Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Chateau Changyu Moser XV and the Sand Lake of Ningxia, China

Sept. 1, 2012 – On the way to Chateau Changyu Moser XV we passed the famous Western Xia Tombs which look like small stone pyramids and built around 1000 AD. They are part of the unique tourism sites to visit around Yinchuan, including pagodas, beautiful mosques, and the last section of the Great Wall which ends in Ningxia.

Chateau Changyu Moser XV will soon become another of the main tourist sites to visit in the region when it opens in October of 2012. It is a beautiful French chateau built on grand standards (see photos) where tourists will be able to purchase a ticket to tour the castle and taste wine.

This new chateau in Ningxia is one of 4 that have been built in China by the wine giant Changyu. The others are in the Shandong province, outside Beijing in the Hebei wine region, and in the far West of the nation in the Xinjiang wine province. They also own several wineries in 5 other countries.

Our tour of the chateau was very exciting and we were allowed to see the bottling line operating, as well as the magnificent barrel room and an extensive wine musuem. It was while I was in the museum that I learned that Changyu is the oldest continually operating winery in China, starting in 1892 in the Shandong region by an Austrian winemaker.

I asked how many bottles of wine Changyu produced and was told it was a “sensitive topic,” but they did share the fact that they currently owe 350 mu of vineyards with plans to plant an additional 1000 mu. We did not taste any wine here, but I have tasted the high-end reserve wines of Changyu and they are impressive, though expensive. For more information, see:

The Sand Lake of Ningxia

After lunch we took a drive out to the famous Sand Lake of Ningxia, which is 35 miles north of Yinchuan. Though it was still cloudy it was a magnificent site to see the towering Helan Mountains behind the calm lake which is filled with unique reeds and lotus. There is also a wildlife perserve nearby, but we went to the tourist boardwalk area where you can rent boats, eat, and walk along the lake. There is also a large housing development near-by.

The Trip Home

After that we headed to the airport to catch our flight back to Beijing. Unfortunately the bad weather caused many delays which resulted in us not getting to our hotel, the Days Inn Forbidden City, until 11:30 pm. Despite this, Luigi and I braved the warm rain of Beijing to walk to the Forbidden Palace and take photos at midnight.

Sept. 2, 2012 - The next morning, I took a taxi to the Beijing airport and was amazed it was only 100 RMB ($16) from downtown Beijing – a 30 minute ride with no traffic on a Sunday morning. I did some shopping in the airport, then headed to the Air China lounge where I bumped into Jancis Robinson on her way home. We exchanged a few notes about our various winery visits, then I boarded the non-stop United flight home to San Francisco at noon, and landed at 8:30 am on the same day. It is always nice to gain an extra day.

Visit to Chateau Helan Qingxue and Daylong Organic Vineyards, China

Sept. 1, 2012 – After a buffet breakfast at the hotel we boarded the van for a day of visits to vineyards and wineries located near the foothills of Helan Mountains, about a thirty minute drive from Yinchuan. Unfortunately we woke up to drizzly rain that day, instead of the humid heat of the previous days. Therefore we spent much of the tour huddled under umbrellas and trying to avoid the mud in vineyards.

The first stop was the Decanter award winning Chateau Helan Qingxue where winemaker Zhang Jing greeted us very warmly. She is a small, bubbly Chinese lady full of energy and enthusiasm, and trained in France. Her motto is “making mellow wine and harvesting fun and joy.” She is the one who crafted the 2009 Jiabeilan Grand Reserve “Baby Feet” in a special 100% new French Oak barrel that was stamped with the footprint of her new child.

Zhang showed us through the winery which is owed and built by the local government. It is a nice looking building, and they are currently adding on a retail center where they will feature and sell all of the wines of Ningxia in addition to their own. It will also be used as a wine education and training center.

Zhang informed us they currently produce 40,000 – 50,000 bottles of wine per year (3300 – 4100 cases), and farm 15 hectares of vines which surround the winery. In addition, they also purchase grapes from local farmers. We were able to stop in the vineyard briefly and marveled at the interesting spacing of only 50 centimeters between vines, but very wide rows so the vines could be buried in the winter. The trellising was a fascinating verticle cane pruned system that trained the vine straight up on 3 wires with about 15 clusters per vine. Luigi, the viticulture expert from Italy, told me they probably should reduce to 10 to 12 clusters for higher quality.

