Sunday, October 14, 2007

Wine and Cheese in a Chinese Vineyard

The Chinese Culture Club is a non-profit group that organizes classes and tours for mostly expatriates looking for a bit more beyond the usual tourist sites.

And yesterday I joined a bus tour to Hebei Province where there is a vineyard and winery. Two hours north west of Beijing, Sino-French Chateau produces grapes used to produce such wines as Great Wall, Dragon Seal and Dynasty. It's a joint effort by the Chinese and French governments after Premier Wen Jiabao visited France in 1997 and wanted to have a winery near Beijing.

While it rained as we left the Chinese capital, blue skies and clean air met us in Huailai County, a rural area with not much around except fields and a relatively underdeveloped town.

Thirty-year-old Zhao Desheng is the vice-general manager and wine maker. He first showed us the distillery where they crush the hand-picked grapes and then put the juice into stainless steel tanks. We just missed the end of the harvest season, which was moved up a few weeks earlier. Global warming may have had something to do with it.

Huailai County is 500 metres above sea level, and the relatively cool climate and well drained soil is considered good for growing grapes.

We then got to try six bottles, two whites, four reds. They ranged from plonk to impressive.

I'll just tell you the ones we liked. The others were hard to drink because they needed to breathe more or just too tart. The 2005 Chardonnay was pale yellow, fruity and smooth. It had a crisp finish.

We also liked the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon that also went down easy but had a slight tart after taste.

Everyone raved about the 2005 Marselan. It had a deep wine colour, again slightly tart, but very smooth. Marselan is a relatively new grape varietal created by cross-breeding Cabernet Sauvignon with Grenache.

Unfortunately the Chardonnay and Marselan wines were not for sale. Zhao said it was because production levels were very small. Too bad.

While we were tasting, we weren't served any bread or crackers, but Swiss cheese. I guess that's the Chinese impression of what wine tastings are like.

Afterwards we continued the eating and drinking with a simple lunch of cold cuts, sliced cucumber, pate and lots of bread.

Then we wandered through the vineyard and Zhao showed us the grapes for Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. They had already finished harvesting, but there were a few bunches left on the vines here and there. They were small and very round, with big seeds and plopping them into your mouth, they were like little round bubbles filled with juice.

An older Frenchman on the tour who lives near Chateauneuf du Pape in the Rhone wine region, was very impressed by the winery and inspected everything from the tanks to the grapes.

Zhao also showed us the cellar, a small room above ground with French oak barrels that are apparently 7,000RMB (US$932) each and can only be used for three years. They bottle their wines using cork.

The winery has only been in operation since 1999 so it has a ways to go. But from what we tasted, there is some promise that could lead to more wine than maotai on dining tables.

No comments: