Wine in China: A sign of things ahead
Australian wine commentator, Jeremy Oliver, shares some China wining and dining moments and the future for high-quality Chinese wines.
It was a warm Wednesday evening in November that I found myself back in Shanghai, a city that has well and truly got under my skin, and about to dine at a highly-rated, small and independent restaurant named Madison.
A couple of phone calls and a few arm signals later – plus a repeat of the feeling that it’s high time I learned Chinese – I was waved into a modest hallway leading into a semi-darkened dining space whose warm, welcoming ambience suggested a place well worth the finding.
Madison, it turns out, is a very significant restaurant whose star is unquestionably on the rise. Executive Chef and owner Austin Hu is American-trained but strongly committed to supporting suppliers of Chinese artisan ingredients. This is a deep, emotional commitment, the sort of which you often see amongst individuals who have returned to the country of their family and heritage.
In much the same way that Chef Jacques Reymond helped foster the growth of small, specialist vegetables and fruits around Melbourne after his arrival from France in the 1980s, Hu has explored far and wide to source suppliers who share his conviction that food should be seasonal, and that it should be nurtured by people who care less for machinery and chemicals than they do taste and tradition. His tomolives come from Yunnan, his naturally sparkling water from a spring in Heilongjiang.
*Pictured above: Shanghai’s hip Madison restaurant.
None of this I knew on arrival, of course, nor that I was about to experience some of the most innovative western-influenced presentations of purely Chinese ingredients of any of my 15 or more trips to China. Neither was I aware that with my group of four, we were to be presented with matching wines for each course, each of which were also 100 percent Chinese. Another first for me.
First up on this night of surprises was an entrée described as sea bream crudo, accompanied by raspberries and pickled mini-daikon. A fresh, delicate dish that easily handled the intensity and purity of the fruit, it slowly revealed a presence of spice/pickle and vinegar, which then tended to accumulate on the palate.
The sommelier partnered it with Grace Vineyard’s Symphony Series Muscat 2009 from Shan Xi. On its own this slightly brittle young wine offered a spicy, muscat perfume of lavender, apple blossom and pear. Surprisingly mouth-watering, it’s forward, juicy palate of tinned apple and pear flavours is underpinned by a chalky, rather drying undercarriage, finishing with some hard-edged acids.
While I found the pickle and vinegar picked out the faintly metallic nature of the wine, the dish ably emphasised its apparent roundness and depth of fruit, actually making the wine better.
What, I was asked, would I have chosen for the dish if given a free range? It would have been riesling for mine – with perfume and spice plenty, intensity of fruit and structure, perhaps with a hint of sweetness. So I would be searching through Alsace, Austria, Marlborough (NZ) or Tasmania (Australia).
Next up was a simply beautiful dish presented as sturgeon with Jinhua ham, Chinese watercress and a clam broth. As fresh, clear and clean as the previous course, with delicate fish, succulent ham and remarkable small cuts of potato, it was lifted by a herbal aspect that no doubt influenced the choice of wine.
From Xi’an came the 2009 vintage – the first ever – of Jade Valley’s Sauvignon Blanc. A mere 150 litres only were made of this wine, a number so small it scares the winemaker inside me. It’s infinitely more difficult to make tiny batches of wine than it is to create large volumes, and you have absolutely no opportunity to hide or mask anything of which you might not entirely approve.
With some dusty, green olive aspects, the wine slowly revealed some genuine varietal notes of gooseberries and lychees, but it was impossible to ignore its rather meaty, cheesy undertones. It finished rather short, flat and lacking freshness. That said, my fellow diners enjoyed the way the wine picked up on the fish oil on the palate, and the wild quality of the fish did enhance the rustic nature of the wine.
While the dish actually would have done handsome justice to a top-rate Pouilly-Fumé or a Cru Chablis of some standing, it’s important to report on the Jade Valley wine in its true context. It’s very brave to put such a small volume, first-crop wine fermented in a glass container in front of someone like me. While it’s too early by far to suggest that Jade Valley may or may not have a winner on its hands with sauvignon blanc, I’m firmly of the view that the wine showed enough potential to justify some enthusiasm. And it will never be as hard or as unfamiliar to make again!
