By Rose Murray Brown MW    Published in The Scotsman 4 March 2017

If you have ever wondered what a Chinese wine tastes like, now is the time to try.  Sainsbury’s have just introduced a Bordeaux-style red table wine from China – with plans to launch a second white wine, a Riesling, later this spring.

Sainsbury’s are not the first UK supermarket to sell Chinese wine.  In 2012 Waitrose introduced a Cabernet Gernischt-based red from Ningxia region, which sold out immediately.  Meanwhile, Berry Bros & Rudd have been selling Chinese dessert Icewines from Liaoning province northeast of Beijing, made in conjunction with Canadian consultants, which are by far the best Chinese wines I have tasted to date. 

I was particularly interested to see that Sainsbury’s new white and red table wines both hail from Yantai in Shandong peninsula in China, one of China’s burgeoning east coast wine regions - and an area I have visited several times myself.  Yantai city is the new name for the historic old treaty port of Chefoo, located in the northeast of the peninsula.

Midway between Beijing and Shanghai, the Shandong juts into the Yellow Sea opposite Korea.  It is considered one of China’s most promising vineyard areas due to the cool Pacific breezes, south facing slopes, shelter from the Dazashen mountains and limestone soils. 

However, Shandong’s maritime climate has its problems.  There are intermittent threats of typhoons and monsoons.  The last freak typhoon in 1987 devastated vineyards on the peninsula’s south coast around Qingdao.  But the real problem encountered annually by Shandong’s vine growers is the area’s high humidity and a lack of sun.  Growers are constantly battling rot, disease and trying to encourage ripeness - which can be particularly problematic with the ever-popular late ripening Cabernet varietals.

Shandong has two main vineyard areas.  The first is Yantai area, where Sainsbury’s Noble Dragon originates.  Here vineyards extend to the southwest of this old treaty port principally owned by Changyu Group, who are taking wine tourism in China to a new level with their European-style City of Wine in Yantai city (pictured right).  This fascinating haven of Germanic-style vineyards, cellars and tasting areas is, rather bizarrely – but typical in China - surrounded on all sides by Yantai’s new high rise sky scrappers and office complexes.

Just northwest of Yantai city on the northern coast of the peninsula near Penglai is another sought-after vineyard area with an ancient viticultural tradition, already established with Treaty Port and Weilong wineries.  More recently in 2008, the leading French firm DBR Chateau Lafite, in association with the Chinese group CITIC, established 25 hectares of vineyards here on land originally used for peanut trees (see below Lafite's winery in China under construction).  Lafite imported vine clones from Bordeaux varietals initially using Treaty Port winery facilities.  Their director Christopher Salin declared their first wines to be ‘not bad compared to everything drunk locally, but not yet good’.

The other area of development is on Shandong’s south coast around the old missionary town of Qingdao (Tsingtao).  Huadong winery was established by Hong Kong businessman Michael Parry using foreign expertise from Australia and modern investment, but their Chardonnay and Rieslings were pale lean imitations of European equivalents.

Sainsbury’s Noble Dragon red is made by China’s oldest wine company, Changyu which was established in 1892 by overseas diplomat Zhang Bishi who imported plants from USA.  Today Changyu Pioneer Wine Company is one of the world’s ten largest wine companies (90,000 tonnes of wine) with vineyard holdings in Shandong, Ningxia and Liaoning provinces – and recently expanded overseas with Chateau Changyu-Kely in New Zealand.

Noble Dragon is made principally from a grape called Cabernet Gernischt, from Changyu’s 1400 hectares of this grape in Shandong, with a little Cabernet Sauvignon to add structure to the blend.

Cabernet Gernischt is a grape name you may well have never encountered.  This is the Chinese name for a grape which for many years was thought to be Cabernet Franc, but was recently discovered by Swiss grape geneticist Jose Vouillamoz to be none other than Carmenere (also found in France and Chile).  It has been grown in Wuhai Valley in Inner Mongolia in China since the 1800s.  In China it makes a lighter earthier red than any Chilean Carmenere, but still with the grape’s characteristic green hints, soyasauce and spice. 

Chinese winegrowers have learnt quickly that reducing yields of Cabernet Gernischt can help physiological ripeness and using other Bordeaux varietals in the blend softens or adds structure.  Getting their Cabernet varietals to ripen is a big challenge in Shandong – and the Chinese experiment with residual sugar levels and added tannins to help create approachable styles.

Pula Valley Winery Chateau Yantai ChinaSainsbury’s say they are aiming to broaden customers’ horizons.  With China the second largest producer of grapes in the world (ahead of France) - it was only a matter of time before UK supermarkets would start listing western-style Asian wines.

“For anyone who usually enjoys traditional Cabernet Sauvignon blends from Bordeaux then this is a good option to broaden your horizons. It will go brilliantly with both Asian meat-based dishes as well as a traditional English roast” says Georgia Nidd of Sainsbury’s.

Alcohol: 12%
Grapes: Cabernet Gernischt with Cabernet Sauvignon
Price: £8
Stockist: Sainsbury’s

Tasting note: Herbal blackfruit aromas will remind you initially of claret, but there the similarity ends.  The palate is light, initially sweet generous ripe herby fruits, cedary hints from small oak maturation.  The mid-palate is leafy with earthy notes and dry with brusque tannins on the finish.  I found it surprisingly drinkable and was impressed by the improved quality since my last visit to Changyu in Yantai.  Definitely worth a try.


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