“Pah !” I hear you retort – “I’m not drinking that muck !”
Well, like many conceptions about China and India, the admittedly previous rather vinegaresque concoctions that were brewed up in a barrel in a Sichuan or Gudjarati back yard certainly deserved only the strongest palates and stomachs. But, the times they-are-a-changing, and although I have no idea whether Bob Dylan is a wine connosieur, it’s an interesting link to the recent embracing of global trends that both China and India are developing an appreciation of vinho. But are they any good ?
Well, at considerable personal expense, danger and liver damage I can provide the first 2point6billion.com wine review. Read on…
Home of “Great Wall”, “Dynasty” and various other odd brands, China has in fact been making wine for thousands of years. However, with a genetic inability to breakdown alcohol (90% of the population – which is why many Chinese turn red and feel very ill after just a little drop), China’s drinking culture evolved rather differently. Not being able to drink alcohol so much for pleasure over the course of an evening, the Chinese drink to get drunk. And pretty spectacular they are at it too. Wine is not the best alcohol delivery mechanism to use for this, so the Chinese distill mainly rice and sorghum to get trashed. Mao Tai being one of the best known. Again, not being drunk for an exquisite long lasting evening by the fire, Mao Tai and the various Chinese spirits tend to be pretty rough and very strong. Drinking sessions during contract negotiations as many businessmen will know are both (a) foul, and (b) usually result in participants being carried to their rooms as “Bai Zhou stopped play”. China has however developed a huge beer drinking culture, although most of the brands, with Tsingtao being dominant, being rather light lager type brews with a low alcohol content. But back to wines. New wealth in China has meant a explosion of imported wines, mainly at the middle range – say USD70-100 a bottle. In fact, ASC Fine Wines are clients of mine and do a great job in importing and distributing the better international brands across China. However, for domestic production, the best known brands are Great Wall and Dynasty. I have heard tales of these actually being adulterated with cheap Chilean hooch, and despite the attempts, mainly by Great Wall, to introduce some expensive and well packaged wines into their range, both these brands are largely made up of rather tannic, acidic Cab Savs. Good for marinading meat with – which is what I buy them for – but you won’t be scoring any points with a date if you order either of these. ChangYu is recognised as an “official world famous brand” by the Chinese, which reeks of the American Football “World Series” with only teams from what always seems to be Detroit and Chicago contesting the issue, but be that as it may, ChangYu does have a rather more interesting history. Starting life as a Chinese-Hungarian JV over a 100 years ago, they claim to have the largest wineyards in Asia – some 4,000 hectares. I’ve seen it, and it’s huge. Again, can sav predominates and the bulk is cheap product for the domestic market that thinks splashing out 40 kwai on a bottle of wine is exotic. Many of the vines are also young and will not mature – even if they are tended properly – for 15 years. But keep an eye on it, and maybe by the time I reach 70 ChangYu will have produced a bottle of something smooth and balanced. But thats not much help when I fancy a claret with a medium rare steak at the Aria restaurant at the China World Hotel at Guo Mao in Beijing next week.
However China does have some good wines. For reds, the wines of Xinjiang – West China – and particularly from the old silk road city of Turpan are quite something – the “Lou Lan” brand (Cab Sav and Sav blanc) both being very acceptable. And a remarkable story about how they came to be made, some two hundred miles into the Taklimakan Desert. Read the April 2006 issue of our “China Expat” magazine at www.chinaexpat.com for the full story. Xinjiang also makes ice wines – which are pretty good – hardy vines and cold winters there mean they can do this the traditional way – leaving the grape on the wine late in the season until they freeze. The frozen water can then be mushed away leaving alcohol – and flavor. All good stuff, and I have seen cases of those disappear in an evening at Mat Ryans old bar in Shanghai. Otherwise, Tsingdao – the name refers to the old German treaty port on China’s east coast – also make good wines, with a rather nice and not too buttery Chardonnay, a decent enough Sav Blanc, and a recent attempt at a Reisling all worthy of applause if not medals at this stage. Jancis Robinson, the Financial Times wine critic, has also commented positively about these, and hey, she knows what she’s talking about. Thats about all I know on Chinese wines of any note, (apart from the wonderful Osmanthus flower wine that can be found in Guilin) but if anyone else has anything to share then please do.
