China: In the Dragon’s Throat

Presumably even Confucius drank wine, but it was actually only about a hundred years ago that fermented grape juice gained a foothold in China. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, the erstwhile slow growth has gained momentum. While all that glitters is not gold, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon.

Seven tasters were sitting in the private dining room of a small restaurant in eastern Beijing. Li Demei, professor of enology at the agricultural university in the Chinese capital, presented several wines that he had produced as a consultant. Among them was a 2005 Marselan from an experimental farm in Hebei, the province that stretches northwest from the Gulf of Bohai and encircles Beijing. With its scent of blackberry, mint and litchi, the Marselan - a French cross of Grenache and Cabernet created in 1961 - was reminiscent of Fleurie.

With a production of 12,000 bottles, Li Demei’s Marselan can’t be described as an experimental wine, but this sample did not even have a label. It was simply identified by a yellowing shred of paper that looked like a fig leaf. On it were some handwritten Chinese characters that I could not decipher. “In 2006, they used different grapes for another project,” lamented Li Demei. "It is a pity that some of our finest wines never made it to the market." That was in 2008. Times are now changing!

An Overview

If in fact Confucius drank wine, it probably came from Shandong, Li Demei’s home region. Shandong, which is loosely translated as  “Eastern Mountain,” is located southeast of Hebei in the hilly landscape around the coastal cities of Yantai and Penglai. This is the traditional heart of Chinese wine production, where some 140 wineries crush more than 40% of all Chinese grapes.

Domestic wineries produce about 85% of all wines consumed in China today. Imports ranging from Jacob’s Creek to Château Latour account for the rest. There were, in addition, roughly 120 million liters of bulk wine registered by customs last year and at least part of the local wines seen on the supermarket shelves are certainly made from this stock, either blended with Chinese must or bottled unadulterated with a Chinese label. Such blends could soon have a quick end, though, as the law states that Chinese wine must be made from domestically grown grapes. For the moment, however, where there is no plaintiff, no one is judged.

To meet rising demand, Chinese farmers create vineyards quickly, much like those contractors who build skyscrapers in the cities in the blink of an eye—and both are in a way supported by the government. The party admittedly wants to reach a level of self-sufficiency in every line of business. However, beyond its desire to become a world wine power that does not need to rely on imports, another positive aspect for the policymakers is the fact that vines generally grow only in those areas where, because of lack of water, no rice will. Further, wine is a vital weapon in the war against alcohol abuse. With an average content of just 13% by volume, it is “light” and “healthy” when compared to the dangerous moonshine still popular in the countryside that kills hundreds of citizens a year.

When the Chinese diplomat Zhang Bishi founded his winery in Yantai in 1892, there was no rootstock available locally, so he imported cuttings from Europe. With that step, the Changyu Pioneer Winery was born, making it the oldest and largest in China. Though not very well known abroad, it is currently, with annual sales surpassing $800 million, not only one of the ten largest wineries in the world, but it has built seven châteaux across the country, including the nearby Changyu Castel with the eponymous French group in 2002 to the Changyu Moser in Ningxia with the Austrian wine consultant Lenz Moser. In 2016, Changyu Pioneer Winery will open its massive City of Wine, which will encompass over 400 hectares of vineyards near the company headquarters.


Chateau Changyu Moser in Ningxia

Foreign Investment Arrives

Not far from Penglai is where Eric de Rothschild of the Bordeaux legend Château Lafite-Rothschild leased 27 hectares of farm land with the help of the state investment fund CITIC to form one of the youngest wineries in China. “First we will drill some holes, create a ground map and then decide what kind of grapes to plant," reported Christophe Salin, president of the Domaines Barones de Rothschild, in 2011. The first grapes have been harvested, but no wine released yet. The market, though, waits anxiously.

Dr. Karl-Heinz Hauptmann, the German founder of ECM Capital Management, has also invested in the region. After partnering in the Bessa Valley of Bulgaria with Count Stephan von Neipperg of Château Canon-la-Gaffelière, he established WineRo in Romania before venturing to Shandong with Nine Peaks. The first wines show promise and are also already well distributed in European restaurants in China.

