This weekend I hopped on a plane – destination: Qingdao.
It was my first time to Qingdao and I really was not sure what to expect. When people talk about Chinese cities they talk in terms of millions of people – would it be like Shenzhen, Guangzhou, or for that matter any densely populated city around the world?
Qingdao is located on the eastern cost of China, below Beijing but above Shanghai – roughly the same latitude as Seoul (in fact being close to Korea the facial features of Qingdao people are very similar to those from Korea), and interestingly enough, they are one of the tallest ethnic groups in China. As soon as you arrive at the modern Qingdao airport it has a very different feel to that of other Chinese cities I have visited. I was greeted by a very happy and chatty immigration officer, a quick breeze through customs then to be met by my friends in a spacious, quiet, arrivals hall.
With a population of around 8 million Qingdao has just slightly more residents than Hong Kong, but our similarities stop there – it is completely different. There was so much space, wide roads and boulevards. Of course there were newly built skyscrapers (and several on the way) but it has still maintained much of it’s original architecture.
Qingdao was in it’s past a German colony, and has many original buildings from this period still intact and in use. When we get to the old part of the city, low rise colonial buildings line the narrower roads which have pavements planted with trees The branches create a canopy – if I had not known I was in China, I could have easily mistaken it for some small town in France. Then just as you are thinking how quaint the buildings are you take a second look. Hang on, am I in Barcelona? Has Gaudi been here? Our friends take us to the Cathedral and then on to the former German governor’s residence – prime examples of this architectural style. The architecture here was amazing and something I really did not expect to have found in China.
Being by the sea, the city does have all the hallmarks of any seaside town – bucket and spade shops, water worlds, amusement parks, restaurants and some prime examples of 60's architecture which hopefully we will never do again! The city even has a chinese version of a Bondi Beach sports club (it’s the first outdoor gym I’ve seen on a beach!), however I think some of the bodies were still very much a work in progress...The most bizarre phenomenon was the amount of about to be married couples having their photographs taken. Never have I seen so many white meringue dresses in one place at one time. Apparently there are wedding coach trips organised for brides and bridgegrooms from all over China to travel to Qingdao to get their wedding photos taken.
So back to the point of the blog, my main reason for visiting Qingdao – some friends & I had planned a 1998 vintage Bordeaux tasting at the Da Vinci Restaurant in the Qingdao Shangri-La Hotel. We chose 98 for two reasons, firstly it’s a vintage that is often overlooked (thus offering value) and secondly we wanted to taste some smaller estates from the right bank.
The team at the Shangri-la looked after us superbly, even buying in additional riedel glasses especially for our dinner. In Hong Kong we tend to be so spoilt with virtually every restaurant having proper and ample glassware, especially wine trained service staff. Coming to a place like Qingdao for me is refreshing – and you have to improvise to some extent which makes life just that little bit more interesting – If not enough decanters, never fear, just make sure you have enough glass water jugs and they do just as good a job! Coloured dots are a must and so our fool-proof coloured dot system was put into place – each bottle, decanter and glass dotted so wines were not mixed up during service.
After a glass of refreshing Krug Champagne we sat down to dinner and kicked off with La Conseillante. This wine showed beautifully – yes it can still last but was drinking so well. A delicate nose which was slightly floral, hints of truffles with ripe black and red fruits. On the palate it had such balance and integrated tannins. When we first decanted this wine the aroma was almost desiccated coconut and coco powder, when we came to taste this had passed but the chocolate, cocoa came through on the palate along with forest floor and dark ripe fruits. Even at the end of the evening it stood it’s ground amongst the rest of the wines – and was one of the favouites of the night for drinking now.
Next was 98 Troplong Mondot. This was so tight when first opened, even after breathing for a couple of hours (and double decanting) the wine was still very much a baby – Christine Valette should be extremely proud of this wine – mineral, chocolate, cherry liquor. Although tight on the palate it had such structure and power - not only the characters of the nose but also slightly smoky and roasted meat, when this wine matures it will be quite something at and 750 pounds / case it is hard to find a St Emilion at this price and this quality – real value.
Still maintaining our right bank theme we moved onto Pavie. This wine is popular amongst our Asian clients and the 98 vintage did not disappoint – the first vintage under the ownership of Gerard Perse which when first released caused controversy between UK and USA wine critics (and in fact still does today!). The nose oozed fresh mint, beefy and earthy characters. It is a big powerful wine with dark ripe black fruits, lots of Asian spice, mint and flinty minerals on palate. If any wine can be described as masculine this is it.
We then switched to the left bank and served 98 Mouton and Haut Brion together so we could really compare the differences between these two famous chateaux. 98 Mouton had a beef jerkey nose, spicy with aromatic red and black fruits seasoned with black pepper. The wine had wonderful structure, firm tannins, dark plums and ripe black fruits, some cigar, fungi, lots of spice. Still young but very well balanced. In contrast the 98 Haut Brion had that distinctive lead pencil nose, dark fruits, sweet licorice. On the palate it had such a refined elegance, yet still retaining it’s power – black cherries, spice, the tell tale mineral character as well as licorice and black truffles. Over time it is going to be interesting to compare this wine to other legendary vintages of Haut Brion.
No trip to Qingdao would be complete without a taste of the local brew – I have in my time consumed quite a few tins and bottles in Hong Kong and Asia but was keen to try the “real” deal – and I was not disappointed! At a very relaxed open air seafood restaurant we enjoyed a vast array of fresh vegetables, delicious vegetable dumplings (which I fear I may have eaten just one too many of!), razor clams, local Chinese “yabbies”, scallops, steamed fish accompanied by a cool jug from one of the most recent cask releases of Tsingtao – it was so clean and fresh. Unfortunately our lunch was brought to an end with the deadline of heading back to the airport (at what I can only say was breakneck speed by a taxi driver who had ambitions of being Lewis Hamilton!)
I would just like to add our very special thanks to all our friends in Qingdao and from other parts of China who came together to make this evening one that will remain very special.