You should get health insurance before you drink that. Ha ha. I bet this comes as leaded or unleaded. Ho ho. Does anyone realize this stuff is supposed to include grapes? He he.
People love to make jokes about Chinese wine. To be fair, there is plenty of sub-par stuff in the market. And when you do get a bottle of mass-produced plonk, one that might be described as “drinkable”, there is a good chance it contains imported bulk wine from Chile, Australia or Spain.
Thus, goes the oft-asked question: Is there any good Chinese wine? The answer is yes, though it can be hard to find, especially if you are seeking value for money. Here are arguably China’s four best operations.
The China wine success story of the past decade. Since its inaugural vintage in 2001, Grace has shown it is possible to produce not just one or two decent wines per year, but an entire portfolio, and has established itself in top restaurants and hotel chains like the Hilton, Shangri-La and Kempinski. Many in the industry have praised Grace’s Premium Chardonnay, which retails for about rmb120. Entry-level bottles of Grace start at rmb60 and are also worth a try. And for those willing to spend more, the meatier Deep Blue (rmb288) and Chairman’s Reserve (rmb488) await. Wine distributor Torres handles the Grace brand in China – check its everwines.com site — and Jenny Lou’s usually has five or six labels in stock. Intriguingly, CEO Judy Leissner says there is a good chance Grace will use screw tops for some of its wines this year, which would be a gutsy move in a country where producers are wedded to cork.
Domaine Helan Mountain
This operation, with investment and technical help from global drinks giant Pernod Ricard, is based in Ningxia, which is emerging as a go-to wine region in China. Helan Mountain makes about a million bottles per year of clean and easy-drinking wine, which puts it at least one step ahead of most fellow producers in the country. Now that consistency is under control, the operation is looking at steadily improving its products. Chief wine maker Craig Grafton might even add a Pinot Noir to a portfolio that includes Riesling, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Jenny Lou’s usually has at least a few labels from Helan Mountain.
This tiny family-owned winery, also in Ningxia, jumped on the scene with a pair of intriguing Bordeaux-style wines for its inaugural 2007 vintage. This quick start is less surprising when you consider that wine maker Emma Gao trained in Bordeaux and that production of Silver Heights’ top labels The Summit and Family Reserve only totalled a few thousand bottles. This year, production will jump past 10,000 bottles, though that is still a drop in the bucket and this wine bottles will be hard to find. Check for Silver Heights on the menu at Maison Boulud or at The Wine Way shop, in The Office Park, where Family Reserve is around rmb280 and The Summit just over rmb400. As with Grace, this brand is distributed by Torres, where Gao previously worked.
Helan Qing Xue
The Jia Bei Lan Cabernet Red 2009 from this operation received plenty of press last month when it beat hundreds of other labels and became the first Chinese wine to receive an “international trophy” at the World Wine Awards by British magazine Decanter. For some people, such foreign validation made the idea of good local wine more palatable. For others, it was an opportunity to suggest French wine had simply been stuck in Chinese bottles for the contest. Sometimes you just can’t win. In any case, Helan Qing Xue has been making Jia Bei Lan for five years and its chief consultant Li Demei is among the top players in the industry. The wine offers complexity rare in Chinese wines and, well, is pretty tasty. This operation is also – surprise, surprise – in Ningxia. It lacks a Beijing distributor, but is in talks now and hopes to have its products available here by the end of next month, with an expected price of rmb220. The Ningxia representative office restaurant has also been known to carry some Helan Qing Xue wines.
Other wineries worth trying
A new brand from Moen Estate, a joint venture in Gansu that pairs China’s Mogao with Greece’s Enos Partners. The company has released two wines, a Pinot Noir (rmb198) and a Cabernet Sauvignon (rmb298). Find it by the glass at Aman Resort or order it from distributor Globus at infobj (at) globus-wine.com
A local operation that sources its grapes in Hebei province and makes its wine in Beijing. This one inspires mixed reviews, though the its Huailai Reserve from the earlier part of the century ranked among the country’s best wines. This is a label worth trying.
At organic winery in Hebei province sells its wines for about rmb180 on site and more in retail shops. These wines have been spotted in Lohao shops.
A Xinjiang operation with massive production capacity. You can find it in Carrefour and other mass retailers at budget-friendly prices. Sunshine is not a problem in Xinjiang, and the wines tend to have decent fruit, thought there also tends to be a lot of “bottle variation” a.k.a. inconsistency.
That just touches the surface. There are plenty of other brands for the curious, from Xinjiang’s Champs D’Or and Niya (the latter is the wine of the Beijing Guoan football club) to Ningxia’s Xi Xia King to newcomer “1421”, served in the Opposite House. And if all goes to plan, in a few years we may be trying local wines from the likes of international players such as Champagne house Moet-Chandon and top Bordeaux operation Chateau Lafite. Both have started operations in China.