Daylong Organic Vineyards

Next stop was an organic vineyard owned by the Ningxia Daylong Winery which is run by the Thailand Daysun Investment group. They have planted 100,000 mus of vines in the alluvial soil on the foothills of Helan Mountain.

This vineyard was in stellar condition with ripe cabernet sauvignon grapes which we tasted. The spacing was the same as the previous vineyard but the trellising was different in that the fruit clusters were just above the ground hanging from the first wire. They plan to sell the grapes now, but eventually build their own winery which will include an ecological and organic tourism base with a five-star hotel and golf course.

Ningxia Wine Auction and Banquet, China

August 31, 2012 – That evening we dressed for the formal banquet dinner and wine auction that was held at another hotel. Over 300 people attended, and once again we were seated at the main table, but this time it was long and rectagnal with 12 different courses served, including this lovely dish of prawns. We were were served the Best of Class White and Red wines, so I was very happy to drink the Xixia King Chardonnay NV and the Jiabeilan Grand Reserve 2009.

The media were in attendance with more cameras flashing and video cameras rolling. The winning wines from the morning tasting were announced to much fanfare. I sat near Jancis Robinson at the table, and we enjoyed listening to the wine auction in Chinese that followed the dinner. It was a charity auction, and even though we couldn’t understand what they were saying, it appeared that much money was raised for the wines that were sold. Just like a mini Napa Valley Wine Auction!

After dinner, we headed back to our hotel and had a night cap in the lobby bar. I tried once again unsuccessfuly to order a gin and tonic, but they do not know how to make mixed drinks in China yet. All you can order successfully is either a beer or a shot of some kind of liqour. It is also not possible to order wine by the glass, but perhaps some day.....

Monday, September 10, 2012

Visiting Silver Heights Winery in Ningxia China with Winemaker Emma Gao

August 31, 2012 - After lunch we boarded the van to drive about ten minutes down narrow dirt roads past poverty stricken shacks to arrive at Silver Heights Winery. Once through the modest gates, we saw a large garden and were greeted by owner, Emma Gao, who had a huge welcoming smile on her face and was followed by her 5-year old daughter’s puppy – a very young and adorable winery dog (see photo).

Silver Heights is a true urban winery in the sense that it is located in the city of Yinchuan, even though it’s vineyards are on the hillsides of Helan Mountain thirty miles away. Producing only 30,000 bottles or 2500 cases, Silver Heights specializes in cabernet sauvignon and cabernet gernischt. The winery was started in 2007, with 2009 being the best vintage so far, according to Emma, because it was a very warm year.

Emma received her enology training in France at the Ecole d'Oenologie in Bordeaux, and is married to French winemaker, who works at Chateau Calon Segur. They split their time between both countries.

Viticulture Practices and Burying the Vines in Winter

Since it is not possible to own land in China, Emma and her family have a lease on 15 hectares of vines for which they have 100% farming control. They produce around 35 hectoliters per hectare with 5,000 vines per hectare. Emma mentioned that they use flood irrigation right now, but hope to install drip lines. Powdery and downey mildew are both threats, as well as the neighbor’s sheep which often escape into the vineyard and try to eat the leaves and grapes.

Every winter Emma and her family must bury the vines so they do not freeze due to the very low temperatures. Emma described how they first irrigate the vines, then she and her mother bend the vine down to the ground and stand on it while her father shovels on dirt. After the vines are buried this way, they add more dirt with a tractor. She said about 5% of the vines are damaged each year due to burying.

This year they took out another 30-year lease on some land to plant 40 more hectares, or 600 mu, of a new vineyard. “Mu” is how the Chinese measure the land with one mu equaling 1/15th of a hectare, or around 1/7th of an acre. I asked Emma what happened when the 30-year lease was up, given the fact that they have to pay to install the vineyard and maintain it. She says she is not sure, but hopes the Chinese government will allow her to renew the lease. She mentioned that larger winery corporations are allowed to apply for 90-year leases, but they must pay much more money to do so.

