A la Xinjiang

Surprise winner in WiC’s blind wine tasting

lilian carter w

Winemaker Lilian Carter at the Tiansai Skyline vineyard in Xinjiang

Bordeaux, Burgundy… Xinjiang? While the two French regions are famed for producing some of the world’s best wines, the area in China’s northwest is far less well known to oenophiles.

However, at a blind wine tasting hosted by WiC last week, a wine from a relatively new vineyard in Xinjiang beat prestigious French and Australian competitors.

The two-evening event was organised to accompany the launch of The Little Red Book, our guide to China’s growing influence on the wine industry.

Chinese wine has a reputation for being mass-produced and of limited quality. But in The Little Red Book we profiled a few of the more boutique winemakers, who make smaller quantities of more exciting wine in areas like Ningxia, Shanxi and (most surprising of all) Xinjiang.

Over the course of the two tastings – which were held at HSBC’s Hong Kong headquarters – 75 guests drank six red wines and then marked down their preferences. At three tasting tables a Chinese wine was paired respectively against an Australian wine (Yarra Yering 2008, which Robert Parker rated 94 points) and two French wines (Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 2008; and Lafon Rochet 2009). We asked our guests to identify the Chinese wine versus the French (or Australian) wine at each table.

Of the Chinese wines, it is safe to say two were almost completely unknown to any of those present. These were Silver Heights The Summit 2012 from Ningxia and Tiansai Skyline of Gobi Reserve 2012 from Xinjiang. More familiar to some (though not all) was Shanxi-based Grace Vineyard’s Chairman’s Reserve (in this case the 2011 was being served). All three are produced by female winemakers, respectively Emma Gao, Lilian Carter and Judy Leissner.

On the first evening, around half of the attendees managed to identify all of the wines correctly. But as the co-organiser of the event, Kerry Wines, figured out, some of the participants realised that Chinese wines tend to come in slightly bigger bottles, and had an unfair advantage in identifying them on one of the tables (the bottles had been covered in foil).

That lesson learned, on the second evening the wines were poured into different bottles to remove any visual clues. Perhaps as a result, far fewer of the tasters got the full selection right. Mind you, the bigger surprise was that this group (numbering around 40) voted Tiansai Skyline of Gobi as their favourite of the six, followed by Pichon Longueville and Yarra Yering.

Eric Desgouttes, the general manager of Kerry Wines, wasn’t entirely taken aback. On the first evening he had reserved special praise for the Xinjiang wine. As he commented to WiC: “I only discovered this winery a few months ago and I must say this is the first Chinese estate showing me such quality, especially in view of its youth [it opened in 2010].
I do believe in five or 10 years time, their vines should be producing some of the best bottles in China and the top sommeliers would want them in their fine wine list.”

The Tiansai vineyard is located in Yanqi county and its first wine – a Cabernet Sauvignon – was made in 2012.

But even before our tasting it had received international recognition: this year it won a Decanter World Wine Award bronze medal.

Kerry Wine offered this tasting note to accompany the event last week: “It has an intense aroma with freshness and purity of fruits, combined with earthy and savoury notes. Very complex. It is full-bodied with ripe tannins. French oak barrel maturation has provided additional structure and complexity to the wine. The black fruit flavours are in harmony with the dark spices and toasted barrel flavours.”

The head winemaker is Lilian Carter, an Australian who spends long periods working among the grapes in Xinjiang, and she responded to the news of her unexpected success with a good deal of modesty.

“2012 was the first harvest so I was nervously predicting some teething issues in the winery. For this reason my aim was to keep the winemaking simple and straightforward. We were well prepared and the harvest was actually relatively smooth. The advantage of keeping things simple in the early years is that the wines are able to clearly show the vineyards character and potential.”

She added: “In each subsequent year we have been gradually fine tuning our winemaking techniques to support the vineyard and the season – for instance to promote the fruit characters in the wines we have slightly reduced fermentation temperatures. Also, we are running some small trials to help understand the evolution of the tannins over time. Each year we would like to take some steps forward in our understanding so we must continue to pay close attention in the vineyard and winery.”

(For a more extensive interview with Carter, see The Little Red Book, which can be downloaded from our website.)

For many of those who turned up on either evening, the tasting was an eye-opener, revealing Chinese wines of higher quality than most anticipated.

And while we don’t think our two-night event is going to shake up the wine world in quite the same fashion as Stephen Spurrier’s momentous ‘Judgement of Paris’ (where, in a famous coup for Californian wine, French experts opted for Napa Valley’s Stag’s Leap over Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion in a famous blind tasting in 1976), we hope to have demonstrated that not all the wine being produced in China is worthless plonk.

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