As a quick addition as we travel south towards India I’ll quickly mention the Tibetan Barley Wines, which can be found in various restaurants, especially in Lhasa and around the Tibetan community in Beijing. Originally produced with the help of French missionaires over 100 years ago, these are a combination of red wine (I think from China) and barley wine. The grain gives them a certain earthy flavor for sure, and they are a bit of an acquired taste, but curiously enough do go down well with a decent Tibetan meal. However I think a Tibetan ambience is really required as a ‘spiritual’ accompianment to these wines.
India has come a long way in it’s production of domestic wines and is now producing some very acceptable brands. Distribution seems often to be a problem however, with somewhat erratic coverage. This is what I know:
Sula Vinyards are located about three hours drive north out of Bombay. Originally long a fruit growing area, interaction with Californian wine makers has shown the site has the capability of producing some consistantly good wines. Again, maturing the vines is an on-going process, but they are turning out a reasonable Cab-Sav Shiraz, and an interesting but still watery Red Zinfandel. Their Chenin Blanc is perfectly acceptable chilled on a hot Bombay afternoon, and the Sav Blanc too is worth it’s space in the fridge. The star however of Sula is the excellent Dindori Reserve Shiraz, which is probably the best wine made in India at this time. It’s well balanced, fruity and dense and I hear they are going to start to vintage it. If you can see it on the menu – grab a bottle. Also worth mentioning is their light, flowery dessert wine, the late harvest chenin blanc, which is nice enough. India of course doesn’t have the weather to get in the icy concentrations of fruit and sweetness that other dessert wines can provide, but again, I enjoyed it and on a hot day, something flowery will always go done well. Sula is a well run vinyard and is bringing in a lot of international expertise to assist with the development, so look out for it and especially that Dindori. Just as an aside – to illustrate the differences that exist when making wines in India – I asked the winemakers two of the hazards they faced when producing wines. “Snake bite” was one reply “we get a small, bright green venomous tree snake climbing up the vines and when the grapes are picked by hand….we keep anti-venom on the premises” and “Jaguars coming down from the hills and attacking the guard dogs” being the other. Bordeux this is not.
Chateau Indage is another good Indian wine maker, and they produce good quality, but not yet outstanding wines under the “Ivy” brand. With vinyards just outside Bangalore, they grow Shiraz, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and while I have heard some good reports, I have personally yet to try something that was any better than OK. Still, what do I know ? Maybe someone out there can educate me. However, they do produce the wonderful “Marquis de Pompadour” sparkling wine, which is the best of the “Indian Champagnes” I have had. Made in the classic champagne style with both chardonnay and pinot nior and the addition of the ugni blanc grape, this is a great wine to enjoy after a hard days work or to celebrate. It was previously known in it’s export version as “Omar Khayamm” – Chris Patten used to have it at Government House in Hong Kong during his time there as the last Governor.
Also getting rave reviews is Reveilo, an Indian-Italian enterprise based in Maharashtra, with a very good Shiraz, a well balanced and fruity Cab Sav, and decent Chardonnays and Chenin Blanc too. Just coming onto the markets, again quality is being invested in and these are wines to look out for.
I tried the new Seagrams “Nine Hills” wines the other evening at V Lounge at Juhu in Bombay, and despite the big name behind them, I had to say I was a bit disappointed. The Cab sav just tasted weird to me, while the Zinfandel rose was very raspberryish – as if someone had poured in some juice. I have heard the Merlot is better but have yet to sample it.
I hope this has been of use – I’ll add more as I get to sample anything new – and if you have anything to add of update – please fell free.
Good health !