In the meantime, while waiting for their vineyard to come online, Emma buys additional grapes from local farmers.

Winemaking Practices at Silver Heights

Emma proudly showed us her stainless steel fermentation tanks and small crush pad. She mentioned that the most important step she took to craft high quality wine was to sort the grapes herself by hand. Since the last two vintages (2010 and 2011) were both cool and rainy, she said it was very important to sort and throw out green and moldy berries. This does not always happen at some of the other Chinese wineries.

Next we descended into the small cellar that her father helped her build. The size reminded me of many small domains I have visited in Burgundy. She ages in both French and American oak, and only racks the wine twice. She uses very little SO2, only adding it at crush and before bottling.

We tasted several wines from the barrel, with her 2009 50% cab and 50% cab G being beautiful complex and spicy. My favorite however, was the 2009 Emma’s Reserve 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. It had incredible purity of fruit, fine-grained tannins and a long velvety finish.

I asked her why she didn’t make more 100% cabernet sauvignon, and she said she couldn’t get the grapes. However, Emma explained that she still liked to use cabernet G because it was considered the “Chinese” grape and gave a nice spicy, tomato leaf and yellow pepper note to the wine.

It was a very enjoyable visit to Silver Heights, and I am now a new fan of the winery and of Emma Gao. Before we left, she pulled some of the 2011 cabernet sauvignon from barrel and served it to us in an unusual carafe that looked like a curving snake or dragon (see photo). We will all impressed with the structure and lovely black currant aroma/flavors of the wine.

Historic Tasting of 39 Ningxia Wines , China

August 31, 2012 – The next morning I awoke very excited because this was the day we were scheduled to do a blind tasting of Ningxia wines. Jancis Robinson, MW had flown in from the UK the evening before and I sat with her at dinner. I have met Jancis on three other occasions and had lunch with her in Napa, and have always found her very friendly and down-to earth. As she was exhausted from her trip, she declined going to the violin concert the evening before, but met us at 8am to walk over to the wine-tasting room in the conference center.

Jim Boyce, a wine expert from Beijing and publisher of the Grape Wall of China blog, organized the historic tasting. He began planning it months in advance, and invited ten of us to be judges. In addition to Jancis and myself, Qin was a judge, as well Georg Riedel who produces the famous Riedel wine glasses, and top sommeliers and wine buyers around China. For more details see

We started with 7 white wines of different varietals. My favorite was the Xi Xia King ’1950′ Chardonnay NV, which ended up winning the gold medal and Best in Class White. I should mention that the conference organizers guaranteed that all wines were made from Ningxia grapes, and that no grapes from other countries were added. The reason this is important is because China has not yet established regulations regarding the percentage of regional or national grapes in a bottle of Chinese wine. Therefore, even though the wine bottle may say “Produced in China,” it can contain grapes from Australia, Chile, and other regions of China. For this competition, we were told all grapes were from the Ningxia region.

Next were four flights each consisting of 8 red wines, or 32 wines total. We were told to use the American Wine Society 20-point scale, which identifies an acceptable wine for commercial purposes as 9 – 11 points. Anything below that is deficient and/or poor. Jim said that in previous competitions many Chinese wines did not even hit the acceptable mark due to flaws. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to find only 7 wines that were deficient, and most of these were due to oxidation problems, which are caused by poor winemaking techniques and/or cork issues.

It was fascinating tasting through the red wines that were of commercial quality or above, and when we hit the third flight I was amazed at the high level of quality. I ended up rating two wines at a gold level, and when the wines were revealed at the end, I was delighted to see that my highest scoring wine was the Best of Class Red – the Chateau Helan Qingxue Jiabeilan “Baby Feet” 2009 made by female winemaker, Zhang Jing, and consulting winemaker, Li Demei. It included the same grapes as used in the Decanter award wine, but was aged longer in a special barrel stamped with the “feet” of Zhang’s new baby. Very touching. (See story on visit to Ch. Helan Qingxue on separate blog posting.)

