Chinese uncork a top drop among Bordeaux blends

Chinese wine makers have beaten the French at their own game by winning a coveted Decanter award for best Bordeaux Varietal.

Zhang Jing's delicate features are animated as she talks about the few days she has just spent in Bordeaux. ''Amazing,'' she says. ''Fantastic vineyard. Yes, first time there. I enjoyed that trip.''

Zhang and Li Demei, her consultant winemaker at the He Lan Qing Xue vineyard in the mountainous Ningxia province of China, triumphed not just over France but the rest of the world this week when their Jia Bei Lan cabernet dry red 2009 wine picked up the international trophy for best Bordeaux varietal over £10 ($A15) at the Decanter World Wine Awards. It is the first time a Chinese wine has won this coveted prize, and it is bound to create a stir around the proud chateaux of Bordeaux, who are happily getting used to the idea of China as a deep-pocketed marketplace for their own wine.

''I was in China last year, judging the China Wine Challenge, and most of the wines were white and pretty insignificant,'' says Steven Spurrier, chairman of the judges. ''To my knowledge, before this, I'd never tasted a cabernet blend in China I thought was worth paying attention to.''

Let's not get this out of proportion. The likes of Chateau Lafite consider themselves above the Decanter World Wine Awards. But 506 red wines from Bordeaux were included.

So Li looks disapproving when asked if he thinks Chinese wine will ever be able to compete with Bordeaux.

''No. I don't think so,'' says the wine writer and lecturer in the food science department at the Beijing University of Agriculture, and consultant at the He Lan Qing Xue vineyard. ''The climate is difficult. A lot of people say it's similar to that of Bordeaux. It's not true. And most of the rainfall comes in summer, so we know that's not good for wine grapes.''

Ningxia is a small region about 800 kilometres west of Beijing. ''Almost like a desert,'' says Li. ''We call it dry and semi-dry. But the Yellow River passes by, so we have water for maize and rice paddies.''

In summer it broils at 35 degrees, but temperatures in winter generally hover at minus 13 degrees and often drop to minus 24 - so cold that after harvest an insulating blanket of earth has to be heaped over the vines to ensure their survival.

The winning wine is aged in a mixture of new French and old American oak, and made from 80 per cent cabernet sauvignon, 15 per cent merlot and about 5 per cent of another red grape.

The result of this competition is sure to prove a big step forward for Chinese wine. ''People in China don't care about local wine,'' says Li, sounding slightly irritated. ''For them, Chateau Lafite is the top, top wine in the world. If we talk about my wine, they say how can you compare your wine with Chateau Lafite?''

They certainly won't be comparing it with Chateau Lafite just yet. But they might just look at it in a different way.


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This article Chinese uncork a top drop among Bordeaux blends was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.