In 2012, LVMH also signed a joint venture to create its first Chinese sparkling wine. It will apparently be known as Chandon, a baby brother for its bubbles from Champagne. Four years before, in 2008, Pernod Ricard had already signed a lease on one of the first large vineyards planted by the Agriculture Reclamation Management Bureau. Brett Richardson, who helped organize the project, described the development in a rather tongue-in cheek-fashion: “Our vineyards are made out of hills of sand from the Gobi Desert that were flattened out, irrigated and planted.” Under the Helan Mountain label, they already have a range of popular “fighting varietal” wines that sells well over a million bottles a year, including a Chardonnay with an almost Australian accent. Chief winemaker Craig Grafton is even considering adding a Pinot Noir to a portfolio that already includes Riesling.

Gold Rush in Ningxia 

Located at the same latitude as Mount Etna in Sicily, the vineyards in Ningxia are planted in soils that run the gamut from stony lunar landscapes at the foot of the mountains to reclaimed alluvial mud closer to the river. Moreover, the province has a major advantage over other regions in that the government owns and controls the largely still uncultivated land and has vowed to turn Ningxia into a Chinese Eldorado. In most other more populous regions, the plots are already divided among thousands of small peasant farmers with little or no wine culture. It is a constant battle there to convince budding grape growers that lower yields and smaller bunches are better for wines than are large juicy berries.

Encouraged by Cao Kailong, the director of the Bureau of Grape and Floriculture Industries, the provincial government opened, amid the usual fanfare, a new chapter in the region’s history. Their ambitious plan is to establish 70,000 hectares of vineyards by 2020, replete with hotels, restaurants, theme parks (with pompous statues set amid fountains) and, of course, more than 100 châteaux, some built to look like their role models in Bordeaux, others with golden gates, crimson turrets and marble halls reminiscent of Disneyland.

Until only recently, the province of Ningxia was still known primarily only to insiders, but thanks to its growing reputation the larger wineries are beginning to plant grapes here as well, among them COFCO, Changyu with their new Chateau Changyu Moser XV, and Dynasty, which had already been making wines under the Imperial Horse label for many years before.

While players like Silver Heights and He Lan Qing Xue have tried to make names for themselves with good but prohibitively expensive wines, the majority of the new players have set their sights on volume. Delong, a new project that has leased 8,000 hectares of potential vineyard area, may well be at the forefront of that trend, but a few numbers better tell the story of the gold rush mentality that has seized the region. While well over 100 prospective leases have so far been granted and a full 77 wineries are already under construction, only about a dozen currently produce wine.

Leading Estates

Even though the majority of China´s best-known wineries - Great Wall, Dynasty and Dragon Seal - have now reached a size that corresponds to that of this huge country, there are some exceptions. Among them is Emma Gao’s Silver Heights, a small farm in Ningxia. Best known throughout history for its inhospitable mountains, scorching Gobi desert, wild sheep and goji berries, this is a tiny province near Inner Mongolia about a thousand kilometers west of Beijing.

Founded barely a decade ago, Emma Gao’s winery is located in her family’s summerhouse on the outskirts of the provincial capital of Yinchuan. With only 600,000 citizens, the city is - for China - more like a village. Until the late 1980s, the only winery in the region was the state’s own Xi Xia King, a name of historical importance for a nearby old tomb of royal ancestry. By the early 1990s, however, local government officials had decided that Ningxia’s future lies in wine. In a province with few natural resources, it was already clear to agriculturalists that cereals and corn would not do well here, but that under the right circumstances grapevines might just thrive.

Born and raised in Yinchuan, Gao first studied literature before graduating in agricultural economics in what was then Leningrad, where her father had been posted. While in Europe, Mr. Gao took the opportunity to travel to France and began to appreciate wine, which led to the family’s decision to establish a vineyard of their own at about the same time that the provincial government began promoting Ningxia as a nascent wine oasis. At her father’s insistence, Emma applied to the Ecole d'Oenologie in Bordeaux, where she was accepted and managed to pass all examinations without any problems in 2003. Today, she is one of only a handful of female enologists in China.

