“Should we cancel the tasting?”
“Nah, let’s just do it outdoors.”
A few months ago, when neither restaurants nor bars could accept patrons due to “zero-COVID” policies, I decided to move the party outside and take advantage of Beijing’s invigorating winter weather.
The CHILL AF tastings were more about a message than mass attendance–about getting together during difficult times.
And gather we did, whether at a pagoda by a frozen pond or an outdoor counter at a xiao mai bu (snack shop) or a picnic table in front of a Tex-Mex restaurant.
The first CHILL AF doubled as a test run, with three participants and three wines, including a pair of Syrahs and a red blend from Ningxia, enjoyed on a frigid -8 Celsius late November night.
We started in front of Tex-Mex restaurant Q Mex, enjoying snacks and wine until neighborhood security guards chased us off, then parked in front of Burge’s Bar & Bistro a block away. (Special thanks to Allen at Burge’s for unexpectedly giving us a bottle of mulled wine and a thermos of hot water to help keep us warm during our 3.5-hour adventure.)
- Beyond Time ‘Monopole’ Syrah 2020 is the personal brand of Deng Zhongxiang, chief consultant for a half-dozen Ningxia wineries, including Charme, Rong Yuan Mei, Mountain Wave and Lansai. This is a young vibrant wine, with ample floral aromas (violets!), berry flavors and juicy acidity, but also hints of what is to come as it ages, including notes of chocolate, coffee and umami. It’s a bit different from the bigger riper softer reds typically coming out of Ningxia.
- Mihope ‘Enjoy’ Syrah 2020 was more in line with what we usually find. Riper, richer and smoother, with obvious but well-done oak influence, including a nice pepper edge at the finish. Classic style with a pleasant mouthfeel. This is a crowd-pleaser.
- And Helan Qing Xue ‘Jia Bei Lan’ 2017, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Gernischt blend that brought balance and complexity, with aromas / flavors like black fruit, graphite, cocoa and more popping up. Even in the cold, you could feel it opening up. This was one time when I always kept my hand on the glass’ bulb.
CHILL AF 2
Our second experience ‘chilling’ out featured four wines from across northern China as well as one from Georgia, again enjoyed as the temperature reached 8 below in early December.
We began with mulled wine at the xiao mai bu (snack shop) beside Nanjie Bar in Sanlitun Courtyard and then ended up holding our entire tasting there. (We later learned one restaurant was open in the area–perhaps the only one!–and made the 20-minute walk there after our tasting to enjoy kebabs, onion rings and more.)
- Mihope‘s White Blend, with Chardonnay and Riesling, lived up to the winery’s reputation for making well-made crowd-pleasing wines. This one had nice acidity, with some green apple character and a tingly finish.
- This entry-level Grace Vineyard Cabernet-Merlot is the kind of tasty and dependable daily drop that underscores how Grace has made wine affordable for two decades. Fruity, medium-bodied and easy to guzzle.
- Our second Grace wine was the 2019 ‘Year in a Bottle‘, mostly wine from its Ningxia operation, and mostly Cabernet Sauvignon at that, made 30 percent via carbonic maceration, which involves putting grape bunches into a sealed tank with carbon dioxide to provide extra fruity punch, and 70 percent typical fermentation. No barrel aging. This one is juicy, with lively fresh aromas — lots of red fruits –and some touches of spice.
- Puchang Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 was a good way to finish, given it was the richest and the most complex of our reds. Nicely textured with ample deep black fruit and hints of spices morphing into more earthy and chocolate-y features. Plus, a long-lasting finish that hit the spot on this chilly night.
- We also had an amber / orange / skin-contact wine from Georgia, from Pheasant’s Tears, made with the grape Mtsvane. The grapes, including the skins and seeds, are fermented in buried clay amphora called qveri to give them their unique color and texture. I’ve had this wine before, with its aromas of orange peel, honey, chrysanthemum and wood–on this night, it also had a whiff of Brett–along with mild tannins. Check out my post on our tasting of Georgia, Polish and Chinese orange wine for more about this style.
Foot traffic was very light in Sanlitun Courtyard, usually a bustling place. Just a few customers and some security guards and delivery driver passing by, with the city’s zero-COVID efforts still in effect. But it was still nice to have a night (literally) out.
CHILL AF 3
Our third get-together doubled as pre-gaming for the Lunar New Year holidays and featured a trio of wines from Ningxia, Shanxi and Hebei. Fingers and toes were numb after a few hours imbibing in the park, but it was worth it given the quality of the wine and the view.
We opened the bottles at the edge of a frozen pond in a park, with blues skies, traditional buildings and the downtown skyline in sight. Halfway through, we switched to a pagoda — one taster astutely noted it had images of grapes on the interior — and watched the sun set as the temperature plummeted.
- We began with a well-chilled white wine from Clovitis, made with local grape Longyan / Dragon Eye. I’ve tasted quite a few Longyans over the years and this one stands out — light, lemon-y and zippy. It can work well as an aperitif.
- We also had another bottle of entry-level red from Grace — once again, fruity, medium-bodied and easy-drinking, the kind of affordable tasty option with which to introduce people to Chinese wine.
- The last bottle was from Helan Qing Xue, a supple wine with dark fruit — think blackberry and black currant — character along with toast-y and cocoa aromas from barrel aging. HQX grows increasingly elegant with each passing year.
We wrapped up this tasting with a few shots of Nemiroff vodka and my White Rabbit candy infusion, then headed off to enjoy hotpot and another tipple — China’s national spirit baijiu — this time indoors!
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