Vincent Debien is a long way from home, although that’s nothing new for this young Bordelais. At 26 he already has vintages from Lebanon, Corsica, Bordeaux, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland under his belt (including such names as Smith Haut Lafitte, Haut Brion, Chandon Australia and Cloudy Bay), but for 2010 Debien is helping with the slow realisation of a new major player on the world wine scene at Château Bolongbao, southwest of Beijing, in the Peoples Republic of China.
China is all the rage in the wine world at the moment; from Bordeaux First Growths putting Chinese characters on their bottles or commissioning Chinese artists to design their labels, to record breaking auction prices in Hong Kong. But while Asian wine appreciation may not be a new phenomenon – UK Fine Wine magazine Decanter has been doing a Traditional Chinese edition aimed at Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore etc. for more than 5 years – the idea of fine wine actually made in China is still taking hold in the West even though there is a winemaking history dating back thousands of years although it has only been in the last few decades that have seen a revival).
The facts put things into perspective: 2008 figures show China was the world’s seventh largest wine producer – (it was briefly 6th in 2007 after Australian production dipped dramatically) – and based on the trends it’s probably 5th by now with only Italy, France, Spain and the US making more wine by volume. True, most of that volume wouldn’t be appreciated by the average wine drinker in Europe or the US, but quality levels are rising fast.
But let me rewind back to Château Bolongbao. I was in Beijing on business and when my hosts heard about my wine obsession they kindly suggested taking me to a winery near the city. On arriving we were welcomed by a young staff member, Dingshichao, and given a guided tour of the buildings and cellar. He was happy to answer all of my questions in broken English, sometimes looking to my colleagues for a translation when he seemed to struggle for the best words, although I think even if I’d been there without friends I wouldn’t have had any problems speaking with him.
The winery was started in 2000 with French investment, which seems to be a consistent theme in Chinese winemaking. New vine plantings in 1999 meant the first vintage wasn’t until 2003 with their prestigious Grand Vin from that favourable vintage labelled as Chateau Philippe, but the 2004 and subsequent vintages have all been labelled as Chateau Bolongbao.
The vines spread out over nearly 70ha of land surrounding the winery near the village of Bashimudi, just over an hour’s drive Southwest of Beijing, past Fangshan, and there’s a development plan to purchase and plant more land and expand to as much as 200ha.
Even without M. Debien the French influence is visible all around with the Tricoleur flying proudly alongside the Chinese flag outside, the Bordeaux Oak Barrels scattered in and around the buildings and the grapes themselves; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and, allegedly, a smattering of Petit Manseng (although this was not in evidence when I was there).
Production is limited to about 100,000 bottles a year although that has dropped to nearly 50,000 for the low yielding 2010 vintage, deemed already to be a very good year (potentially the best of the winery’s short life).
With such a limited production Bolongbao doesn’t sell in local stores; apart from visiting the winery itself, getting hold of a bottle requires you to be in their direct sales wine club, in the Duty Free area of the major Chinese airports or, strangely enough, in one of several Parisian Restaurants (again I’m guessing the French Connection at play here). This exclusivity and the winery’s organic status (they’re very proud of the Chinese, European and US organic certification which seems to set it apart from most of its Chinese counterparts ) probably helps explain the high prices of Bolongbao’s wine; their top wine, the 2003 Château Philippe was being sold at the winery for 1880RMB, approximately £200!
Debien happily brought me back to the tank room for a barrel tasting as he explained a little bit about himself and what he hopes for his time in China. He arrived in August to take over the winemaking duties (Bolongbao had a Chinese winemaker up until then) and was thrown straight into the 2010 harvest, which began at the beginning of September with the Estate Merlot, then the Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon throughout September. The summer seems to have been dry with a lot of sunshine, leading to some sunburn on the Chardonnay and uneven ripeness, however, the low yields for the red grapes promise excellent quality.
First up was the Rosé; 90% Cabernet and 10% Merlot expected to come in at 13.5% abv with about 1000 bottles planned. It was an elegant salmon pink in colour and, with a just-dry taste, this was drinking very well straight out of the tank. Onto the Chardonnay next with 3 barrels and a small tank – again about 1000 bottles expected. The cask sample had a smoky nose and good texture, overtly oaky as you’d expect but with a hint of banana on the finish, potentially a very pleasant wine. Vincent was worried about low acidity in a lot of the grapes but was hoping the final blending of the tank Chardonnay, which had higher acidity than the barrel lots, would provide enough to bolster the wine’s structure.
Then to the reds, all still in tanks – the transfer to barrels was expected in the next 10 days.
Merlot was first, about 120 hectolitres (hl), which was first racked after 10 days – sooner than typical as it had good structure. The colour was rich, although Debien admitted he’d needed to do a little Carbonic Maceration to pull extra colour out of the grapes. This was a lot more elegant and lean than I’d been expecting for a Merlot, the tannins weren’t overly harsh for its age and it had a good structure, although lacked body.
Cabernet Franc next, 10 hl in a small tank off to one side – again this was first racked after only 10 days as Debien had concerns about its development. Although the nose was wonderful – heady and vegetal with a touch of acetate – in the mouth the tannins were surprisingly harsh with an ashen aspect, although it had a depth of texture that showed potential. I agreed with Vincent that there was something concerning about where this “was” – should it come together it would make a good wine and great contributor to a blend, but for the moment it was to be kept alone and watched.
Finally the Cabernet Sauvignon which had taken 3 weeks before it was first racked. 240 hl sat in 4 large tanks and had caused some concern at harvest – Debien wanted to wait for full phenolic ripeness while the owners nervously looked skywards for signs of rain (Beijing weather is notoriously unpredictable) as the grapes hung on for much longer than usual. French patience won out but even these ripe grapes are barely expected to reach 14% abv, less than usual at the Château.
This had a closed nose which eventually opened up a little in the glass, with a good structure, firm but relatively fine tannins (compared to the Cabernet Franc) and balanced acidity and fruit.
I extend my thanks to Vincent for going above and beyond with his hospitality to me on that cool but sunny November day in China, and I wish him well for his first vintage in the year of the Tiger.
Before I left I had a short walk around the picturesque oriental gardens and vineyard, noticing how the all of the lower part of the vines had been covered with soil for protection against the harsh winters this region of China experiences. I returned to Beijing with several pages of notes, plenty of camera shots and a bottle of the 2004 品丽珠 (that’s Cabernet Franc in Chinese characters) for a mere £30 at the cellar door – almost definitely more expensive than the juice inside the bottle warrants but at least affordable compared to the 2003 Château Philippe!
At least one Chinese wine review suggests Bolongbao is overpriced for what it is, but then again, isn’t that the epitome of Bordeaux as well? I suspect an element of status envy is going on here as the wines are mainly red (seen as healthy by the Chinese), exclusive and organic, while the winery is run by the son of a former general (or high ranking politician, I wasn’t sure of the translation). Given the ridiculous prices that top Bordeaux go for in China then I guess it isn’t too surprising a Bordeaux styled Chinese winery can ask, and get, high prices for it’s wines from the notoriously overspending, status symbol seeking Beijing elite.
For further background reading on the new Chinese wine culture I recommend reading Adam Luck’s excellent piece on the Bordeaux Wine Exchange, while for general reference and the latest news from the region check out WineChina.com and the Grape Wall of China Blog, which also has an earlier visit to Château Bolongbao in their archives.
Originally published on Reign of Terroir, December 17th, 2010