Jim Boyce unravels the intriguing Chinese grapevine

Updated: 2012-06-04 10:42

By Mike Peters (China Daily)

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Jim Boyce unravels the intriguing Chinese grapevine

Provided to China Daily

Jim Boyce unravels the intriguing Chinese grapevine

"If you picked No 7 as one of your top three wines," Jim Boyce says at a recent wine-tasting he hosted in Beijing, "it means you've had too much to drink."

That sent chuckles rippling through the lunch crowd from the worlds of food, wine and media.

By then, we'd all had a tad too much to drink. But we all realized that Boyce was kidding: At this tasting - where we'd sampled more than a dozen wines with a retail price of 100 yuan ($16) or less - the goal was to judge a glass of wine by its taste, not by the label or price tag.

As the blogger behind the popular nightlife scene setter Beijing Boyce, he has become a fixture in the capital's food and wine scene.

"I'm not an expert in this stuff," he insists, "I'm just interested, and when I started there weren't as many sources of this kind of information as there are today."

That knowledge gap prompted him to start a second blog, Grape Wall of China - another voyage of discovery.

"Seven years ago when I started the wine blog, if you asked people about quality wines in China, all they could say was "Grace". That was true the next year, and the third year. But now there is an international spotlight on other Chinese wineries such as Helan, Hansen and Sunshine Valley."

One reason for that spotlight is Jim Boyce, who knows many winemakers and has sampled and discussed their wares with them for years as they've developed. He's recruited a panel of experts in food and wine who also participate in the wine blog and his events.

Last fall, he hosted North by Northwest, a tasting for all of the wines of those less-known compass points of Chinese wine, and since then has organized two similar events specifically for the wines of Ningxia.

Boyce is fascinated by the many misconceptions about Chinese wine. (He got a slew of comments for an April Fool's Day joke report that an eminent food scientist at a major Chinese university had studied the issue and concluded definitively that no wines could pair well with any Chinese cuisine.)

One of his favorite "amazing notions" is that Chinese people have no palate for wine.

"Are you kidding?" he asks. "The Chinese palate is potentially one of the most sensitive in the world. We're talking about people who have eaten tofu since childhood and can discriminate among 50 different preparations of it.

"Get a life," he tells the naysayers. "What's so difficult about finding the nuances of wine?" Chinese are also discovering cars, coffee and Italian gelato, he says, and managing pretty well.

The biggest reason outsiders think Chinese don't know good wine from Jamba Juice is that they judge the Chinese palate based on the quality of Chinese wine, which has generally been low.

"Cheap wine is where the biggest market has been, and Chinese winemakers can sell all of the inexpensive wine they can make," he says. "Right now, there's little motivation to invest in higher-end production with a limited market."

While the quality-wine market has been curbed by expectations ("Is it French? Is it Bordeaux?") and limited production, that's changing now that Chinese wines like Helan's Jia Bei Lan are starting to win international recognition.

But it's still going to be awhile before city folks in China can shop for many of these wines, Boyce says, especially those produced in the western provinces.

"Most of them are still producing bottles in the thousands, not millions, so they can sell everything they make close to home. And shipping wines to Beijing and Shanghai requires more than just the packing and transit cost - you have to pay the retailers for shelf space and display. Today, they just don't need to do that."

Two sets of competing forces that Boyce finds especially intriguing on China's wine scene:

East vs west: Wines from Shandong get the lion's share of attention because the east coast location offers easy distribution to ports and to China's big cities. It's such an advantage that some western wineries ship their grapes or juice east for processing and distribution. But many industry insiders think the potential for the best wines is in the west, with its drier climate, less-polluted air and distinct terroir.

Red vs white: Reds dominate the Chinese wine market for two main reasons. "That's what color Bordeaux is," Boyce says, grinning.

"And in China, 'white wine' means something else, and that something is a national heritage that's hard to compete with. But while it may be hard to make a name for a Chinese white wine," Boyce says, "many agronomists in the wine business think the country's greatest wines to come will be white."

It's a game of patience, Boyce adds: "I've been drinking wines from Ningxia winemakers for seven years, because I meet these guys occasionally and they bring a case of it. Now we're starting to see some of it on store shelves."

But the market will come.

"Last year, China's Helan Qing Xue rocked and shocked, stirred and shook the wine world when its Jia Bei Lan first took a regional trophy, and then took an international one, at the Decanter World Wine awards," he says in a recent post.

While awards for China were more modest in that competition this year, the 2012 International Wine Challenge saw nine wines from producers based in China receive some form of recognition.

"The highest was a silver medal by Glory Red 2009 from Junding, an operation that is based in Shandong province and has investment from COFCO, which owns the wine brand Great Wall."

"Not long ago, good wineries in California's Napa Valley or in New Zealand couldn't get taken seriously because they weren't European," he says. "It's not going to happen overnight for China, either."