China wine word: Decanter’s Sarah Kemp reflects on Jia Bei Lan brouhaha

Sarah Kemp (Photo: Decanter)

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By Jim Boyce

Decanter publishing director Sarah Kemp visited Beijing this week and I asked her about the brouhaha over Jia Bei Lan becoming the first Chinese wine to win an ‘international trophy‘ in the magazine’s annual World Wine Awards (see here and here). Jia Bei Lan, made by winery Helan Qing Xue in Ningxia, first won in the Middle East, Far East and Asia region, then took top honors in London against the other regional winners, then became a target for some who suggested that perhaps its victory was due to ulterior motives.

I met Kemp, on her first visit to China since those awards, and editor John Abbott in Sanlitun (she easily spotted me in my horrible green plaid Gap jacket circa 1997), went for lunch at Modo (site of last year’s Grape Wall Challenge) and talked about the awards (I alternatively took notes, stuffed my face with steak tartar smorrebrod and sea bass, and sipped this Grace Vineyard screw cap wine).

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Boyce: How was Jia Bei Lan chosen as the winner?

Kemp: Jia Bei Lan came out via the regional panel chaired by Ch’ng Poh-Tiong, then there were two days to decide the international trophies, the best of the best. The judges included Gerard Bassett, who is a master of wine, Steven Spurrier, Stephen Brook, Jane Hunt and Michael Schuster. Really respected, seasoned palates. The judges had no idea of the country of origin, only the grape varietals. [Note: At this stage of the competition there were fewer than ten wines.] I trust my tasters implicitly.

What was the initial reaction when Jia Bei Lan won?

There was an intake of breath. We held the awards at the Royal Opera House and kept the results under wraps until that night. Only the Decanter staff and [presenter] Stephen Spurrier knew the result. Li Demei [chief wine consultant for Jia Bei Lan] and the regional chairs didn’t know. It was very emotional to see [the winery reps from China] not fully comprehending the moment but knowing something had changed. They came all that way and didn’t even know they’d won. It was a big, big surprise.

Is it really that surprising given China’s success at the regional level in previous years?

Yes. It was big because it was an international trophy, beating Argentina and other competitors. It was a big win for China, in a major category [red Bordeaux varietals over GBP10, or RMB100].

There were some negative reactions. How widespread was that?

There was divided reaction. Some people said they were not surprised by the win, including wine producers who understand that more countries around the world will produce good wines. Another faction wanted to use it to discredit Decanter: not to discredit the tasters, but Decanter, and this included people who had never tasted the wine. There was an unpleasant assertion that Decanter had commercial aspirations in China. To which my reply is that either you are accusing us of giving money to judges or of changing the wine and fixing the results. Which is it?

And what is the general response to that?

Silence. I think that situation is very sad because Li Demei is an amazing man. As for the rationale for the commercial aspiration, well, we haven’t seen a major ad budget from Ningxia and the [contest] result is not going to please the Bordelais, in fact, it could be damaging. [A Chinese wine] got recognized in a blind tasting and how sad that some can’t recognize that fact and realize that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

Note: The wine, Jia Bei Lan 2009, will officially be released in mid-March in Beijing by importer and distributor The Wine Republic.

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