Emma Gao from Silver Heights in Ningxia

While in France, she also worked at Château Calon-Ségur, where she met her future husband, Thierry Courtade, who was then the maître de chai at that venerable old estate in Saint-Estèphe. Upon her return, she worked for Torres China from Monday through Friday, spending the weekends with her father in their mere two hectares of vines on the southern slopes of the Helan Mountains. For their first vintage, 2007, they had only one tank. They purchased another in 2008 and production rose “rapidly” to 6,000 bottles. By 2012, Silver Heights had reached 30,000 bottles. She now leases 40 hectares of old vines and, after arriving at production of 60,000 bottles in 2013, plans to reach 200,000 bottles in the near future. If everything works out, a new winery will be built as the old sheds in the family’s summer house are now bursting at the seams.

Growing volume is one thing, but the question remains whether she can manage that without diminishing quality. Her 2009 Family Reserve and 2007 Summit were certainly two of the best wines made in China at that time, but the following vintages were considerable more difficult. Two thousand thirteen was the first great year since 2009, allowing her to produce 20,000 bottles each of the two flagship wines, both of which are made primarily from Cabernet Sauvignon. The Summit, which sees more new - and only French - oak, also includes a small proportion of Cabernet Franc. The Family Reserve, which contains in addition a bit of Cabernet Gernischt in the blend, sees less new oak, but from various provenances. In select vintages, she also bottles tiny quantities of a pure Cabernet Sauvignon known as Emma’s Reserve in large formats. It spends 24 months in new French oak and is only released a year later than the Family Reserve. Collectors quickly snapped up the 300 magnums of 2009. From 2013, the second release, she will bottle almost one thousand magnums, but they will certainly never officially be seen on the market, but hoarded instead by friends.

For the production of high-quality red wines, the dry region of Ningxia offers better conditions than Shandong, Gao believes. “We are surrounded by mountains that rise to over one thousand meters, protecting us from wind and erosion while ensuring large diurnal swings,” she explains. “Further, we have enough water from the snowmelt for drip irrigation - plus over 3,000 hours of sunshine per year. On top of that, many vines are still on their original roots because phylloxera has not yet found its way up here."

Beyond Silver Heights there are also other small farms like Helan Qing Xue, whose poetic name means something like clear water on a sunny day after the snow melts. Their 2009 Cabernet Jia Bei Lan famously won a trophy in September 2011 at the Decanter Wine Challenge in London, besting wines from France, Australia and California. It then raised eyebrows a second time when it was marketed at the equivalent of almost $200 a bottle. Advised by Li Demei, winemaker Zhang Jing has even released a special limited-edition bottling called Red Footprint, which is actually the wine that was originally submitted to the Decanter tasting, at an even higher price.

Cellars of Kanaan Winery in Ningxia

Among the promising examples, these include Kanaan, which was founded by the daughter of one of the partners at He Lan Qing Xue. The inaugural 2011 vintage of her Black Beauty was one of the surprises at my recent tastings. Another of the aspiring estates is Leirenshou. Also advised by Li Demei, they have set their sights on Pinot Noir. Yuan Shi, with their French consultant Patrick Soye, is well on its way to lending vinous credibility to the imposing stone edifice they have already built. With its indigenous architectural motifs, this estate is a welcome relief from the fairytale designs at other properties. More down to earth are the wines of Li Lan, where Zhong Xiang Deng, a young Chinese winemaker educated in Dijon, first took up residence. Deng’s departure, though, places a question mark over the future there. An interesting 2012 Syrah from Bacchus also shows that the broader family of Cabernet may not be the only alternative for Ningxia.


Vineyards of Grace Winery in Shanxi

Beyond any doubt, Grace Vineyards is another of China’s leading producers. It is managed today by the founder’s daughter, Judy Chan, who trained in banking and once worked at Goldman Sachs, but left to devote herself to the family’s business. Her father is a successful entrepreneur who had been a prisoner in Central Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. The cellar is located in the Shanxi province, southwest of Beijing. Their first vintage, 2001, came onto the market in 2003. In less than a decade, Grace Vineyards has grown to 670 hectares of vineyards, almost 400 of them in Ningxia, and boasts having 3,000 barrels in their cellars. Even though the white wines, especially the crisp Muscat named Symphony, often turn out well, the estate is better known for its red wines, especially the Chairman's Reserve and Deep Blue, a Bordeaux blend that was chosen by Cathay Pacific for their First Class. In comparison to the sometimes vastly overpriced and often undrinkable labels of larger wineries like Chateau Junding, the wines of Grace Vineyards are not only appealing but also comparatively inexpensive. Not surprisingly, given the current demand Grace Vineyard could sell two bottles for every one they produce. Where Chile needs to export for lack of domestic demand, China (still) needs to import.

A tad further west near the historical capital of China in Xi’an is the lovely cellar of Jade Valley, which was founded by Ma Qingyun, the dean of architecture at the University of Southern California. The cultivation of vines is more his hobby. That is wise, because every potential investor here should be aware that nobody in China actually owns the land, but can at best only lease it for a certain number of years, like the English in Hong Kong. If one discovers the next Richebourg, Marcobrunn or Sorì Tildìn, the coveted vineyard will one day return to state ownership.


Vineyards of Jade Winery near Xi'an

Cabernet Gernischt

On the positive side of the ledger, what many of the wines from all of the properties in Ningxia have in common is an attractive frankness of fruit, moderate alcohol, an Old World sense of balance and a restrained use of oak. Further, where true richness and depth of flavor do appear, they are generally allied with freshness.

While the problem of oxidation that was present in many of the wines that I had tasted on my first visits to China years ago appear to have been largely resolved, most still mature too quickly in bottle. Labels that I appreciated in their youth often taste a tad dull, even over the hill, a year down the road. Further, a green edge that is difficult to harness remains a challenge for most estates. Part of that can be put down to Cabernet Gernischt, a local grape specialty that grape geneticist José Vouillamoz has identified as being identical to Carmenère. However, some studies have shown that certain plantings may, in fact, be Cabernet Franc. The name is thought to derive from a misspelling of Cabernet gemischt, the German for “mixed Cabernet,” which describes the Bordeaux blend of European vine cuttings brought to China by the Austrian consultant of Changyu in the late 19th century.

While some producers have indicated that they could imagine Cabernet Gernischt becoming Ningxia’s signature variety, I doubt at present that this will happen. Not only is Chile warmer, making it easier to ripen Carmenère there on a regular basis, but the poor state of most Chinese vineyards, often crippled by the weird dragon’s head pruning system as well as by both red blotch and leaf roll viruses, further exacerbates the problem. Moreover, there have been too few sustained attempts at canopy management to improve quality. As larger yields have traditionally been favored in order to meet domestic demand at aggressive price points, most vineyards are not only overcropped but also drowned in fertilizer.

Many of those problems could and probably will be resolved with better vineyard care, but Ningxia is not without other more serious drawbacks. One that surprises many foreigners is labor scarcity. Yes, China has more than a billion inhabitants, but Inner Mongolia is sparsely populated and few outsiders from elsewhere are willing to pick grapes for a few weeks in such a remote location. Not only is there thus a shortage of hands at harvest, but burying the vines in the fall to protect them from fierce winter frosts is an extremely expensive process that requires an abundance of labor that is not always available. As vineyard expansion continues, the problem will certainly become more acute.

Further, the harsh winter, along with the process of burying the vines, often kills up to 10% of plants annually, a tally the industry currently appears resigned to accept. Not surprisingly, there are gaps in the vineyards and damaged vines everywhere. As a result, the average age of a vineyard seldom surpasses ten years, which makes the European concept of old vines largely unattainable.

Water is also a major concern. With annual rainfall seldom surpassing 200 millimeters, irrigation is a necessity, as witnessed by the system of canals that dates back eight centuries. Officials point to the unpolluted Yellow River that flows along the base of the Helan Mountains as an abundant source of available water, but its use is contested by farmers downstream, making a clash at some point inevitable. Already, their Inner Mongolian neighbor, Wuhai, has made similar vinous ambitions known.

Despite the threats, Cao Kailong and the president of the region, Hao Linhai, remain upbeat, seeing only the opportunities. It took the French a thousand years of experiments to find suitable places to plant the right local varieties and then establish their reputation. The Napa Valley succeeded in only 50. The Ningxia provincial government’s goal is to do it in 30. They have already lured foreign talent with a winemaking competition and have even begun to develop their own classification system.

The pioneer in neighboring Wuhai, on the edge of the Gobi Desert, is Hansen, where winemaker Bruno Paumard from the Loire makes Cabernet Gernischt taste like Chinon. While Hansen’s production is now some 200,000 cases a year, the volume of their flagship wine, the Red Camel, is limited to just 10,000 bottles.

Further westward, on the border with Kazakhstan, is the autonomous region of Xinjiang, which has the longest viniculture tradition in China. The Greeks brought vines here 400 years before Christ and even installed irrigation systems for their vineyards. Marco Polo also wrote about the grapes of Tufan in his diaries. Today, many predict that this area on “Sky Mountain” should have a bright future, but development is slow because the roads are poor and the distance to market long. This is particularly a problem for one of its famous producers, 1421, which is still struggling to sell back vintages. Others producers include Suntime, Champs d’Or and Niya.

In the province of Gansu, located north of Tibet between Ningxia and Xinjiang, Mihalis Boutaris from the Greek estate Kir-Yianni started the Sunshine Valley Winery at an altitude of 1,700 meters in 2008. With his Chinese partner Mogau, he made a 2009 Pinot Noir that showed promise. As Mogau, though, is better known for its volume wines and was apparently not as dedicated to Boutari’s quality aspirations, he pulled out of the partnership and planted his own vineyards. The first wines will only come onto the market sometime next year.

Like his competitors in much of northwestern China, Boutari fights with extremes. Frost, snow and icy cold are so fierce that the vines only survive when pruned short and buried in the ground during winter. The short vegetation period is thus another challenge for the vintners because attaining full ripeness of the grapes can only be achieved with considerable risk.

Although the weather is more amenable in the southern part of the country, there have been few viticultural investments there. One major exception is that of LVMH in the Yunan. Where the sky rises to the Himalayas, they hope to resurrect the mythical reputation of Shangri-La.

Vineyards of the Rongzi Winery in the Shanxi Province in Winter

Domestic Wine Consumption Rising

Today the Chinese drink about a half bottle of wine per person per year. With more than one billion inhabitants, that suffices to make it the seventh largest wine-consuming country in the world. Although the market is still dominated by beer and cheap booze, it is only a question of time before China is number one on the charts. The younger generation finds wine attractive and has the money to buy it. With consumption taxes, import duties and value added taxes at 48%, wine is relatively cheap in China compared to other large emerging markets like India. Still, many collectors prefer to buy their wines in Hong Kong, where duties have fallen to zilch and prices are often lower than in Paris or London.

It is thus not surprising that market researchers for Vinexpo Asia Pacific predicted in 2010 a market increase of 65% over the following three years. Although 2011 was on track, growth slowed to only about 10% in 2012 as the economy cooled, and has since been flat. Not only that, the current prime minister’s campaign against corruption has also had a serious impact on conspicuous consumption. The ensuing austerity in spending at banquets and decline in gift-giving have put a serious dent in the sales of upscale wines. Nonetheless, 30 million cases of bottled wine were shipped to China last year, one hundred times more than to India. A full 92% of that total was red.

Still, selling European wines in the Inner Kingdom is not exactly a cakewalk. A successful producer is either a branded label like Latour, Gaja or Vega Sicilia or it is merely a question of price. At that level, though, competition is extremely tough. On every supermarket shelf one finds Grand Dragon in magnum bottles for only 14.90 Renminbi, or about $2.

