An invitation to judge wine competitions in Japan and China last month gave me an irresistible opportunity to take a good look at the fledgling wine industries of these two Asian powerhouses side by side. Comparisons are, as they say, odious and the differences are far in fact far more interesting and extensive than any features they have in common.
In Shanghai for the 3rd China Wine Challenge organised by Ron Brown, a Tokyo-based wine merchant, the emphasis was on imported wines. It’s hardly surprising that China’s growing middle classes have been drawn to French wine, Bordeaux in particular, and the New World. China’s extensive home-grown wine industry of almost 1000 wineries is dominated by the giants of Great Wall, Dynasty and Changyu, but quality is generally mediocre and prices high. The Chinese focus on status, cheapness and fancy packaging, so value is the new battleground.
While the number of Chinese wine entries was small, those few that did compete for Best Chinese Red and White were classy, notably the 2010 Grace Vineyard Tasya's Reserve Chardonnay and the 2010 Silver Heights Family Reserve 2010. A growing number of small grower wines like these stand proudly alongside the 2009 Jei Bei Lan made by Li Demei which won the international cabernet sauvignon trophy at last year’s Decanter World Wine Awards. Coincidentally, from 28 August, Waitrose will be the first supermarket to stock a Chinese wine, the 2011 Changyu Cabernet Gernischt, Ningxia, £9.99.
Japan is a different kettle of sashimi. What it lacks in conspicuously brash consumption, it makes up for in a more mature appreciation of quality and value. Most of the wines at Tokyo’s Japan Wine Challenge were also imported, but not all. Judging a table of Japanese wines made from the native koshu grape, I was astonished to find our panel giving one gold and three silver medals.
In the Yamanashi wine region at the end of July, 100 wineries from 24 regions put 690 Japanese-only wines up against each other in the similar-sounding Japan Wine Competition. Some were made from wild or hybrid grapes with weird and wonderful names like Yamabudo and Yamatonadesiku. The actual wines made from them were also weird but less wonderful. Wines made from koshu on the other hand confirmed its growing reputation as a force to be reckoned with. The quality of Japanese chardonnay was another eye-opener.
We don’t as yet see enough koshu wine here in the UK, but Grace’s wines are among the best. Fresh, floral and smoky, the 2011 Grace Kayagatake, around £17.99, Great Wines Direct (02034684269), Selfridges, is delicately citrusy and bone dry, while its superior sister, the 2011 Grace Hishiyama, around £21.49, Selfridges, Luvians (01334477752), has similar smoky aromas with a wonderful purity of flavour and texture and a steely, bone dry finish. Just when we thought there were no new wine frontiers, Japan and China are proving us wrong.
Something For the Weekend 18 August
2011 Tesco Finest* Vinho Verde
A typical blend of the local loureiro and trajadura grapes, the aromatic notes and summery zip of this Atlantic Coast Portuguese dry white bring a bracing freshness and zing to a summer’s evening wine of relatively moderate alcohol. £7.29, Tesco.
2011 Gobelsburg Grüner Veltliner, Lower Austria
Gobelsburg’s Michael Moosbrugger knows how to coax the special freshness and fragrance of Austria’s nummer eins white grape variety, whose freshness and finely-tuned zing is underpinned by notes of white pepper and spice. £9.99, Waitrose.
2011 Xanadu Margaret River Chardonnay, Margaret River, Western Australia
Margaret River has rapidly become one of Australia’s top wine regions for the white Burgundy style, as here, of peachy fruit richness mingled with real complexity of flavour, nutty texture and grapefruity zest. £16.99, Marks & Spencer.