Monday, September 10, 2012

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!

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