My second favorite wine was Silver Heights The Summit 2009, which I learned was 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Cabernet Gernischt, 20% Cabernet Franc and made by female winemaker, Emma Gao. It was dark, brooding, and complex and reminded me of a St. Estephe, which I love. Unfortunately my fellow judges did not agree with me, and the wine ended up coming in fourth place with a silver medal. (See story on visit to Silver Heights on separate blog posting.)

Lunch at Kempinsky and Dried Duck Tongue

After the tasting we debriefed with the many journalists and media who attended, and took multiple photographs. Next we had lunch in a private dining room at the Kempinsky Hotel and I was privileged to sit next to Georg Riedel. He was incredibly charming and entertaining throughout the whole lunch, but refused to partake of any of the dried duck tongue that I tried when it reached us on the revolving table. It reminded me vaguely of red licorice!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Opening Ceremony of the Ningxia China Wine Festival – Dancing Girls, Conference and Violin Concert

August 30, 2012 - The next morning, after a quick breakfast at the hotel buffet, we took a bus to the opening ceremony of the 1st Helanshan Mountains' East Piedmont Wine Festival. Again our delegation of around eight people was treated like VIPs. We descended from the van to walk on a red carpet and have a flower pinned to our clothes. Multiple photographs snapped many pictures of us as we continued to walk on the red carpet into the large convention center where two lines of more than 100 young women dressed in purple and pink sparkling dresses with grapes sew on stood on each side of the path to greet us. Later they did a “grape” dance to welcome everyone.

The convention center was filled with over a thousand people and we were escorted to the front table where again we found name tents indicating where we should sit. The governor and his officials sat at the head table in the middle, and we sat just to the left of them. Television cameras rolled and more than thirty photographers swarmed us to take pictures. Celebration music played and the grape girls danced. It was an amazing scene – like something out of a movie.

Then welcome speeches were made, a beautiful video of the Ningxia wine region was shown, and a sand painter performed a wonderful demonstration of scenes of Ningxia and the vineyards, which was broadcast on the large screen. I was transfixed watching him swirl the sand with his hands to create so many moving images. The ceremony, which was only about 45 minutes in length, ended with a swirl of dancing girls in yellow chiffon and a beautiful Chinese woman dressed in a floor-length red dress who sang a Chinese ballet.

The Wine Exhibition Center

Afterwards we all walked through the exhibition center where all of the local wineries had large booths offering tastes of their wine. Wine suppliers also had booths and we were able to see barrels, pumps, yeast, additives, labels, capsules, and other types of equipment to produce wine.

The downside was that it was very hot in the exhibition center and my high heels were killing me. I wanted to find a place to sit down and relax, but I was continually assaulted by people wanting to take their picture with me. Finally, Peter, an American lecturer who lives in Beijing, rescued me and asked people to leave me alone. He then explained that it was my blond hair that was attracting all of the attention. Eventually I was able to find a cool place to relax and then was able to enjoy the rest of my time at the exhibition. Though it was too hot to taste red wine, I did try a Chinese sparkling called Sunshine Valley that was enjoyable. It was a blanc de blanc, and though simple, it was quite refreshing.

Lunch and Conference Presentations

Later we had a very fancy lunch in a private room at the hotel. Once again there were multiple courses – around ten – and the food was very good. The highlight was a fresh fish without bones (quite unusual in China) which was light, flakey, and buttery. Afterwards I took a 30-minute power nap and then it was time to head to the conference center for our presentations.

There appeared to be about 300 people at the conference. Simultaneous translation was provided, so we were able to listen to the Chinese speakers. I was most fascinated by a viticulture scientist who said he believed they were close to finding a way to mechanize the burying of the vines in winter. If China finds a way to do this, it will allows them to reduce vineyards costs even more.

Another fascinating statistic was provided by Frederico from the OIV. He said that vineyards in China have increased 87% since 2000. This explains why they are currently sixth in the world in wine production and fifth in consumption. My presentation on global best practices in wine tourism seemed to be well accepted. At the conclusion of each of our presentations, we were asked to meet with local media for TV and magazine interviews.

