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December 29, 2011

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Chinese wines top Bordeaux

CHINESE wines took the top four places in a recent China vs Bordeaux blind tasting competition, but it wasn't exactly a thrashing of the world's most elite wines by Chinese upstarts.

The wines were all red, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon-based Bordeaux-style blends. The Chinese side was represented by five of what are considered among the best Chinese wines produced; the French wines were five more pedestrian reds from Bordeaux negociants and commercial labels, not chateau-bottled wines.

They ranged in price from about 200 yuan to 350 yuan (US$30-$55).

Five French and five Chinese judges tasted the wines blind at a wine bar in Beijing. In the end, the 2009 Chairman's Reserve from China's Grace Vineyards in Shanxi Province came out on top.

In second place was Silver Heights' The Summit 2009; in third was 2009 Jiabeilan. Grace Vineyards' Deep Blue 2009 took fourth place. Like all the Chinese wines in the tasting they too were from Ningxia, a small, sparsely populated region in north-central China.

Fifth place went to Saga Medoc 2009 from Barons de Rothschild Collection, a commercial label from the owner of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, which scored the highest of the French wines in the tasting.

It wasn't exactly replicating the 1976 tasting of California vs Bordeaux in Paris, in which a top red and white from Napa Valley shocked the wine world by beating out some of the most famous French labels.

But it shows that Chinese wines are beginning to come into their own and have the potential to become great, says Jim Boyce, a China wine expert who helped organize the event.

"The one thing this tasting showed is that China can make good wines," says Boyce, who runs, a blog about Chinese wine.

"There is the soil, the climate, the skill to take all the elements and make even foreign judges say 'this is good'," he says. "These wines can compete."

Chinese are developing a huge appetite for wine, with high-end Bordeaux such as Chateau Lafite and Petrus, and vaunted Burgundy producer Domaine Romanee-Conti among the favorites of collectors.

French wine and champagne producers Chateau Lafite, Pernod Ricard SA and Moet-Chandon have invested in planting vineyards in China, aiming to produce quality wines and develop their brands in what is expected to become the world's largest wine-consuming market.

While most of the wine produced in China is inexpensive bulk, quality wine is appearing from vineyards in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Gansu and Shandong provinces.

Ningxia in particular is gaining attention because Jia Bei Lan from Helan Qing Xue winery recently won an award for excellence from the British wine magazine Decanter.

"Some of the Chinese wines are way more 'oaky' than what we are doing in Bordeaux for this price," says Thomas Briollet, who has worked in China for seven years with wine importers and as export manager for French wine producers, and who was one of the French judges at the event. He was referring to the taste of oak barrels.

"The quality was equivalent between the wines. No one was really on top, and maybe one or two was under," Briollet says.

The wines were in a similar price category because of a 50-percent tax on imported wine, and given that choice, the Chinese wines were better, he says.

"Ningxia wines have sweeter, more fruity tannins, and are rounder on the palate," says John Gai, chief operating officer of the Beijing-based wine distributor 90 Points and one of the Chinese judges.

Gai picked Grace Vineyard's Chairman's Reserve, the eventual winner, as his top choice.

"It definitely has more structure and more fruit side, and has a much bigger effect on the palate," he says. "Ningxia wines are soft and easier to drink."

The other wines in the tasting were 2009 Mouton-Cadet; 2009 Calvet Medoc Reserve de L'Estey; 2008 Cordier Prestige, and 2008 Kressman Grande Reserve St Emilion from Bordeaux, and 2009 Silver Heights Family Reserve from Ningxia.


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