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Ten years on: Chinese wine’s breakthrough moment at DWWA

www.decanter.com by CH'NG Poh Tiong19/11/2021  

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Jia Bei Lan 2009 from Helan Qingxue winery, Ningxia. This wine is the winner of International Troph (Best in Show) in 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards. Credit: CH'NG Poh Tiong

The prestige attached to winning at the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) means that being awarded a Bronze medal for some wineries will mean huge celebrations in China, Japan, India, or Thailand.

Since the competition began in 2004, I have often reminded judges on my panel about this – whether they are journalists, sommeliers, educators, Masters of Wine or Master Sommeliers.

Scroll down for new tasting notes and scores on Jia Bei Lan vintages: from the Chinese wine label that won big at DWWA 2011

That being the case, you can well imagine that striking Gold will set hearts racing and hands trembling as much as when someone gets married (for the first time anyway).

As for being crowned Platinum or Best in Show – after trouncing other Golds from around the world in the same category – that’s another rush altogether.

Taking these top accolades, without sounding hyperbolic, will be tantamount to the ground moving, shaking, shifting, and rising under your very feet. Everyone involved in the making of the wine will be on cloud nine.

Tasting Chinese wine Jia Bei Lan at DWWA 2011

I remember vividly the first tasting of Jia Bei Lan 2009, the eventual overall Trophy winner in the Bordeaux Blend over £10 category.

Back in 2011, the Middle East, Far East & Asia Category was just one table of three judges. As such, I sat in with the panel. To my right was Annette Scarfe MW, directly across was Frenchman Stephane Soret, and Yuka Ogasawara was to my left.

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The 2011 DWWA judging panel for Asian wines. From left to right: Yuka Ogasawara, Stephane Soret, CH’NG Poh Tiong and Annette Scarfe MW. Credit: CH’NG Poh Tiong.

I like to taste ahead of the panel so that if I come across something exceptional (or dubious), I can wait to see their knee-jerk reaction to the wine. First impressions are precious as they are almost always spot-on.

I waited in ‘ambush’ as the panel went to work.

When lips met wine, Stephane Soret raised his head and turned to me. I smiled back. Annette Scarfe MW followed with the same reaction a minute later. I returned the compliment. With two smiles, I knew we had a winner.

A few months later, at Vinexpo Bordeaux, Decanter’s then-publishing director, Sarah Kemp, asked to have coffee. You always know it’s business, or something even more serious, when people ask to have coffee with you at a wine fair.

Kemp informed me that Jia Bei Lan 2009 had beaten the other Golds in the Bordeaux Blend Over £10 category, and emerged as overall champion.

While I had no doubt the other contenders – including from Australia, California, Chile, and St-Emilion -– were good, I was not at all surprised in Jia Bei Lan’s triumph.

Concern was voiced that people in the wine world might think Decanter had an agenda to promote Chinese wine as something of a ‘flavour of the month’. I replied that glass ceilings were meant to be broken, and that much like the famed 1976 ‘Judgement of Paris’, with time, people learn and grow to accept a new reality.

Furthermore, I added that the Trophy round (now Platinum) was judged by an expert panel comprising Gérard Basset (1957 – 2019) MW MS OBE, Stephen Brook, Jane Hunt MW, Michael Schuster, and Steven Spurrier (1941 – 2021). Their individual integrity and collective gravitas in the wine world would banish any doubt whatsoever.

Tasted again and more

To commemorate the 10th anniversary of Jia Bei Lan 2009 as the first Chinese wine to win a top accolade in the world’s largest wine competition, I organised a vertical tasting of the label in Singapore. This was done vis-a-vis the challenges Covid places on logistics and travel.

While there was a delay in the shipping, the virus resulted in two of the three panellists actually being stranded in Singapore. A small piece of good luck caused by an unpleasant contagion.

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The reunion of the 2011 DWWA judging panel. Credit: CH’NG Poh Tiong

So it was that I sat down for a socially-distanced tasting with Annette Scarfe MW (English by citizenship but has lived in Singapore since 1995 becoming a Permanent Resident in 2003), Raffles Hotel director of wine Stephane Soret – two of the original three panellists.