Beautiful Violin Concert Featuring the Famous Lu Siqing

August 30, 2012 - Due to our very large lunch, dinner was a quick affair at the hotel buffet. Then we were whisked away to the Yinchuan concert hall to be given excellent orchestra seats to watch the very famous Chinese violin player, Lu Siqing. He only played for about 45 minutes, but his music was exquisite. The twenty minutes was classical European music, but the second half was Chinese, including the beloved Chinese ballet of the “Butterfly Lovers.”

A girl sitting next to me told me the story about two star-crossed lovers who killed themselves over a misunderstanding (very similar to Romeo and Juliet), but became butterflies and continued to love one another in that new form. Very romantic and beautiful music. It reminded me of butterflies.

When Lu Siqing finished the concert, he received three standing ovations and therefore performed 3 more songs. When the van finally arrived back at the hotel, I had no trouble falling asleep that night.

Grand Welcome Banquet in Yinchuan, Ningxia, China

August 29, 2012 - After time to relax in our rooms a bit, we were asked to meet in the hotel lobby at 5:15 in order to walk over to a formal reception with the governor of the Ningxia region. Most of us dressed in formal clothing and arrived at the reception room to find we each had a large white lounge chair to sit in with our name printed on a red sign in both English and Chinese. Translators assisted with the very impressive ceremony of announcing each official – around ten of them, as well as our group of eight. Then Claudia, the current president of the OIV, received a welcome plaque from the governor and everyone applauded.

Next we made our way back to the ballroom of the Yinhuea Hotel where a grand dinner banquet was set up. As honorees we were seated at a round table for thirty people with the rest of the government officials, including the governor. The table was beautifully decorated with roses, carnations, and small berry plants. We were served approximately 15 courses with 4 Ningxia wines. The first was an Italian Riesling, which is the clone they prefer to grow in this region. It has a floral nose with peach, but a heavier body with more texture – similar to gruner-vetliner. It paired well with many of the fish courses.

We also had 3 red wines with the first being 100% cabernet gernischt which was light bodied with the typical roasted bell pepper notes – not one of my favorites. Next was a 100% cabernet sauvignon, which was better, but had a slight plastic note. Finally, they served the Decanter Award wine – Chateau Helan Qingxue Jiabeilan 2009 - which was truly amazing. I thought I was tasting a fine Bordeaux. It was very well balanced with cassis fruit, good acid, fine-grained tannins and well-integrated French oak. It had excellent intensity and a long finish.

The governor did the toast “gam bei,” which means “dry glass” and everyone tossed back their wine. The pours were only 1 ounce, instead of the traditional 3 ounces, so the gambeis were not as difficult as in my previous trips to China. I dutifully performed the first gambei to be polite – using the green cab G wine. Thereafter, however, I just took sips. Servers continually refilled our wine glasses, but only giving 1 ounce pours which I found frustrating as I usually do in China. Finally, I tapped on my glass to point out that I wanted at least half a glass of the Jiabeilan and was successful.

About half way through the dinner, most of the government officials got up and did continual private gambeis with people around the table. This is a common custom, but doesn’t allow you to relax and appreciate each course as much. The food, however, was amazing and beautifully presented. Lamb is the specialty of the region, and they served it in a variety of ways, including lamb soup. For dessert we had dragon fruit, which is quite unique looking and tasting. It is white with small black seeds and tastes a bit like a honeydew melon cross.

The dinner ended early – around 8pm, so Frederico and I decided to stop by the spa and have the 50-minute Chinese foot massage. You recline back in a chair and they soak your feet in very hot water. This is followed by a vigorous foot massage that took away all my jet lag. Amazingly it was only 60 RMB, which is about $11! Later a group of us met in the bar for a nightcap before I headed back to my room for a good night’s sleep.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Ningxia Wine Region and Arriving in Yinchuan at the Yuehai Hotel, China

August 29, 2012 – The next morning we drove to Beijing Airport to catch an Air China flight departing at 10:30am to Yinchuan in the Ningxia Province. Yinchuan is located in the middle of China and is a 1.5 hour flight from Beijing. We met several other professors and wine experts at the airport and traveled in a group to attend the 1st International Wine Festival and Horticulture Conference where we all were scheduled to give presentations. The government of the Ningxia region had invited us and covered all travel expenses.

