Beijing-based Shuai Zekun is an associate editor for jamessuckling.com and reviews Chinese wines for the site. In this Q&8, I asked him about the difference between 89-point and 90-point wines, good ~rmb200 Chinese wines for beginners, his initial foray into wine while living in Mexico, the low-intervention wine trend in China, how to pair wine with Lunar New Year banquets, and more. (Read more Q&8s here. And see my post on Shuai’s top 100 Chinese wines for 2021 here.)
When you review and score wines, what’s the difference between 89 and 90 points? How about 94 and 95 points?
Balance and drinkability are factors I tend to consider more for wines that score 90 points. A score of 89 means I might find it hard to drink a big glass of the wine—it’s not my style, perhaps it’s a bit overripe or too extracted—but it’s good quality, so it is recommended for those who like that style.
The difference for scores of 94 and 95 is greatness. Both are well-balanced, outstanding quality wines that show depth and intensity, complexity, and length. But beyond that, 95-plus wines should have a “wow” factor, with some distinctive character. It might be racy fruit, the texture, the tannin quality or discerning varietal typicality, or the positive sense of place. The wine should show winemaking prowess and good aging potential, too.
I like to evaluate wines scoring 95 points and above again after a few hours to check if they are persistent. Most intuitively, I believe 95 points should be something very special that you would want to finish a whole bottle. See, it all comes back to drinkability again.
At a high level of concentration and complexity, keeping a wine well-balanced and drinkable is not easy. At JamesSuckling.com, we believe 90 points makes you want to drink a big glass, but 95 points makes you want to finish a whole bottle.
We see more imported and locally produced low-intervention wine—natural wine, biodynamic wine and so on—in China. And it seems every new wine bar in Beijing strongly leans toward these wines or at least has a good number of labels. Is this trend here to stay?
I think there is a growing market for low-intervention wines in China. Now it is more popular in cities where wine has a stronger presence. Curious, young drinkers and avant-garde winemakers who are more open to new things are driving this trend, especially those who have lived abroad and understand the logic of making this type of wine. It is still a niche taste now, but isn’t wine in general still a niche drink for most Chinese households? Just don’t underestimate the growth of its popularity.
I see it is also a trend in almost every winemaking country where winemakers are talking all the time about wines that show the character of the provenance and vintage. More boutique wineries are treating wine as a more agriculturally appealing drink, which should be as authentic and unique as possible. That might be the trend for fine wine and boutique wines in general, and the big brands that churn out a lot of wines every year have started adding a few low-interventionist wines to their portfolios.
Say I’m a 30-something consumer in China, new to wine and confused where to start as I see so many choices in supermarkets, online and on restaurant menus. Beyond taking classes, what’s the best way to start exploring?
Find a trustworthy retailer and buy a few different wines. Start with different varieties first and see how different they are, such as Chardonnay versus Riesling versus Gewurztraminer. You can also do that kind of tasting with one single and try styles from different countries and regions.
Always taste them together and compare. You might need to find some friends to do this. This will help you find and remember differences among different grapes, and you will stay curious; that’s important! If you want to be serious, then write down how you feel and discuss it with friends.
When you have some basic knowledge and know what you like and don’t like, and what you are ready to appreciate or not, a great way to improve your palate is going to wine fairs and tastings. You can spend a whole afternoon exploring. Some of the tastings are free and consumer-friendly!
Say someone in China has been drinking wine for a decade, mostly French, Italian and Australian, and wants to try some local labels. Their budget is about rmb200 to rmb300 per bottle. What three wines would you recommend?
There are many choices now. Canaan Winery from Huailai makes good-value wines at that price point. Their Mastery range is quite consistent and almost everything is worth trying. Also, try some wines from Ningxia, such as Petit Mont’s M4 and Dunkelfelder. One of my favorites is Grace Vineyard’s Tasya’s Reserve range–some wines come from Shanxi, some from Ningxia. Also, the Rkatsiteli from Puchang is a good choice.
Some of your most formative years for wine were while living in Mexico. How did your interest grow and was there a particular moment you decided to make it a career?
I was a working as a Mandarin teacher in Mexico and in love with the place. As a Chinese teacher, I had more holidays. So, I’d always go to visit wine regions such as Valle de Guadalupe. I have also been to lesser-known regions such as Coahuila and Zacatecas. These are more difficult to reach, but were incredible experiences. I still remember going to a new winery called Don Leo. They have a unique, elevated terroir in the Valle de Parras.
Most Mexican wines are consumed domestically. So, the idea was to take advantage while I was there. I would buy three or four bottles every week to taste, then drink with friends.
I also found that most wines from Valle de Guadalupe were quite salty—and not a positive Chablis-like mineral salinity. This discovery certainly helped me stay engaged and to taste and travel more. I didn’t think too much about wine as a career. It was just a serious passion. Maybe I was just too huevon [lazy] to think about that, ha ha ha.
If you could have the wines from any three Mexican wineries imported in China, what would you pick?
Let me name a few: L.A. Cetto Reserva Privada Nebbiolo, which might not be a Nebbiolo at all, but is good and is great value. This is one of the biggest producers but the quality in the mid-range is very solid.
Something from the producer Adobe Guadalupe, such as their ‘Rafael’, a Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo blend.
Villa Montefiori has plenty of good wines‘Selezionato’ is probably the best-value. Don Leo, either the Syrah or Pinot Noir. Casa Madero ‘2V’ Chardonnay-Chenin. And if you looking for something very premium, Ícaro and Torre Alegres.
Given your time in Mexico, you came to be a fan of that country’s diverse cuisine. What are some go-to places for Mexican food in China and what would you recommend to newcomers?
Definitely Pebbles in Andingmen in Beijing. Try their taquitos, tamal, pozole, tacos campechanos and maybe a slice of tres leches cake. They have a good mix of choices, from Tex-Mex burritos to local cuisines. I also joined a mezcal tasting there! Other restaurants I liked are Moji and La Musa. I am a fan of corn tortilla.
Chinese New Year is coming and I know we will see lots of posts about food and wine pairing. What’s your strategy for those banquet style dinners with a dozen-plus dishes that cover all the basic taste categories?
Food and wine pairing is no big deal. After all, most people won’t mix wine and food in their mouths, just like nobody mixes baijiu with their food in their mouths.
I think the idea is more about quenching thirst and refreshment than pairing with certain flavors. For a banquet-style family dinner, there will be so much going on with the dinner table. What is more important is keeping the wine temperature and acidity right, especially if you are having intensely flavored spicy cuisines, dumplings and hot pot. Open a few bottles and let people try them in buffet-style is what I would do.
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