Judging at the Shanghai International Wine Challenge – with news on fake wine
September 20, 2011
The 11 hour flight from Strasbourg to Shanghai (via Frankfurt) was very smooth. Kudos to Air China. I had ordered vegetarian menus so the food seemed better than the standard stuff. A bit of valium like medication and I slept through most of it. Sunny day leaving Frankfurt, sunny day entering Shanghai.
Taxi to Regal Jinfang Hotel in Pudong was $15 or so. Earlier this evening, I joined thirteen other judges for the Shanghai International Wine Challenge for a delectable dinner. But before I get to that, let me say that both the white and red wines – Chinese – served on the flight were decent.
Better indeed than some of the cheap Western plonk one gets in economy class…
Dinner was fabulous. For those of you who know me in Washington D.C., we sat at a round table much like Mark’s Duck House and the food kept coming, delicious and varied.
Some of the highlights included a very spicy stew of chicken and delectable scallops in their shells.
We enjoyed traditional Shanghai recipies (a fresh water fish served in a sweet and sour sauce and a roast pork in a vinegar reduction with sugar), some healthy greens, from spinach and a Western style salade, to zesty ribs and beef and lamb slices.
Oh yes, some truly tasty shrimp…
…. and the best dumpling I have ever had, delicately prepared with bits of sesame and tender pork inside.
No Chinese wine served with this, but rather a fine German Riesling (see below) and a caricature Australian: big and bold and uninteresting…
In any case, the ground rules were set. We will each taste about 80 wines per day, so that is a tall order. Tables of three or four judges, each with a laptop to record notes, and then score on the 100 point scale. If there is intense disagreement, the head judge will make a decision…
We are seated in tables of four, equipped with computers that would facilitate readability and score tallies. Using Excel sheets, we each made careful notes first on a couple of sparklers – a brut non vintage, then a vintage 2010. Then came a serious series of Pinot Noirs, mostly from New Zealand and Australia and one from Argentina. Fellow judges at my table included Ronny Lau (Hong Kong), Daniel Blinet (Australia) and Adriane Wiest (Brazil).
The Pinots from 2010 were all adequate, but once we got to older New World vintages, there was rust and oxidation for some wines, and one was corked. As I had experienced with my work as a judge at the Decanter World Wine Encounter earlier this year, it helps very much to be in a group – to be able to discuss your perceptions and feelings about the wines tasted blind…
A series of Merlots brought to mind Miles from Sideways. To put it mildly, none of the Merlots we tried were from Pomerol or St Emilion…. many were horrendous. It was fascinating to try wines from regions I do not know as well, but to taste blind and base my notes on such things as balance, freshness, length, aromatic complexity (or lack thereof), finish. On this first day, the group I was in tasted some fine Malbecs.
Starting with whites from Italy, Bordeaux and the Viognier varietal (from various countries). One mild controversy was when a so called dry Bordeaux was actually sweet… it could be that the distributor that had submitted in error a sweet white. Then there was a heated discussion over a series of Viogniers… It is really interesting.
Then going through 47 Shiraz wines. I am a fan of Cote Rotie, but I recognized the first Shiraz as a big and bold Australian that fit that bill… Scored it high, for that reason. Is it my style of wine? Nope… but the objective nature calls for a high score here.
In fact, we have gone through some 60 Shirazes… then some 20 mystery red variety wines. The dump into the Chinese market wines? Most were quite average although a couple were tasty. Probably not expensive. Unlike what some people think, many Chinese consumers like red wine that is affordable. The tannin in the red wine is pleasing, I have been told on many occasions. White wine is not as interesting to the Chinese. I will soon be meeting with wine shop owners to talk about what Chinese wine consumers purchase. Not the multi-millionaires but the average people who just want to enjoy something with dinner, for example.
A bit of a train wreck today. My goodness, we had some harsh reds today… Hard tannins, rustic. We were not trying Barolo to be sure. But there was one gold medal winner from the Rhone Valley. Very smooth. What is interesting to stress is that results from this contest will be published in a major Chinese wine magazine and the medal winners will be served in various cities to promote them. Distributors submitted wines to this tasting. The international judges I can attest have been impartial. I felt a bit harsh today in my criticism, stingy grading… but one must not award medals to wines that would then disappoint consumers. So as opposed to tasting super high end wines that are so much associated with wealthy Chinese buyers, we were – yet again – tasting wines that would cost between 200 and 400 Yuan per bottle.
Interesting disagreement today on one wine which three fellow judges loved and I merely awarded a bronze. It ended up getting a gold, but that is democracy for you… Like dissents in decisions, I noted that I would not have given gold to the wine!