The Ningxia Wine Region

Ningxia is one of 8 wine regions in China, but has recently become famous because it produced the first Chinese wine to be recognized by Decanter Magazine as winning the top Red Bordeaux Varietal Over £10 International Trophy. The wine is Chateau Helan Qingxue Jiabeilan 2009 and is a blend of 80% cabernet sauvignon, 15% merlot, and 5% cabernet gernischt (also known as Chinese Cabernet or Cabernet G).

The region is probably more suited to winegrowing than some of the other regions in China primarily due to its terroir. The vineyards are situated at the foot of the Helan Mountains at an elevation of 1200 meters (3600 feet). The highest peak is 3556 meters. The vineyard soil is alluvial, washed down from the mountains to the foothills and plains. It consists of sand, schist, and small pebbles.

The climate is Continental, but dry with very little humidity compared to other Chinese wine growing regions. It is hot in the summer with average temperatures of 29 C during the day, but cooling down at night to 17 C, which helps to preserve grape flavors. The mean monthly sunshine hours in the summer average 280 hours. Winters are cold (2 C daily average and -10C at night) with some snow, so the vines must be buried which is a very labor intensive process. Water is abundant with the Yellow (Yangtze) River running through the area and many lakes, so irrigation is not an issue.

The first vineyards were planted in the 1970’s, so it is a relatively new area. Currently there are 30,000 hectares planted with cabernet sauvignon being the most widely planted red grape, followed by merlot and cabernet franc. In terms of white varietals, muscat is most predominant followed by riesling.

Ningxia now has 38 wineries with approved plans to increase to 70 in the next few years. Indeed the giant wine corporation, Changyu, is preparing to open a very grand “chateau style” winery and visitor’s center in October of 2012, and Chandon just broke ground in April of this year to begin building a very large winery to make sparkling wine in China.

The City of Yinchuan

The capital of Ningxia is Yinchuan, a “smaller” Chinese city of 2 million. It has recently gone through a building boom as the government has poured in much money to support the dual industries of wine and coal. Impressive buildings, wide boulevards, and newly planted trees are everywhere. There are still pockets of poverty, but they are quickly being covered up.

After departing the airport with its beautiful modern architecture – and literally being met with a red carpet and plush van – we passed a large welcome sign surrounded by flowers, and then were passing over the very wide and yellow-colored Yangtze River. Next we saw large ponds of pink lotus flowers, and then passed many high-rises still under construction before arriving at the very grand Yuehai Hotel – rated #1 on TripAdvisor.

The Yuehai Hotel

The 5-star hotel looks like a huge Chinese palace as you approach, with tall pillars and two Chinese lions on each side of the circular drive. The lobby, however, is even more impressive with tall white pillars, marble floors, and golden chandeliers. The hotel boasts two restaurants, a wine bar (but no wine by the glass), regular bar, gym, pool, sauna, massage parlor, and an extensive conference center and meeting rooms.

We were greeted by a large welcome committee that took our luggage and escorted us immediately to our rooms. My room was lovely, with floor to ceiling windows looking out across a large lagoon and Chinese gardens complete with pagodas. Everything was state of the art, with a large king size bed, TV, computer, wonderful shower with two heads, and more than twenty different light switches. I found out later that the hotel was built by the government and they spared no expense on the construction and facilities.

We stayed here for three nights, and it was an enjoyable room and hotel. The only issues had to do with service details, which would prevent the hotel from being 5-star in other countries, but instead be rated around 4 stars. Examples include my room not being clean one day until I called, flowers missing out of empty vases, cigarette containers in the hallway not cleaned soon enough, etc. In talking with other Westerners at the conference who live in China, they mentioned that there was much focus and training in the hotel and restaurant industry on “service” because it is a concept that is perceived differently in China.

In general though, we were made to feel like royalty during our visit to Ningxia, with fabulous banquets and wonderful gifts of wine, fruit, plaques, and dried wolf berries (a specialty of the region). All of the government officials we met and who hosted us were very hospitable and seemed intent on making our stay pleasant and memorable.

