-Malbec 2007 from Argentina (Torres, RMB72) and Concha y Toro Frontera Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 from Chile (Summergate, RMB79); while whites are represented by Farmese Primo Malvasia 2007 from Italy (ASC, RMB92), Stella Solaris Chardonnay 2006 from Chile (Top Cellar, RMB62), and Santa Rita 120 Sauvignon Blanc 2008 from Chile (ASC, RMB93).
Perhaps your best bet is to buy some of these wines and do your own tasting. After all, it is hard to go wrong at these prices. And if you wish to add a few more, you can try some of other top red and white wines from our contest, as determined by the combined scores of the professionals and consumers [see here].
Our next contest will focus on Chinese wines, specifically those made with grapes grown in China, since many domestic companies blend in bulk wine from Chile, Argentina, Australia, and elsewhere. In the meantime, if you are hankering to try some of the local product, your best bets are Grace Vineyard, from the north-central province of Shanxi, and Silver Heights, from the northwestern region of China. Both are distributed by Torres China.
The Grace entry-level Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon retail for about RMB60 and are among the few value-for-money Chinese wines in the market. Much better is the Premium Chardonnay, at just over RMB100, the Tasya’s Reserve series, including the Cabernet Franc and the Cabernet Sauvignon, which retail for just under RMB200, and the “Symphony” Muscat that a joint team from Grace and Torres in Spain produced last year. Grace wines are also available in many hotels, restaurants, and bars in Beijing.
Silver Heights is a newcomer that is showing great potential. These wines are more expensive, starting from RMB200, and are available online from Torres China.
Finally, to go even more local, Dragon Seal sources its grapes from just outside Beijing, in Hebei Province. While the resulting wines can be inconsistent, this is due less to the wine-maker and more to the quality of the grapes. There are several decent Dragon Seal wines available for about RMB75, while the Hualai Reserve [Cabernet Sauvignon] is a better but pricier bet at about RMB220.
[Note: I would also add Helan Mountain wines to the list. I tried them yet again at the recent Hilton Food & Wine Experience and would put them on a par with Dragon Seal – a bit inconsistent but worth a try.]
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