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A Chinese wine wins a major competition. Now what?

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I suppose it was just a matter of time before a Chinese wine won an award in a contest that, at least superficially, looks legitimate.

The wine in question was a 2009 Cabernet blend, Jia Bei Lan, and the contest was Decanter’s World Wine Awards, where it won for best Bordeaux wine in its price class (about $15), according to this article in the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald.

There were more than 500 Bordeaux wines in the same competition. One of the judges was none other than Steven Spurrier, who said, “[B]efore this, I’d never tasted a cabernet blend in China I thought was worth paying attention to.”

You would think the Chinese would chauvinistically celebrate this triumph. A Chinese Cabernet beating 500 real Bordeaux! But that’s not exactly what happened. The article quotes the wine’s consulting winemaker, Li Demei, as replying, “No, I don’t think so,” when asked if Chinese wine “will ever be able to compete with Bordeaux.” Li says the climate isn’t suitable. The article offers no explanation of how a wine from a lousy climate could win so prestigious a competition.

(By the way, I can’t imagine a California winemaker ever saying she didn’t think California could compete with Bordeaux! She’d be fired.)

But Li’s remark does provide evidence about the subjectivity of consumer perception. Li (who interned at Chateau Palmer) goes on the say that ”People in China don’t care about local wine. For them, Chateau Lafite is the top, top wine in the world. If we talk about my wine, they say how can you compare your wine with Chateau Lafite?”

Well, you can’t, of course, assuming that people know they’re drinking Lafite. I am assuming that the Decanter judges drank the Jia Bei Lan wine blind, whereas the Chinese who go on and on about how great Lafite is are staring at the label (and showing it off to everybody around them).

Anyway, we know all that. What’s interesting is that, this early in their winemaking experience, the Chinese already are producing a decent Bordeaux-style wine. This makes me wonder what will happen when that vast country starts exporting decent, well-made wines, adding further pressure to the likes of Australia, Chile and California. In their own coverage of the competition, Decanter described Jia Bei Lan as “supple, graceful and ripe but not flashy,” and they praised its “excellent length and four-square tannins,” which makes it sound rather like a 90 point wine. It beat out some St. Emilion Grand Crus as well as California wines. If you search through the competition’s results, you’ll see some of the California entries: generally distributor supermarket wines (Barefoot, Blossom Hill, Clos du Bois, Ravenswood Vintners Blend, Turning Leaf, Mondavi Woodbridge, etc).

Before you get all scoffy, consider that those are the wines that most wine drinkers drink because they’re affordable. So I do wonder what will happen in ten years time if Jia Bei Lan and other Chinese wines start flooding the international markets. They’ll have to design a new label to appeal to non-Chinese, but that won’t be hard. We all know the Chinese have a penchant for manufacturing things better and cheaper than anyone on the planet. There’s no reason why they can’t repeat that pattern with wine.

  1. Better brush up on your Mandarin, bro!

  2. Jim Vandegriff says:

    I’d be happy to try it.

  3. Knowing the lack, an sometimes complete absence of Chinese appellation laws I would almost guarantee this wine is like all the other wines produced in China. Maybe, maybe there’s 15% wine from Chinese grapes the rest is bulk wine from Chile, Argentina, France, or who knows, maybe even California.

  4. Be careful what you say about large-production wine. This is SF,and we are supposed to drink unheard of wine from unheard of producers. What the world drinks, what most of our neighbors drink, is dismissed by the cognoscenti so please be careful lest you be described as an old man who never amounted to much.

    Of course, it will be by some thirty-something who has been into wine for six years and knows far more than you–if you ask him.

  5. I guess they really know how to put the lead in it! [bad]

    Seriously, it’s cool that the whole world is wide-open now when it comes to wine production and consumption.

  6. There are several areas in Western China (Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region) that are very suitable for growing wine grapes. In particular the Tarim (Kashgar, Yarkand) and Dzungarian (Hami, Yining) Basins, which are huge agricultural (irrigated) areas situated in the Taklamakan and Gurbantunggut Deserts, respectively.
    Both areas have plenty of water for irrigation from the melting snows of the Pamir, Koonloon, Tien-Shan and Altai Mountains, and exhibit a harsh (mid to high-altitude) continental desert climate whose numbers are not too different from those displayed by most areas of the Columbia Basin (WA) and the Upper Rio Negro Valley in Argentina.
    Cheers,

  7. 對他們有好處。什麼是葡萄的混合

  8. I think the most important point of the article was the winemaker’s own admission of the aspects of Chinese culture that will make it difficult for local wines to flourish — prestige and fame usually comes before quality in the case of the chinese. I have first hand experience with this phenomenon, in that Chinese visitors to my winery in Napa only want to taste Cabernet Sauvignon, and they only want to buy if it’s over $100. With this being said, there are a few questions this contest brings up.

    1. The wine world is getting bigger, that much is true, and its being driven by the new world. But what will happen first? Will the rise of wine in China come from the Chinese tasting better and more diverse wines, or will it come from the west being open to try more and more new things? Could we see a better selection on a Chinese menu before we see a Chinese wine for sale at Target? Culture takes a long time to change, but which would change first in your opinion?

    2. Are the Chinese right to assume that Lafite will always be better than the homegrown stuff (or anything else for that matter)? All things being equal, will Lafite ALWAYS be better than something from China, or anywhere else?

  9. “You would think the Chinese would chauvinistically celebrate this triumph. A Chinese Cabernet beating 500 real Bordeaux! But that’s not exactly what happened.”

    And to show that is not exactly what happened, one Chinese citizen — out of a population of ~1.3 billion — is cited. Believe it or not, “the Chinese” do not act in unison, and I know a few that did feel exceptional pride at the success of this wine.

    Cheers, Boyce

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