A Wine Tasting in Beijing and Dried Pig’s Ear for Dinner

Aug. 28, 2012 – As usual on my first few days in China, I awoke at 4:30 (even with the assistance of a sleeping pill) and couldn’t fall back to sleep. However, it was useful to have some extra time to have a cup of Starbuck’s Via in my room before heading to a tasting of the top 20 wines in the Beijing market priced between 200 – 350 RMB ($30 – 55 US).

Qin organized the tasting as part of a research project with the university. It was conducted with wine buyers,sommeliersf and educators working in Beijing and included about 18 people. She is also planning on conducting a similar tasting with a group of consumers and comparing the results in order to understand why certain brands are so successful in the market.

The wines were all red, as the Chinese drink 90% red wines, and we tasted them blind providing a score for each wine. Next we tasted and scored the wines again, but this time with knowledge of the brand and grape varietal. Qin plans to compare how the scores differed when tasted blind compared to when the Chinese know the brand.

The Wines Revealed

It was fascinating to see the brands when revealed. They included 4 wines each from France, Australia, and Chile, 3 from China, and 1 from Spain. There were no wines from California, Argentina, or Italy. I was dismayed to discover that I had scored 2 of the 3 Chinese wines very low, finding one extremely thin and green, and the other oxidized. The third was enjoyable with simple, red berry fruit and reminded me of Beaujolais. I was surprised to find it was a Great Wall Cabernet Sauvignon. My favorite wine of the tasting was the one from Spain, which was the Torres Gran Sangre de Torres.

Next was a facilitated discussion regarding reasons they select these wines for their shops and restaurants. A primary reason was distribution – that it was available from their distributor who recommended it. Other reasons included brand image and the name of the wine – especially if it included the term “Chateau.” Promotions, or discounts, were perceived positively as long as the brand was known. They said they were suspicious of discounts on unknown brands, because it was assumed the wine was poor quality. A small distributor from Spain confirmed this the next day when she told me her wines were not well received when she first entered the Beijing market because they were priced too low!

Wine Mark-ups in Beijing

In terms of pricing, I knew the mark-up was high, but was surprised at how high. Wines that sell in the US market for $12 to $15 are double or triple in Beijing. I was informed that the tax on wine is 48%. Then the distributor will multiple that by 1.5 and the restaurant by another 1.5. Wine shops mark-up are less. The example I was given was if the wine costs 100 RMB ($15US), the tax will make it 148 RMB, then the distributor will take it to 222 RMB, and the restaurant will price it at 333 RMB or higher. In general, restaurant mark-ups are 300% and wine shops 200%.

Dinner with Dried Pig’s Ear, Mumm’s and Chateauneuf de Pape

After the tasting, we had a nice lunch together and then I headed back to my room to rest. Later that evening, we had dinner at a private club and Qin brought a lovely chilled bottle of Mumm’s Champagne and a Chateauneuf de Pape to celebrate. Probably the most unusual dish that evening was dried pig’s ear. It looked like a plate of sliced salami (see photo), and tasted vaguely like it also!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Amazing Meal at Da Dong Restaurant in Beijing, China

August 27, 2012 – I am back in China again for the third time in the past six years. It is always enjoyable to arrive in this vibrant country with its ceaseless energy of millions of cars, people, colors, smells, and sounds teeming through the streets. My non-stop 12-hour flight from San Francisco arrived in Beijing at 3:30pm on Monday, August 27 and by 5pm I was already seated at Da Dong Restaurant in downtown Beijing.

Qin and Shan met me at the airport and cheerfully pulled my luggage into Shan’s new SUV. Amazingly the traffic on the drive into town was light, and the freeways looked new and modern. Once in the city, I was impressed again with the massive sky rise buildings, beautiful architecture, and Chinese characters everywhere. It was only when you looked down small alleyways that you could see the old China with a women cooking over an open fire in a metal drum and men drinking at a make-shift table and old chairs set up on the side walk.

Da Dong is considered to be one of the best and most famous restaurants in Beijing. It is large with huge windows highlighting diners at beautifully set tables that have small porcelain ducks to rest your chopsticks on. The walls are painted with leaves and bamboos, and multiple servers respond to every need. As you enter the front door, a long row of skinned ducks hangs behind a glass window where chefs are cooking them in blazing fire pits. Da Dong is well known for its Peking duck and braised sea cucumber.