The six Jia Bei Lan Cabernet Sauvignons were sequenced oldest to youngest in two flights. This was fortuitous as the youngest three wines were the most oak-influenced and would have, if tasted first, swamped the more elegant and balanced vintages, particularly the sublime 2006.

Scarfe, Soret and I thought the Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2009 vintage showed well and will continue to evolve into the near future. It was, however, not our favourite wine.

The 2006 and 2013 impressed us tremendously and unanimously.

Jia Bei Lan Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, entirely evolved, carries a swagger like a Bordeaux of the olden days from, say, the 1950s to 1970s.

As for 2013, the youngster is only into its second stage of development and possesses an assured future ahead.

‘The absolute standout for me is the magnificent 2013,’ said Scarfe. ‘The wine displays ripe cassis fruit interwoven with delicate vanilla and spice.

‘The wine is powerful yet refined and fresh with the use of oak reined in. I was also impressed with the 2006, [the] oldest wine. Whilst less ripe than 2013, the wine has a delightful freshness to it and clearly shows the ageing potential of these wines. The 2009 is still holding up well with mellow tannins but with no signs of tiring.’

Frenchman Soret, while no less effusive in his praise for the two Cabernets, was blown away by the Pinot.

‘Jia Bei Lan 2013 and 2009 are impressive but the Pinot Noir 2015 is just unbelievable,’ he said. ‘It epitomises the Pinot Noir genre with “je ne sais quoi” terroir from Ningxia! Great acidity and texture, plenty of minerality, blackberry spice, black tea, sandalwood leather, very seductive mouthfeel, and a well-balanced finish.

‘This tasting confirms the long-term approach and hard work done by Helan Qingxue, one of the best wineries in Ningxia.’

Scarfe was also impressed with the Pinot. ‘Outside of the Bordeaux blends I was surprised and impressed by the two Pinot Noirs which were aromatic with ripe Morello cherry and elegant, refined, silky tannins: Volnay style,’ she said.

‘I was equally impressed with their bright, intense strawberry/raspberry fruit. The two Pinots have a lot of poise. And a tightrope balance between fruitiness and structure.’

Soret and I agreed with Scarfe that 2015 was Volnay-esque, but felt the 2018 had more of a northern Burgundian quality, reminiscent of Vosne-Romanée.

It was a minor quibble. We found unity as all three of us finished the two glasses – and topped them up effusively as dinner followed the tasting.

For the whites, Jia Bei Lan Chardonnay 2019 and 2018 are good and very good respectively but, compared to the reds, they did not rock our socks. We enjoyed them, particularly the elegant 2018, but feel it is Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir that are causing the most ripples for the Ningxia winery.

The game-changer

Helan Qingxue planted its first vines in 2005. From that initial 13 hectares, the vineyard has doubled in size.

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Credit: Helan Qingxue winery, Ningxia

In 2013, the Cabernet planting was changed to France-originated CS169 clones, grafted to 5BB rootstocks.

Of the original Cabernet Sauvignon vines planted in 2005, the winery can only say the plant material came from Hebei Province.

Not many of those vines would be around anymore as, having to bury them every year to preserve them from the freezing cold, the vines only last about 20 years before the trunk finally snaps from all that pulling and dragging into the ground.

The Pinot Noir is planted to the 777 clone, obtained from a local Ningxia nursery.

When Jia Bei Lan 2009 was entered into DWWA, Ningxia was an unknown region at the competition. Everything previously from China was principally from Shandong and Xinjiang. Professor Li Demei, the consultant to Helan Qingxue, encouraged the winery to submit its wine to DWWA, although he and the team had to ask for Ningxia to be added as a region on the entry form.

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Decanter World Wine Awards 2011 presentation in London. From left, proprietors of Helan Qingxue Winery HU Suzhen and RONG Jian, Chairman of Decanter World Wine Awards Steven Spurrier, winemaker ZHANG Jing, and wine consultant LI Demei. Credit: Helan Qingxue winery.

