When I first visited China in 1995, on a two-week trip with my father, Western-style grape wine was almost unknown. Only the wealthiest, most elite Chinese people had access to it. And to be honest, even they were not too fond of it. It was more of a status symbol, than a drink to truly be enjoyed. When I returned to China in 2012, one of my first experiences was going to a KTV (karaoke bar) with a wealthy Chinese host, who ordered a very expensive bottle of very good French red wine, to show me hospitality. To my horror, he insisted that we shoot it — ganbei style — for the express purpose of getting drunk.
While China has not completely taken to wine, I can say that much has changed between 1995 and 2012. In the present, both Western and Chinese wine has become much more popular as a drink to enjoy with dinner (as it is meant to be, in my opinion). Chinese wine drinkers have learned more and more how to select, purchase, order, and drink wine. Even in mid-range Chinese restaurants where few Westerners go, you will see wine on the menu. But the most important indicator of change in Chinese wine, in my opinion, is that red wines have become much drier. Chinese tend to prefer very sweet wines (this applies to all wine, not just dessert wine), but the trend has been a shift from cloying to dry. This means that Chinese wine drinkers are beginning to appreciate the traditional flavors of wine, rather than the sweetness.
In order to conduct an independent tasting and review of Chinese wine, I decided to choose a wine from the Great Wall wine company. Great Wall is China’s flagship wine, and is partially government-owned. I selected a bottle that cost 162 RMB. Although that converts to about 26 US dollars, it still places it as a solid upper-mid-range bottle in the Chinese economy, and based on the income of the average Chinese consumer.
China Great Wall Wine Co., Ltd. was founded in 1983 as a subsidiary of China Foods Limited. The company’s base of operation literally is at the foot of the Great Wall in Hebei Province, which is in the northeast. Great Wall wine is marketed and sold throughout China and now in some other countries. While there are other brands of Chinese wine, Great Wall is unquestionably the largest. Great Wall uses equipment from France, Germany, and Italy. The company also hosted European winemakers to train Chinese winemakers in traditional European techniques.
The following are my tasting notes. In order to describe the aroma and flavor, I used the standard wine tasting wheel.
1. Label: The label has the Great Wall company name in English and in Chinese. Underneath the name, the Chinese specifies that this bottle was made from grapes from the company’s best vineyard. Then at the bottom of the label, the Chinese literally translates to red Cabernet dry red. But the variety of Cabernet is not specified anywhere on the bottle. My guess is Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the predominate grape in China.
2. Color: Deep purple with tint of ruby.
3. Aroma: Strawberry; raspberry; hint of rose; very slight caramel honey.
4. Flavor: Citrus grapefruit; slight tobacco; pungent hot alcohol; slight spicy cloves; slight oxidized sherry; pungent ethyl acetate. The wine had a very noticeable bitterness, that dissipated after the bottle had been open for almost an hour. At first, it made the wine unpleasant, but after some oxygen got to it, and the bitterness went away, it was much more drinkable.
5. Dryness: Based on the aroma, I expected this wine to be cloying. But it was surprisingly dry.
6. Tannins: Light to medium.
7. Palate: Velvety smooth.
8. Pairing: Strong flavored meat like lamb, goat or donkey.
9. Rating: Using the Wine Spectator system as a rating guide, I would give this wine an 86.
This wine was worlds better than the sickly sweet, sulfurous stuff that I drank on my first visit to China. But it still has room to improve. If I had paid $26 for this bottle in the US, I would have been slightly disappointed, but not completely devastated. It is a decent mid-range wine, especially considering that China has not traditionally been a wine-producing country, and knew little of Western wine for centuries. Chinese wine has come a long way, and will continue to become better over the years, I am certain. And as more and more Chinese people become affluent in China’s enormous, growing economy, I am confident that they will learn to appreciate wine in a more refined sense.