Chinese Wine Review: Chateau Rongzi 2013 Shanxi China

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.

Not this:


Rongzi Vineyards

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.

China Wine Regions

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?

Rongzi WineLineup

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.
Chateau Rongzi Bottle
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.
Rongzi Rose
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.
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Break Work With Chardonnay From Italy

Be honest with yourself: it has been a long day. You deserve a drink. But the last thing you want is more work. It can be interesting, sure. But complexity, tannins, grip, and food pairings sound horrid.

Let me whisk you to Italy. Specifically, Tuscany: land of rolling hills, Chianti, Renaissance palazzi, and rustic food. But leave the sweat, art, dust, gelato, and tourists of Firenze (aka Florence) behind.  Head northeast, into the mountains, and you will find Pomino DOC: a few miles from where I use to excavate an Etruscan temple.

Pomino MapEstablished in 1983 Pomino, as a DOC, oddly focusses on French grapes Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco (Blanc), Pinot Nero (Noir), and Sauvignon Blanc.  At 700 meters above sea level, in the middle mountainous, peasant-ridden nowhere, this is an odd place to sit on the cutting edge of international wine style.

Yet, enter Frescobaldi: a family living here since the 1300s, who made wine for Henry VIII, and today dominate production around Rufina and Pomino. Their Chardonnay comes from their highest vineyard surrounded by sequoias, firs and chestnut trees. It becomes wine in stainless tanks, with a dash in barrels seeing malolactic fermentation, in just four months. It will solve your dreary day.

Frescobaldi, Chardonnay, Pomino DOC Italy 2016 $22

Frescobaldi Pomino Chardonnay 2016

Colors looks a clear, pale straw glinting with steel and washing the glass. Aromas flit and lilt delicately, hinting at orange blossom, jasmine, kiwi, candied lime, and white pear that amplify and become more honeyed when drunk. Yet the palate remains dry, clean, round, and a touch fleshy, but with good acidity. The length is medium plus.

Frescobaldi’s Pomino Chardonnay is Spring in a glass. Florals and fruits stop short of becoming cloying. The body teeters on voluptuous but stays clean and silken. It is very good (4 of 5).

If you must, you can pair it up with some delicate, young cheeses, mild mixed nuts, white fish, salads. But honestly, just enjoy it and forget the world.

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Mourvedre Part 3: Wine Review of Kenneth Volk, Mourvèdre, Enz Vineyard, Lime Kiln Valley, California 2012

Monday Mourvèdre madness sees a new wine in our glasses. The rare grape of Bandol and Southern France has found a small niche in warm Central California. After trying the light Croad (here) and plump Terry Hoag (read here), it is time to turn to one of the smallest AVAs with the oldest Mourvèdre: Lime Kiln Valley.

Lime Kiln Valley AVA

Lime Kiln Valley sits like a Russian doll in the Cienega Valley, which sits in San Benito County, in Montery, in Central California, in California, in America (*phew). Lime Kiln Valley lives up to its name: rich with limestone and dolomite. Temperatures range an extreme 50 degrees. The perfect recipe for torturing vines to make quality grapes.

And only one family farms Lime Kiln Valley: The Enz family. They started in 1895, and planted Mourverdre 1922: one of the oldest Mourvedre vineyards anywhere. Currently there are 40 acres of vineyards, including a 15 acre parcel of head-trained Mourvèdre.

Lucky for us Kenneth Volk made some in 2012.

Kenneth Volk Vineyards, Mourvèdre, Enz Vineyard, Lime Kiln Valley, California 2012 $25-$36

Kenneth Volk Mourvedre Lime Kiln 2012

A deep purple-colored core is crowned by thin wash legs. Aromas crackle with dried herbs, especially fennel, a whiff of honeyed bacon, tobacco, pomegranate and blackberry fruit leather. The palate is dry, popping with medium plus acidity, dried reed-like medium tannins, medium 13.2% alcohol, the body is medium,  Medium plus flavors cut about with the fennel, pomegranate, dried cherry skin, white tobacco ash, and salt that carry a medium plus length.

