Friday, August 28, 2009

Fabulous Banquet in Heshuo China at Aromatic Gardens Winery

(8/20/09) If I was asked to name the best thing about the trip to the Xinjiang Region of China, I would have to say it was the hospitality. Everyone we met was incredibly charming, friendly, and helpful. They went out of their way to treat us well and serve us fabulous meals.

The winery owner of Aromatic Gardens is a beautiful Chinese woman. She, along with the mayor of Heshuo, 3 other local winery owners, and many other government officials (40 people in all), welcomed us to a wonderful banquet dinner that first evening starting around 9:30pm. We started with 6 different types of greens – all so delicious and fresh, I was in heaven. One, called “luo le”, tasted like a type of spinach with mint spices. The tomatoes were juicy and bright. The vegetables here were the best I’ve had in my life. I think it is because they are organic and very fresh. Plate after plate of food was delivered to the lazy susan on our table (all Chinese meals are served in the center on a rotating glass plate so that everyone helps themselves.) I lost track of the number of courses, but every type of dish was served ranging from beef, chicken, pork, tofu, fish, multiple vegetable dishes, and exotic courses such as farm-raised swan and pigeon (the last with the head on the plate too!)

In terms of wine, we started with a Malvasia from Champion Dragon Winery (Guanlong, in Chinese). It was floral with strong minerality, and unfortunately was served too warm – as is common in China with all wines. Next were the 2006 Cabernet and 2006 Reserve Merlot from Aromatic Gardens. Both were quite good with a ripe berry nose, medium-bodied and soft tannins, but the merlot actually had better concentration and some spice. Neither wine showed any complexity and both had medium-length finishes. As it was to turn out, the Merlot ended up being the best wine of the trip. Unfortunately, I was told that it is only available locally.

As is traditional, they served the wine in very small glasses and provided about a one-ounce pour so that we could “gambay” (toast) with it. This required you to drink the complete glass, upon which it was promptly refilled. I was familiar with the custom from my last visit to China and knew as a woman it was expected that I participate in the first “bottoms up,” but afterwards could sip. Demei, our English speaking guide on this portion of the trip, kept cautioning and reminding me of this – which I appreciated. However, the whole custom is rather upsetting to me personally, because wine is not tasted for pleasure, but is knocked back as a shot. On the plus side, the Chinese government is encouraging people to drink wine (12-13% alcohol) over the obnoxious distilled rice spirit (40-60% proof) to cut down on riotous drinking and death from alcohol poisoning, as well as to save rice for food.

As we proceeded through the evening with approximately 10 toasts, the men became more and more inebriated. This was accelerated when a troop of dancing women brought full goblets of wine to us on 2 occasions. The goblets were made of jade, gold, and silver – rather like the chalices at church, but without the stem. After toasting, they placed silk scarves around our necks to welcome us to the region. Soon we were all invited to dance with the dancers, who wore wonderful Arabic, Mongolian and Chinese costumes. Their dances were amazing, and this was truly one of the highlights of my wine travels around the world. We finally stumbled back to our rooms around midnight and didn’t have any trouble sleeping.

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