After a night on the Bund the evening of 6 September – where I ate at a trendy Western style restaurant called M on the Bund – we went back to a Chinese restaurant. I must say that while M on the Bund was good – the view was fantastic – the food was merely OK. First of all, a bottle of San Pellegrino was anything but. It may have looked like the Italian sparkling water, but it did not taste that way. Also, the butter was rancid. The main foods were all good. But you could get them in the West, so why, as a visitor to China, bother?
Let me cut to the chase and say that our dinner on 7 September (above) was far more fun.
This time an even more elegant setting, with engraved chop sticks. A round table.
We even had our own private toilet in the private dining area. Judges on one side of the table, with Shanghai wine trade officials on the other.
As on the first night, we had a wide variety of foods that were spun to each diner. One of the best items were blue sweet potatoes that made me feel like it was Thanksgiving in China. Utterly, devastatingly delicious.
Other foods included Chinese wheat breads into which you stuffed a delectable mixture of meats and veggies.
Or how about some of the best steamed rice I have ever had, rather perfumed with fresh locally grown vegetables?
Or, delicious meat-like smoked fish?
One of my favorites was a rice-based custard.
One of the craziest was a meal of hot peppers and chicken. Sisi explained that there is an old story about the hot peppers falling in love with the chicken. Something I did not quite understand, but I ate the hot pepper and for about 15 minutes could taste nothing else… except water.
Because this was also partly a cultural exchange, we practiced the finer method of getting drunk in China…
First lots of beer, then some traditional “yellow wine” which tastes like Sherry. Only with some honied overtones. It was 8 years old, about 15 degrees alcohol. It was pretty good. Of course, a rice wine. Infused with honey and with spices. Chinese wine trade rep Cici Li told the table that during winter, it is served warm with ginger… Call it Chinese Gluhwein.
So after enjoying some fine food, we got trashed, in the tradition of bonding between cultures.
What proved most deadly – and dear reader, please take this with jovial jest, for it was all a good time – was a 53-degree rice spirit drink which we first consumed in shots. But then came the stunner. Cici Li told us to take double shots: a small glass of the rice wine spirit, the famous Baijiu, dumped in a larger glass of Chinese beer that we had to chug down…
I was not quite able to do so, but then had to make up for it, only conveniently waited until the rice spirit was gone in order to do the double shot with … the rice wine.
Much lower in alcohol and easier to handle. I could not believe it when several among us decided to go have a night on the town… I was completely fatigué so went back to the hotel for a decent sleep.
Thursday 8 September: two hours from Shanghai to… “Chinese Venise”
The best meal was perhaps today, at Zhujiajiao. It took us two hours on a bus amid massive traffic to get there: an ancient water town well-known throughout the country, with a history of almost 2000 years.
Unique old bridges span small rivers shaded by willow trees, and houses with courtyards provide a pleasing mix of commerce and residential.
It became famous during the Ming Dynasty but is today dubbed the Venice of Eastern China. We even took a ride on one of the many gondolas. Before lunch at this restaurant (photos and more details coming soon), we first enjoyed jasmin tea in a famous tea house which Hilary Clintonvisited a few years ago, we were told.
A funny name: Granny Tea House. But it is ancient looking inside, the building is very old.
The tea was delicate and, in spite of the heat (it was very hot outside, with people walking about with umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun), the tea proved perfectly hydrating. We enjoyed homemade sweet biscuits, but also pods from lotus plants called lianzi – perfumed and delicious.
We had a wonderful view of the charming bridges overlooking little gondola like boats for tourists, including many Chinese tourists, in the town.
We also shopped fine products that cost far less than in Shanghai, including scarves, static-free combs made from cow horns, fans, silk ties. It was hot outside, so fans were also welcome… I obtained a blue silk tie with pandas for just 10 Yuan (€1). My fan with the town design on it cost but 25 yuan (€2.5). Two handcrafted wooden wall decorations: one meaning good fortune, the other of two fish which also means bringing good fortune… fetched about 230 Yuan each.
But the restaurant – Caoxirenjia – was excellent. I have never had such fresh and delicious bamboo shoots. The ones you get in Chinese restaurants in the West are insipid by comparison.
And the water chestnuts were amazing… in season actually.
We also enjoyed clams served with a spinach-like vegetable.
And pork, roasted in bamboo leaves.
The river eel was tasty, as were small fried fish, which reminded me of the Greek fried Marithes (picarel) on islands I enjoyed when I was a kid.
As it was hot outside, the beer flowed again but no more Chinese yellow wine or spirits…
We then visited an old Buddhist temple dating from 1341, which was quite spiritual: seeing “wishes” inscribed on thin red fabric slips attached to trees in the courtyard.
Inside the temple, one could make a wish.
