A Chinese wine wins a major competition. Now what?
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.