Shan spent a few minutes conferring with our host, and then for the next two hours, it seemed like an endless stream of food came from the kitchen arranged on assorted plates that looked like works of art. First was a Red Bean Sorbet Popsicle with 30-year-old orange peel. Very refreshing! Next was Raw Drunken Crab soaked in yellow rice wine, beautifully arranged on a plate with green lotus leaves and pink lotus petals (see photos). Shan and Qin demonstrated how to squeeze the insides of the crab onto a small toast point. I tried, but failed to enjoy the very fishy smelling result.

The next course was more to my likening – Duck Foie Gras shaped into small balls and coated with a hawthorne berry sauce. They arrived on a white plate sprinkled with green leaves and looked like perfect maraschino cherries made from marzipan (see photo). However, when you bite into them, they melt in your mouth with luscious foie gras flavors. I found myself wishing for a glass of Sauternes. However, what we were drinking with the meal was also unique – a Chinese Raspberry Summer Cocktail that is served in a small glass with a huge round ball of ice. It is made from fresh pulverized raspberries, mint, and a shot of sweet whiskey.

More courses arrived, including a traditional Barbequed Beef with Vegetables, a huge platter of savory Steamed Green Bean Leaves (similar tasting to spinach), and Cold Pickled Goose Feet and Wings. The latter was quite tasty because it was salted, but I had more success getting meat off the wings than the rubbery feet. Most exciting was an amazing Chinese Risotto with Italian Truffles and Abalone. When they lifted the lid off the bowl, the whole table was enrobed in the pungent smell of truffles. We had a conversation about the different between Chinese, Italian, and French truffles. Shan said the Chinese truffles were still not of high quality, and therefore top restaurant like Da Dong used imported Italian truffles.

Halfway through our meal the owner, Mr. Da Dong, a towering man with long black hair and sporting the air of an artist and orchestra conductor at the same time, came to greet us while his photographer took photos of all of us. I found out later that Shan is a restaurant critic, as well as a wine shop director, and she usually receives special treatment when visiting Beijing establishments.

Eventually the main course, Peking Duck, arrived at the side of the table on huge platter. One of the chefs deftly carved the duck into very thin pieces, taking care to preserve the perfectly cooked skin. Another server prepared the duck for us in a variety of ways using the ingredients that arrived in small trays. She dipped pieces in the soy marinade and wrapped them in rice paper tortillas with spring onion. Another method was to fill a hollow paper-thin roll with duck slices, sauce, cucumber, melon, and garlic. Finally she showed me how to dip the duck skin into sugar – wow, that was amazing to taste, and reminded me of sweet bacon.

By this time we were all so full, we barely made a dent in the duck, and so we asked them to wrap it to go. The dessert Qin ordered – a unique combination of rice, sweet beans, and fruit in a bar – was also wrapped to go, but not before she insisted I have a bite. It reminded me of a vanilla brownie. We did, however, have a small palate cleanser at the end of the meal, which I would described as Sweet Almond Tofu with Mint and Pop Candy. It was served in a champagne glass with a spoon, and was a delight to eat because each white and green bite exploded in your mouth with the mingled tastes of mint, almond and the popping candy. We should definitely borrow this dessert in the US. I think kids would love it. I know, I did!

After dinner, we walked several blocks to meet Jim and John at a local wine bar called Palatte Vino. We enjoyed a nice French red wine, which I found difficult to drink because the night was so humid and muggy. Interestingly the whole city of Beijing was shrouded in fog all day with a temperature hovering in the mid 80’s with, what seemed, the same level of humidity. This kind of weather always makes me long for a chilled sauvignon blanc, or something with ice. Anyway, it was a delightful interlude. I was impressed with the wines of the world to be found in the shop, however disappointed that they didn’t carry one bottle of Chinese wine.

Next we drove to the Chinese Agriculture University and Qin helped me check into faculty housing. It is a nice suite with a separate living area from bedroom. I stay here for 2 nights, before flying to Yinchuan for the rest of the conference.