Much to photograph, such as this:
And this fine roof detail:
As relaxing as it was to be in Zhujiajiao, getting there and being driven back revealed just how enormous Shanghai is. Vistas of skyscrapers and massive buildings – some ugly, some magnificent – seemed to never end. The fact that we were stuck in traffic jams both ways accentuated that feeling… But there are some 26m people in this city, that is about 100 times as large as where I am currently based: Strasbourg, France. Here some pics …
Final dinner in Shanghai. We were hosted at the Peace Hotel, a renovated 1930s building that was thoroughly elegant – tea room, music room, expansive lobby with refined wall decors (see photos), and even the toilets were brilliant.
It is just too bad that the air in Shanghai can be a bit smelly. Even in the halls of such a fine hotel, sewage aromas were detected. Although the Pudong district is not nearly as exciting as the Bund centre, at least the air is somewhat cleaner… But still. This brings to mind the other negative: tap water. I had gone the night before with Edouard Duval, of the Champagne Duval Leroy, to a superb 1970s style bar called El Coctel. The Champagne list was superb, and we enjoyed a lovely Egly Ouriet Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru. But the charming waitress brought us each a glass of water. Stupidly, I forgot that tap water is a no-no. Later in the evening, I got a bit sick. Nothing serious, but just a reminder… don’t drink the water!
Anyway, back to the 9 September dinner. The day started with a press conference during which we were introduced as judges to the Shanghai press. Producers who had submitted wines, from Australia and Italy to Washington State and New Zealand arrived for the conference. I will not reveal any of the medal winners, because it would not be fair to do so, before they are officially published on the SIWC website… and I admit to not noting them all. I do recall that one Bordeaux cru bourgeois, Chateau de Lamarque, earned a gold medal…
Before dinner, we were welcomed into an English style smoking room, complete with a proper temperature controlled cellar, including whiskies and Armagnac and cigars. I noticed a fellow judge order water, only to request specifically bottled water … One of the best parts of the pre dinner gathering was something called a wine casino: lovely ladies dressed like Playboy bunnies stood behind a black jack like spread, but instead of that, the green felt table had various flags and numbers. To play, you needed to buy some chips and then first guess where the wine came from. With one chip. If you got that right, you needed to use two chips to guess the vintage (one chip on the 1990 or 2000 square or two chips on the 2010 square; one chip on the 0 to 9 space).
If you got the vintage right, you won the bottle – but there was another step: guessing the price… and that required three chips. I failed miserably on my first attempt, but one a bottle on my second.
Dinner was a gala event. As we entered the 8th floor, we were greeted by an ice sculpture that read 2011 and SIWC, see above. This ice sculpture was completed on both sides by two ice columns holding various bottles that had earned medals from the Challenge.
Then a grand hall where not everyone could sit. Things started out with an incongruous erotic dance. Not nearly as scintillating, all of us judges then came on stage to say hello to the press. And then a bit odd: not all judges had a seat at the dinner table… so most of us ate standing. In any case, the food was very good (I risked eating some oysters and clams; thank goodness that I did not get any sicker, because I was flying the next day).
In addition to the seafood bar, we enjoyed some great Peking Duck, Chinese style pork ribs, rice of course, vegetables, and some excellent pastries made by a Dutch chef. The restaurant head chef is French but I did not catch his name.
By the time dinner ended, about 9 pm, I was so tired. It had been a long, exciting and busy week. I met many interesting people: from wine importers to wine writers in China. I met some fine producers, like Decanter wine winner Walter Porasso from La Morra, who makes fine Barolo, of course, at the Azienda Agricola Bovio. I also met several communications specialists, who are taking advantage of all the business that is being done in China. Take Monica Gonzalez, for example, whose company Cambaluc guides foreign companies including wineries into the Chinese market.
The sheer size of Shanghai is enormous. Just ten years ago, I was told, there was hardly a foreign restaurant to be seen. Today, the city centre is full of them – and some are celebrated. Like Franck: one of the best French restaurants in the city. It feels like a high-end Parisian bistro, with similar prices… But superb quality. As Edouard Duval – and many others – told me, the Chinese travel around the world, they see the elegance of Western wine and food, and they want to experience it in China… which explains the explosive food and wine market in Shanghai.
Finally, one last outing at New Heights, yet another high rise bar overlooking the Bund skyline, with more pictures taken. We enjoyed a fine bottle of Perrier Jouet Grand Cru Champagne before grabbing a taxi for the hotel. Next morning, taxi called, rainy, and yet the flight was smooth.
All in all, an exciting first wine experience in Shanghai. I will be publishing articles in Wine Business International, France Today, Harpers Wine & Spirit and Decanter. Once links are up, will make connections to them here.
I did not judge any French wines from Bordeaux… but many Bordeaux wines obtained medals. HERE the page on all the medal winners.