The DWWA turned out to be the game changer for Ningxia. The competition instantly propelled the province into the international league, recognising Ningxia as a major wine-producing region of the world.

DWWA and Chinese wines

Crazy: that’s the only way to describe how entries from China have grown exponentially since DWWA began in 2004.

That inaugural year, I was Regional Chair of Middle East, Far East & Asia, the biggest landmass in the world but with the fewest entries. It took barely half of a day to judge all the wines.

To make it worth coming out all the way from Singapore, I also helped with judging in other categories, such as for wines of Australia and Italy.

With time, entries from Asia increased, and principally those from China, Japan and India.

At first, it was a trickle, later a wave, then a flood. Today, entries are so voluminous. Asia is its own category and takes an entire week to judge, some days with two panels.

The rise of Marselan in China

I have been impressed, down the years, with some Cabernet Sauvignon and the occasional Cabernet Franc, but most of all with Marselan.

This is the hybrid variety that French agronomist Paul Truel crossed between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, and which he named after the coastal town of Marseillan, about 50km south of Montpellier.

Provided the producer does not extract too vigorously, nor subject the wine to too much new oak, an exemplary Marselan seduces with floral notes and red fruit from its Grenache parentage, while showing the restraint, freshness, blue/black fruit and structure of Cabernet.

DWWA 2021 saw Redelion’s Marselan1961 from Helan Mountain East win a Gold medal. Producers including Greatwall, Jade Vineyard, Chateau Lanyi, Yuanrun and Huaigu Manor have also produced Silver medal-winning wines from the grape, providing further proof of its quality potential.

Petit Manseng and Ice Wine

China has also produced stunning late-harvest wines from Petit Manseng. Outstanding examples include Yuanrun, Petit Manseng 2019 – a DWWA 2021 Gold medallist – as well as silver medal-winning Coastal Reserve Petit Manseng 2016 from Greatwall, and Collection Petit Manseng 2019 from Chateau Nine Peaks.

From DWWA 2020, Domaine Franco Chinois’s Petit Manseng 2015 scooped a Gold medal. Shandong Taila Winery’s Vendanges Tardives Petit Manseng 2018, winning a Silver, was also impressive. Both wines showed exceptional aromatics, fruit, intensity, tension, and ageing potential.

Freezing temperatures in northern, coastal China make for a natural habitat for Ice Wine. Producers have to ensure sulphur levels are kept to a minimum, however.

Ji’an Baite’s Manor Icewine 2016 from Tonghua, Jilin province won a Platinum medal at DWWA 2020, followed by Golds for Liaoning Sanhe’s Cailonglin Vidal Icewine 2013 and Chateau Changyu’s Black Diamond Golden Icewine Valley Vidal 2017.

At DWWA 2021, the Xuzhou Hanxiang Liquor’s 2017 Nabaifu Vidal Icewine and Nabaifu Gran Reserva Vidal Icewine, were among the wines awarded a Silver.

A rosé future?

China also has a huge but unrealised potential for rosé wine, although the category is not currently popular with domestic wine drinkers.

At DWWA 2019, I was particularly proud of our first rosé Gold – Chateau Changyu Moser XV’s Moser Legend ‘Blanc de Noir’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2018. I showed the wine to Gérard Basset, who was my favourite go-to for a second opinion. He was always fair but also always honest, and it was reassuring to have my late friend’s support on this particular wine.

Also from the Changyu empire, the A8 Chardonnay of Chateau Changyu Afip in Miyun, Beijing, has recently become the latest DWWA Platinum medal winner from China, hinting at a future for quality whites in the red wine-loving nation.

Chinese wine represents the lion’s share of entries from Asia. It is wonderful to witness not just a surge in numbers but also a rise in quality. And there is still lots of potential for the future.

Paradoxically, thanks to DWWA, if a Chinese wine today wins a Gold medal, it is no longer news to the same extent. That, ironically, is great news for Chinese wine.