Happy Year of the Rooster!
May the coming year see you soar, add feathers to the wings of your success and give you something to crow about.
In this issue, sad news that influential winemaker Gerard Colin
, who helped lead the campaign for better Chinese wines, died this week in France. His legacy lives on in nearly every corner of the country.
Results of Grape Wall Challenge 8
: we asked regular Chinese wine consumers to judge 16 labels and discuss their picks. This year's focus: local wineries with good reputations and national distribution.
And new initiatives for North American wine. Canadian company Clear Lake
will start an e-commerce site and wine club while California Wine Institute
is about to hit the road with classes in a dozen cities, including niche ones on Zinfandel.
As always, please pass this newsletter to others interested in China's wine scene. They can sign up themselves at this link
Gerard Colin, 75, pursued quality
An influential figure in China’s modern wine industry, Gerard Colin died suddenly this week in France. He was 75. Colin rose to prominence as the first winemaker at Grace Vineyard in Shanxi, now widely seen as one of China’s best operations. It was a good pairing given his experience in Bordeaux and Grace’s use of varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. But it was only one stop for a man whose work took him from Xinjiang in the west to Shandong in the east to Xiamen in the south.
Born in Madagascar, Colin was schooled in France and completed a master of oenology degree at Bordeaux University in the 1960s. He spent over a decade at Chateau Teyssier in Saint-Emilion. His interests took him in many directions, whether to work on the commerce side at Château Clarke, head to the Caribbean for a sugar cane alcohol project, or start a consulting firm.
He first came to China in 1997, for a three-month stay in Fuzhou, then joined Grace in 2001. He was a welcoming figure for a growing flow of intrigued visitors. Alberto Fernandez of Torres, the first major distributor for Grace, said of his initial visit: “Gerard Colin received me with a big hug.” If Fernandez’s experience was like mine, Colin did so with a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
Snippets from this article
about Colin say a lot about his attitude toward wine and China:
- It is 10:30. In the cellar, Gérard Colin tastes a Cabernet Sauvignon 2004. “We just pressed it and got it out of the tank yesterday, it’s a baby for whom we just cut the cord. It’s very young, it’s special."
- Our glasses are filled with a Merlot… full of carbon dioxide. Real fruit! It looks more like a grape juice yet it has 13.5 degrees of alcohol. “That is the best compliment you can give me,” said Gerard. “I have respected the raw material!”
- “I am the only one going to the village, talking to the peasants, laughing with them and drinking tea. I hope they see it as consideration and respect. I am not a colonist, I just bring them technology, I empower them through training. When I make them taste their wine, I put down a white tablecloth!”
Colin soon found himself in demand, whether for consulting on groundbreaking projects, speaking at conferences or being interviewed by media.
He created plenty of buzz in 2009 when he became director of the Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) project with CITIC in Shandong. The team faced incredible challenges, he explained:
… in choosing Penglai, we knew that major works would have to be undertaken. Our teams have developed 30 hectares of hills, removing 40,000 tons of stones and building more than 9 kilometres of dry stone walls around the plots. The vineyard consists of 30 plots and more than 200 terraces.
Major works, indeed. Colin was then nearly 70 and still going strong, with projects at Puchang in Xinjiang and Taila in Shandong yet to come. But by then, his place in China wine history was secure and his unexpected death this week will no doubt have many trade people reflecting on his influence.
Note: My earliest contact with Colin came via wines like his 2013 Grace Cabernet Franc that made me believe in China’s potential. My strongest memory is from 2012 and the first Ningxia Wine Challenge. It had an equal number of Chinese and non-Chinese judges, headed by Ma Huiqin and Jancis Robinson, and Colin was a natural choice. During the event, several people asked if Colin were sick, as he kept leaving the room. An investigation revealed he was sneaking smoke breaks!
After the event, I asked about the early Grace vintages, the 2003 Cabernet Franc, the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon he called special. He seemed both happy to reminisce and talk about his exciting new projects. That attitude to life will live on with many who knew him, just as the taste of those early wines still influences me, even if all that remains are empty bottles. Rest in peace, Gerard Colin.
