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Fine Wine In China

Wednesday, 27th January 2010 by Jo Purcell

How the wine scene has changed since I first came to Asia 15 years ago - Hong Kong had only 4 wine shops, the range of wines was limited (not to mention prices exorbitant due to the duty which at one point was at 90%). If you ventured across the border to the mainland the choice was even less, I think there were only 3 major wine importers, mainly dealing in agency wines. Beer would be the alcoholic beverage of choice.

One of the many amazing new buildings in Beijing.

Last week Stephen and I travelled to Beijing where the change even just over the last 3 years is massive – long gone are bicycles, cars now choke the newly constructed 3 lane city roads, whilst the pavements are lined with tall shiny new tower blocks.

Wine shops are springing up around the city offering a huge range of wine to customers (although prices are high like HK 15 years ago due to the tax). If you wish to see an array of first growths on display this is the place to come. There can be no doubt that the mainland is quickly developing a discerning taste for fine wine.

An even more remarkable new building.

We went to the famous Da Dong Duck restaurant which serves what must be the best Peking Duck in town (although due to our company and wine we may be a little biased!). Who says Chinese food doesn’t match red wine? Our hosts carefully selected a sumptuous menu, the presentation of some of the dishes were a work of art in themselves.

We decided to pull out all the stops for our VIP guests and lined up 4 of our all-time favourite wines:

  • 96 Dom Perignon
  • 82 Haut Brion
  • 89 Haut Brion
  • 82 Latour

The DP didn’t let us down. This has to be one of the greatest vintages ever with a perfect balance between the toasty, biscuity richness and the clean acidity that is the hallmark of the vintage. It’s drinking perfectly now but with such a steely freshness it’s still got plenty of life ahead.

1982 Haut Brion might not be a huge blockbuster but it’s a lovely wine and I don’t think that I would chose 1982 Lafite above this even though it sells for 4 times the price. The colour was quite mature-looking with a faded rim. On the nose there was a wonderful smoky character with hints of iodine, cigar box, leather and tar. A wine to sniff as well as drink. The palate was sweet, silky and soft with no noticeable tannins and a velvet-like texture. It was remarkable how a wine that was relatively light could pack in such an intensity of earthy, smoky barbeque flavours. This is as close as Bordeaux gets to Grand Cru Red Burgundy. Not a powerhouse but supremely classy and ultra-fine. 18.5

1989 Haut Brion is, of course, a legend and without doubt the wine of the vintage. It certainly delivered the goods tonight. Still a deep colour despite its 20 years of age. A powerful, intense nose of exotic spices, road tar and woodsmoke. The palate was plump, smooth and succulent. Really ripe tannins and although this wine is full bodied it doesn’t seem over-blown in any way. The palate is long, roasted and tarry with a long lingering finish. Hugely impressive and a perfect partner to the best crispy duck scratchings in the world. 19.5

1982 Latour. Still deep red in colour. A big classic cassis nose. Strong but sweet. The palate is wonderfully ripe with spicy black fruits which one of our guests described as “Chinese jam”. It also bore a resemblance to the plum sauce on our duck. This fabulous wine is still youthful and is a classic example of an “iron fist in a velvet glove”. Intense and decadent yet serious and profound. The epitome of great mature Cabernet Sauvignon that clearly impressed our guests. Certainly one of the greatest wines of all time. 20

Three great Bordeaux wines take on the Peking Duck.

Last night we gathered again in one of the restaurants in Handel Lee’s new courtyard complex located just behind Tiananmen Square. Fortunately the old buildings (including the what used to be the vice premiers residence) have been beautifully renovated. A perfect setting to taste some legendary wines:

96 Cos D’Estournel – the first wine always has a tough time, but we were quietly confident to show Cos. The 96 is so open with such an attractive rich ripe black fruit and the distinctive Asian spices that are such a feature of great Cos. In today’s market wines like this that deliver near First Growth quality are such good value.

96 Latour – although powerful it has such an elegance and structure. Classic black cherries, lead pencils and minerals. Amazing length of flavour, the firm tannins making this a wine that can only improve with age. A majestic Latour that is still a baby.

90 Latour – If 1996 is a classic Latour then the 1990 is atypical. This wine is delicious now, no need to wait any longer, just gorgeous to drink now with a seamless, smooth character. It is fatter and rounder than the 96, with more vegetal, earthy and beef jerky character. Lovely but not hugely complex.

90 Cheval Blanc – another 90 which is superb to drink now. The nose was so open, a complete contrast to the Latour. The Cheval was more floral (violets) and perfumed on the nose. On the palate eucalyptus and mint flavours, licorice and ripe black cherries

88 Petrus – not the best vintage for Petrus but nonetheless showed well and a wine to be consumed now. Linctus and medicinal aromas complimented those of mushrooms and forest floor. The tannins are now soft and the fruit on the palate is not as strong as you might expect from the aromas

82 Lafleur – when we first poured this it oozed milk chocolate. It then developed more red and black berries with cinnamon and spice. On the palate kirsch, licorice, vanilla and cedar. The layers of complexity in this wine are profound. What a shame that there are not many bottles left!

85 Richebourg DRC – something completely different from the other wines we had tasted. Crème brulee nose, elegant soft sweet red berry fruits, cedar with crisp acidity.

Our waitress decants Lafite 2001.

Where’s the Lafite you say?

Well we did have a bottle of 01 Lafite during another dinner, but it seemed that our guests are now clamouring to taste other great wines from Bordeaux. Lafite is currently the leading First Growth in the Chinese market but maybe not for ever? It is rumored that Lafite became so highly demanded after being drunk by China’s Premier, but from our recent tastings the people’s choice by taste is Latour. Several people told us that they actually prefer the more intense, cassis depth of Latour which they think stands up better to spicy Chinese cuisine. With the price of Latour significantly behind that of Lafite, it is also an attractive purchaser’s choice. Lafite has become so expensive so quickly as consumption here has exceeded supply. It did cross our minds whether that bottle of the 01 would be the last that we would ever taste!

Bordeaux ranked by demand in a Chinese store. Note Lafite and Latour share the top shelf.

With the style of Latour so suited to Chinese palates and Lafite prices now off the charts, one wonders if Latour is now the wine to take centre stage?

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