Plant botanist Dr. Ma Huiqin, who studied in Florida and is now a tenured professor at the elite agricultural university in Beijing, is keenly interested in how the domestic market functions. Although principally known for her work in vineyard management, she just wanted to know what her fellow Chinese truly like to drink. While statistics tell us what they buy, she discovered something astonishing in her recent studies of actual Chinese tippling preferences. In blind tastings, she revealed that almost three-quarters of all Chinese actually prefer white wines. Further, if they have to drink red wines, they prefer a smooth Pinot Noir to a Cabernet Sauvignon rich in tannins. But what are they buying? Claret!

Chateau Dynasty near Tianjin

Chinese Wine Exports?

Only after political reforms in the 1980s were foreign investors allowed to gain a foothold in China. One of the first corporations to move in was Rémy Martin, who created the Dynasty label together with their Chinese partner in Tianjin. At first they focused on export, but that turned out to be quite difficult and so instead they developed, with considerable success, the domestic market. Even today, most companies think little of export because of the huge demand in China itself, but what will happen one day if every Chinese restaurant in the world were to offer their guests one white and one red wine from Ningxia by the glass? This is how Italian wine began its triumphal march - and for every one Italian restaurant there are ten Chinese.

European vintners, however, continue to hope - largely in vain - that their problems of overproduction can be solved through demand in China, but the Chinese largely buy only luxury. That is why the finest clarets became ever more expensive until the Communist party under its new secretary clamped down on overt spending. In the near future, the Chinese themselves will be able to produce all of the bread-and-butter-wines that they consume, better and at more attractive prices. I would thus not be surprised if they then become significant exporters, putting additional pressure on countries like France that live from offshore sales.

Surprisingly for many, China is already the world’s fifth largest producer of wine. With some 570,000 hectares it now has more land under vine than the United States or Chile and makes more wine, with production expected to reach 185 million cases by 2017. Boris Petric, an anthropologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), predicts that China will double its plantings over the next five years, becoming the world’s largest wine producer.

Quality is still extremely variable, but given the huge potential in terms of available land at the right latitude and government support to help poor regions that are struggling economically, the Chinese may even one day finally discover their own Napa Valley. For the moment, however, Li Demei is still somewhat reserved about the future. When asked who makes the best wines in which regions, his Li’s answer was decidedly vague: “It’s too early to say much anything definitive about almost anything. We all know that it is impossible to predict what sort of an adult a two-year-old child is likely to become. That is the stage we are currently at.” While that is a wise statement, in the China of his peers the spirit of the Wild West churns unrelentingly onward.

Li Demei, the respected professor of winemaking at Beijing's Agricultural University

Fake Wines

While largely forgotten by later dynasties, the story of winemaking in China apparently dates back a long time. In 1995, the researcher Fang Hui found remains of alcoholic dregs in ceramic pots during an archaeological excavation only a few kilometers north of Rizhao in the Shandong province on the eastern coast of China. The findings, which he identified as residue of wine, were dated at 2,600 years before Christ. Whether wine consumption was popular at that time is not clear, but it never truly thrived and was replaced by other drinks. Beyond rice wine, there are also fruit wines made of litchi and plum, which is why what we call wine is named pútáo jiǔ by the Chinese, literally grape alcohol.

At present, there are well over 600 wineries in China, but only a fraction of them can be classified as serious producers. A majority of them bottle bulk wines from southern Spain, Australia, Chile or Argentina, and there is still that worrisome grey zone of adulterated wines.

The entire world watched as the Chinese government closed 30 wineries over Christmas 2010 after a television report showed that their wines were not only wrongly labeled but also contained less than 25% grape juice. The rest was sugar, water, color and flavor enhancer. The Jiahua Winery was in the spotlight of the investigation, but it was not alone.

