Picture China. Depending on where your from, a collage of pandas, red flags, chopsticks, tea, rice bowls, Mao portraits, and bamboo groves may pass through your mind.
Yup. Vineyards. Since at least 7,000 BCE, China has been making alcohol from grapes. Yet wine remained a fringe product, more an exotic treat for the elite than a mass produced, daily beverage for the masses. It took until 1980 for French wine to crack into China, but public interest only swelled by 2000 with China’s global rise. Production has hovered around 7th place worldwide, sandwiched between Argentina and South Africa at 11.5 million hectoliters.
But I am not worried about volume. Can they make quality vino? Today’s tipple comes from Shanxi: a high plateau, with deep loess soil, kept dry by mountains with wide temperature ranges, below the Great Wall, southeast from Beijing.
Today’s winery is Chateau Rongzi. Zhang Wenquan founded it with billions he had made in coal mining after the recession hit. And he did not mess around. He spent a cool $92 million on 400 hectares with a massive, and I mean massive castle.
He also hired the best, Jean Claude Berrouet: the winemaker of Bordeaux’s Petrus. So can ambition, money, talent, and worthwhile land make great wine?
Let’s try their cabernet,
Chateau Rongzi, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shanxi, China 2013
Hand picked 75.85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18.63% Marselan (a Cab/Grenache crossing), and 5.52% Merlot aged 12 months in oak barrels.
APPEARANCE: A clear but abnormal ruby cranberry color with cranberry highlights
AROMAS: smell a bit quiet, dusky, with rhubarb, black cherry, dried wood, spice, and fox musk .
PALATE: Feels dry, with medium plus acidity, tame medium tannins, a medium body, and rustic linen texture.
FLAVORS: range from raspberry and twangy cranberry, a slight soy, to fox musk and ash that cary into a dry, spicy, medium plus length.
Rongzi’s Cab blend is a bit wild, a bit tame, but very good (4 of 5). It reminds me of cool vintage, young vine Bordeaux, or Cabernets from fringe cool climates like New York or the Loire where wild yeasts fight fruit and oak for attention. However, $139 is a hefty price. Although it’s cheaper than a flight to China.
Not your wallet’s cup of tea?
$39 will get you Rongzi’s rosé. Your guess of what the grapes are is as good as mine.
It looks neon pink. It tastes sweet yet acidic, like grapefruit and those strawberry candies. Like a white Zin, Rongzi’s rosé is somehow horrible but everything it should be: like a sweet tart, or sweet and sour pork. You know it is gross but you feel guilty liking it. It fits a niche (3 of 5) even if that niche is a deep, dark crevice that I never wish to enter ever ever again.
In summation, Rongzi has taken a “great leap forward” (apologies) for Chinese wine. They risk pricing into a luxury market they do not yet deserve. But a ton of Champagne, Napa Cab, and Bordeaux disappoints relative to its hefty price. So Rongzi, and by association China, have enough potential, ambition, and money parallel to upwardly mobile consumers to be the next premier wine producing nation.