Merde! Chinese Wines Did What to French Wines?

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In France, the litany of job reductions continues. Air France, automaker PSA Peugeot Citroën, banks like Crédit Agricole, BNP Paribas, Société Générale, and Crédit Foncier, they all chimed in with job reductions. Then there were Areva, the largely government-owned nuclear-power conglomerate, drug maker Sanofi, ferry operator Seafrance (in liquidation), and newspapers—Les Échos, Parisien-Aujourhui, France-Soir, and Comareq (in liquidation). It’s tough out there. And now, France’s heavily subsidized signature industry—wines—got slapped in the face. By China.

In a blind winetasting competition in Beijing on December 14, five wines from Bordeaux and five wines from Ningxia—all priced between 200 and 500 yuan—were wrapped in black cloth, tagged with a number, and served to ten French and ten Chinese wine judges. The judges spent 40 minutes tasting and ranking the wines and another 30 minutes discussing them. Then the results were announced: the top four wines were Chinese!

  1. Grace Vineyard Chairman’s Reserve 2009 (China)
  2. Silver Heights The Summit 2009 (China)
  3. Helan Qing Xue Jia Bei Lan Cabernet Dry Red 2009 (China)
  4. Grace Vineyard Deep Blue 2009 (China)
  5. Barons de Rothschild Collection Saga Medoc 2009 (France)

The other losers in alphabetical order: Calvet Reserve De L’Estey Medoc 2009, Cordier Prestige Rouge 2008, Kressmann Grande Réserve St-Émilion AOC 2008, Mouton Cadet Reserve Medoc 2009, and Silver Heights Family Reserve 2009.

Sacrilège,” screamed the headline of the French business daily, La Tribune. But the top French dailies, Le Monde and Le Figaro, suppressed the news, quite understandably. The people have enough to worry about. Or they didn’t take it too seriously. How rude! Nevertheless….

“Yesterday’s tasting suggested Ningxia wines can hold their own against bigger Bordeaux brands,” wrote Jim Boyce, organizer of the Ningxia vs Bordeaux Challenge, and administrator of www.grapewallofchina.com. Ningxia, an autonomous region in Northwest China, appears to be the up and coming wine-growing area.

OK, French wines have been beaten with some regularity ever since the Judgment of Paris on May 24, 1976, when, to the utter and never fully digested shock of the French wine establishment, a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay beat their Bordeaux counterparts—and put California on the international wine map.

“We never claimed this was the Beijing version of The Judgment of Paris,” Boyce said modestly. The tasting wasn’t designed to compare the best of Bordeaux to the best of Ningxia, but, as Boyce writes in his follow-up post on the tasting:

“We used a price range to compare top Ningxia wines with bigger and better-known Bordeaux brands sold here by major distributors—brands consumers are more likely to know and have access to.”

Of course, wine competitions can be criticized. The French wines were handicapped by an import tax of 48% (another detail of why China has a huge trade surplus with the rest of the world). But then, Chinese wines got hit with consumption and value-added taxes that reduced the gap to 20%, according to Boyce. And the most expensive Bordeaux retailed for rmb350 while the winning Ningxia retailed for rmb488. Quite a price difference. And let’s hope that the Bordeaux weren’t fakes, like so many Bordeaux—and other products—in China.

And as anyone knows who has been drinking French wines, there is a lot of mediocre stuff out there, and some of that stuff has a big price tag in countries where brand, region, and the words “France” and “Bordeaux” are major selling points, rather than quality. So the competition didn’t compare Chinese wines to a Grand Cru Bordeaux that costs a bunch in France and several times that much in China. The wines chosen were those available to Chinese consumers. And the competition tried to answer the question: Can a Chinese consumer buy a Chinese wine that is as good or better than the similarly-priced French stuff at the supermarket?

But who could have imagined a few years ago spending $77 on a bottle of good Chinese wine to be shared over a romantic dinner? The French must have had similar thoughts about California wines in the aftermath of May 24, 1976. Yet, wine-making isn’t rocket science. It’s a craft, and it can be learned. It also benefits from a broad range of climate and soil conditions. Excellent wines are produced all over the world, including Africa. So why not China? And in France, part of the subsidized wine production that can’t be sold to the Chinese or others is turned into even more subsidized ethanol.

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