Arriving next was a classic, gamey dish of duck breast, king oyster mushroom and chrysanthemum greens. Rich, fatty in flavour and laced with truffle oil, but retaining Chef Austin’s flair forelegance, it simply cried out for a meaty Comte de Vogue, Clos de Vougeot or Musigny. It’s early days yet for China to deliver a pinot noir of this level – a surprise bottle of Jade Valley’s rather rustic and dirty Pinot Noir 2009 presented at the table was the first Chinese pinot noir I have tasted – so we went to familiar and happy territory for me: the Silver Heights Family Reserve Cabernet Blend 2008 from Helan Mountain.
*Pictured right: “The truffle oil and the sugar around the duck breast were just too much for the wine, but I was past caring…”
This first-rate blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon, 30 percent cabernet gernischt (now unique to China but perhaps an older selection of cabernet franc) and 10 percent cabernet franc, marries modern technical ability with a traditional winemaking philosophy.
It’s smooth, and silky, with a fresh, lightly dusty and herbal bouquet of small red berries, cranberries and a hint of blood plum tightly knit with spotless cedar/vanilla oak, all backed by a trace of mint. Polished and sweet-fruited, it’s evenly ripened, with a long, sumptuous presence of black and red berries, Satsuma plum and lightly smoky chocolate/mocha oak underpinned by powdery tannins, finishing with a hint of fennel.
The truffle oil and the sugar around the duck breast were just too much for the wine, but I was past caring. This is not the first release of this quality made by Silver Heights – which is now doing as much as anyone to convince us that it’s only a matter of time before China has a high-end wine industry of its own. I was so excited by it that I stole a glass for the Australian Ambassador to China, seated just two tables away. It disappeared.
Chef Austin next produced a venison dish with a crust of hazelnut brown butter, sweet potato puree, braised greens and wild blueberry compote. Served quite rare for game, it was however more creamy, almost mild and clearly farmed. But it worked, with the sweetness of the fruit neatly countering the texture of the meat.
Deserving of a mature Chateauneuf-du-Pape or spicy, leathery Western Victorian shiraz, it was partnered by another Jade Valley wine, the Cabernet Sauvignon 2008. Regrettably, the rustic, barnyard aspects of this wine reflected too extreme a presence of brettanomyces, drying it out, with a bitter, horse-hair aspect. So the group retreated to what was left of the Silver Heights.
Finally, the chef’s curtain call of fresh persimmon crumble and brown butter ice cream was presented with a ring-in from Australia, Seppeltsfield’s Rutherglen Grand Muscat from northeast Victoria. They made a perfect pair, with this more restrained, floral but unctuously flavoured, spicy and raisined dessert wine matching the dish for concentration, texture and richness.
Throughout this meal of surprise and invention shone some enduring themes. We all took note of Chef Austin’s great respect for the quality of his Chinese ingredients, and his unwillingness to walk all over them in the kitchen. The meal was light and clever – we had plenty of food but the portions were carefully controlled. Just as the chef showed a clear understanding of colour and texture, so did the sommelier work intelligently while being able to select from a very limited and narrow available array of premium Chinese wine.
I count myself fortunate to have learned of a new philosophy towards artisan Chinese ingredients, to have experienced a stand-out presentation of cuisine, and to have enjoyed a range of wines, each pointing to a vibrant future for high-end Chinese wine. Some, naturally, were closer to achieving that status than others.
And, having now experienced some excellent Chinese wines from labels like Silver Heights and The Grace Vineyard, plus some samples from the Sino-French Demonstration Vineyard of genuine intrigue, I have no doubt that the capacity to make world-class wine exists within China. What will inevitably take time and investment will be the processes that determine which agricultural regions are most suited towards wine production, how to adapt internationally accepted techniques of viticulture and winemaking into the Chinese environment, and how to respond to the very specific challenges posed by viticulture across China that will relate specifically to the climates and soils of the sites being explored. ■