The scandal was a harsh blow for the wineries in the Changli area, who were marketing themselves as the Bordeaux of China. The vineyards around the harbor town of Qinhuangdao are situated at the same latitude as that famous French city, but the region was also the center of a large wine sham, something not unknown in Bordeaux either, where wine from Algeria was once labeled Beaujolais and sold to the United States. Currently only the state winery from COFCO, Maotai and the Bodega Langes, owned by the same Austrian family that is better known for Swarovski, remain as serious ventures.

The most humorous fake that I have ever seen stood on a shelf in a small wine shop in Qingdao. The colorful label praised the wine as a Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva, everything the wine lover’s heart desires in one shot. However, neither an estate nor a vintage was mentioned, at least not in characters that I could decipher. I wanted to buy the bottle as a souvenir, but my Chinese friend held me back with a sound argument. "If the forgers learn that European wine journalists are buying the wine, production will double."

My Nine Favorite Chinese Red Wines:

2011 Grace Vineyards Chairman’s Reserve – Crimson with garnet reflections. Rich aromas of ripe berries, underbrush and spice, with a faint note of strawberry yogurt. A touch broad-shouldered but quite supple on the palate, with open-grained tannins. The fruit is characterized by its aromatic blackberry quality, dissolving on the back of the palate in a lingeringly sweet finish. 88+

2011 Grace Vineyards Deep Blue – Purple-ruby. An appealing wild raspberry aroma is complemented by dried violet and crushed pepper. The juicy cherry flavor is succulent, straightforward and fresh. Brisk, elegant and very easy to drink, in a manner reminiscent of the New World, this Cabernet Sauvignon blend finishes with a refreshing bittersweet touch. 88

2012 Helan Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve – Deep ruby. Appealing aromas of red berries and herbs. The sappy raspberry flavor is refreshingly sweet, with complicating notes of tobacco and chocolate. An earthy quality arises on the finish, with the herbal, slightly dusty tannins from the oak juxtaposed with the almost Australian fruit-forward character. 88

2012 Helan Qing Xue Cabernet Jia Bei LanIntense ruby. Sumptuous aromas of ripe plum, black cherry and white pepper. Alluringly dense and concentrated yet supple, with blackcurrant fruit enlivened by bitter chocolate. Finishes on a slightly herbal note, with supple tannins and lingering notes of tobacco and spices. With its 14% alcohol, this is quite New World in style, but certainly a crowd-pleaser. 90+

2013 Jin Se Mei Yu Cabernet Shiraz Yi Shuang – Opaque ruby. Plum and leather on the nose, along with an herbal element.  Classically balanced in style, displaying delicate black fruits with a spicecake nuance gaining strength with air. Finishes with subtle, almost elegant tannins, which nonetheless cling with an appealingly bittersweet edge. 88

2011 Kanaan Black Beauty – Dark ruby. Blackcurrant, cedar and bay leaf on the nose. Smooth and slightly sweet, with edgy acidity giving good vinosity to the rather medicinal black fruit and menthol flavors. Offers nice depth and 14% alcohol, with somewhat austere tannins showing a touch of an herbaceous edge on the slightly woody finish. 88

2013 Rongzi Estate Red – Dense ruby-red. Musky red berries and underbrush on the nose, with a hint of black tea. Firm on the attack, but gains flesh on the palate, offering zesty redcurrant and bitter cherry flavors. A Chinese rendition of claret, this finishes with nice lift, slightly bitter tannins, restrained oak and good peppery length. 88

2013 Silver Heights The SummitDense, inky ruby. Fresh cherry and candied plum on the deeply perfumed nose. Lush albeit frank and inviting, offering subtle red berry fruit flavors lifted by juicy acidity. Finishes firm, long and spicy, with restrained French oak and a hint of woodsmoke. Will need time to integrate its still edgy tannins. 90

2013 Silver Heights Family ReserveBright garnet with purple highlights. Subtle aromas of Bing cherry and green plum, with a faint touch of vanilla hinting at American oak. Conveys a juicy raspberry fruit impression on the palate, displaying a youthfully chewy texture to its cocoa flavor. Finishes long and sweet in such an appealing fashion that it calls for a second glass. 89 

--Joel B. Payne