Volk’s Mourverdre is juicy, bright, yet edgy, and well-bodied. It reminds me of a lighter  Bandol. It is outstanding stuff (5 of 5).  But unless you are a masochist, it cries for food. Poultry with a bit of char and balsamic glaze, wild foul, venison, black mushroom and truffle dishes, or serious cheeses are a must.


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Mourvedre Part 2: Wine Review 5 Blocks Terry Hoag Paso Robles 15

Our Mourvèdre adventures via Paso Robles continue. After the lean bright Croad (read here), today we try something a bit more friendly.  Former footballer-turned winemaker, Terry Hoag, makes some solid estate wines (read here) even if they’re named after pigskin puns. Only one wine sees Mourvèdre added: “5 Blocks” (referring to his five field goal blocks in college…of course).

Mourvèdre plays to type, with more of a supporting role at 28%, Syrah leads with 60%, followed by 12% Grenache that rounds out the blend.

How is it:

TH Vineyards, 5 Blocks, Paso Robles, Willow Creek District, California Cuvee 2015 $60


Terry Hoag 5 Blocks Paso Robles Wine 2015

It looks an inky purple, ruby-rimmed, and running the glass with thin tinted legs.  The moderate nose smells of cocoa powder, fresh mint leaf, and vanilla extract tossed on top of a hot, bubbling, black cherry pie. The dry palate has enough acidity, medium balsa wood tannins, a hot pie alcoholic heat (14.6%), and a medium plus body. But left open overnight, the flavors come to the fore. Baked black cherry, raspberry, and boysenberry fruits come off clean and ripe. Yet a serious streak of bootstrap leather, peppercorn, and pipe tobacco tame the fruit beast.

Terry Hoag’s 5 Blocks is ripe, readied, and very good (4 of 5). Drink it solely or with lamb dishes, portobello mushroom burgers, truffled cheeses, dark chocolate.

Not bad for a footballer.


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Nebbiolo…from Oregon? Cerulean Nebbiolo Columbia Gorge OR 2010

Most American Nebbiolo sucks. Once upon a time, I loved Palmina’s efforts (read here). But if I am honest with my naive self, Santa Barbara Nebbiolo tastes nothing like the Piedmont, Italy.

So, Oregon wine. You may have heard of our fabulous Willamette Valley Pinot, maybe even warmer Umqua, Rogue, or Appelgate Valleys.  But there lies another AVA, East of Portland, East of Mount Hood, along the slopes of the river that brought Lewis and Clarke to the Pacific: the Columbia Gorge AVA.

Columbia Gorge AVAThe Cascades shield the Columbia Gorge from the dripping, dreary, I-take-Vitamin D-supplements Pacific Ocean. But it sits before the dry high desert Columbia Valley AVA. That means a still cool climate, with warmer summers and greater diurnal range than the ever cool wet westerly Willamette: a good recipe for Nebbiolo.

Cerulean Winery has a 23 acre organic vineyard called Acadia. It blankets volcanic soils on Underwood Mountain at 1,000 feat above sea level.  For Nebbiolo, they hand pick and ferment 50% whole cluster and 50% destemmed grapes then age it for 28 months in neutral French oak barrels and 18 months more in bottle.

Does all this effort make for a rival of Barbaresco or Barolo Nebbiolo? Let’s try it:

Cerulean Nebbiolo Columbia Gorge OR 2010 $20-$25

Cerlulean Nebbiolo Columbia Gorge Oregon 2010

The APPEARANCE looks clear medium intense garnet glinting with ruby highlights and washed legs. AROMAS glow exotic with medium intensity Turkish delight with rose water and almonds, crushed blueberries, black cherry liquor, and dried vanilla husk. The PALATE feels dry, with medium acidity, medium plus tannins, a mild 12.8% alcohol and a medium body.  FLAVORS lump red cherry, blueberry, and orange peel alongside toasted vanilla and smoke. They last a medium plus length.

Cerulean’s 2010 Nebbiolo is very good (4 of 5). It lacks the power, tannin, and age-ability of Barbaresco and Barolo. Yet, think of a more general Piedmontese Nebbiolo, like a Langhe, d’Alba, or Reoro: an amiable, daily red with enough earth and interest for Tuesday’s dinner. Not shabby.

(Thanks to cohort Tavia for suggesting this fab wine).

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