Grape Wall Challenge Goes Local
They came, they sniffed and sipped, they scored and snacked. The eighth Grape Wall Challenge
stayed true to form by featuring consumers as wine judges, this time at Pop-Up Beijing
First held in 2009, the Grape Wall Challenge (GWC) focuses on consumers who are casual wine drinkers, both to learn about what they like and to boost their confidence around wine.
This year, GWC featured 16 wines by local producers with good reputations and national distribution. Judges tasted the wines "blind", scored each "love it", "like it", "dislike it" or "hate it", and discussed their picks with Ma Huiqin
, a marketing expert and professor at China Agricultural University
. They then tucked into pizzas and retried their favorite bottles.
"Overall, the judges liked the wines and their favorites more or less reflected what professionals would pick," said Ma. "They like something fruitier and most of the wines this year tended to be very juicy."
The twelve judges tried four flights: white wines and red wines under rmb165 and white wines and red wines from rmb166 to rmb320.
, who does marketing in the food catering sector, said the tasting showed each wine's uniqueness.
"I was kind of a Merlot person, I never go wrong when buying it for friends, as it's sweet and fruity," she said. "But I could taste the slight differences between each wine."
She was surprised at the quality of the wines from her home region of Ningxia. "I know we have great weather for grapes, and I know we can make good wine," she said. "But I didn't know we can make it that good! It was beyond my expectations."
Her favorite was a red blend from Kanaan: "It smells good and fresh, it's soft, it's not too sweet or sour."
Pop-Up co-owner Vito Zhang
said he had little experience with Chinese wines beyond those from Dynasty
. While he said the GWC wines were better, he did see room for improvement.
"My favorite was the [Bordeaux-style] Deep Blue from Grace Vineyard," he said.
In terms of scores, the consumers generally liked the white wines although no brand stood out as a clear favorite. For wines priced to rmb165, Kanaan
Riesling from Ningxia (rmb150, Summergate) scored slightly higher while Grace Vineyard
Tasya's Reserve Chardonnay from Shanxi (rmb308, ASC) took that honor for the pricier flight.
With the red wines, the less expensive flight was highly divisive: it received more "hate it" votes than all other flights combined. Even so, all four wines received at least one "love it" vote, showing the diversity of tastes among the judges. Silver Heights
'Last Warrior' Red Blend from Ningxia (rmb158, Torres) was the clear leader for this flight.
The more expensive flight was the favorite. Four of six wines were overwhelmingly loved / liked. Grace Vineyard
'Deep Blue' Cabernet blend (rmb308, ASC) turned out to be the highest-scoring wine of the entire tasting. One judge described it as "refined." Kanaan
'Pretty Pony' Cabernet-Merlot (rmb295, Summergate), Tiansai
'Selection' Cabernet-Shiraz (rmb328, East Meets West) and Silver Heights
'Family Reserve (rmb308, Torres) were also widely liked.
Ma noted that red wines dominate China's market, with more than an 80 percent share, and that can affect perceptions.
"Consumers definitely have more experience and confidence with red wine," she says. She added that drinking cold liquids, especially in the winter, is not common for many consumers.
GWC doesn't claim to reveal any general truths about Chinese consumers but to give a snapshot of what a particular group thinks. In short, it has three goals: to discover those consumer preferences, to give people confidence around wine, and to make sure everyone has fun. Here's the full lineup of wines.
Flight 1: White Wines <rmb165
Chateau Nine Peaks
(九顶) Chardonnay 2015, Shandong
(迦南) Riesling 2014, Ningxia
- Distributed by Summergate / Pudao, rmb150
Canada offers grape lovers far more than icewine and Chinese consumers will soon have nine nice new options to try. Clear Lake Wineries will launch in Shanghai this month and sell Ontario wine via an online store and a monthly club. Named after the Great Lakes, which hold a fifth of the world’s fresh water and profoundly influence the local wine industry, the company will initially represent four operations.
Back to China. Clear Lake will officially launch on February 16 at The Cannery in Shanghai (see website for tickets). Canadian-born Shanghai-based sommelier Emilie Steckenborn will lead a tasting as well as a food pairing by chef Freddy Raoult.