Enter the dragons: Chinese wine ranges in the UK

China is the expanding world superpower that just can’t keep out of the news at the moment. Though a minor part of the Chinese story in global terms, wine in China is going through a revolution – and not just the growing consumption of wine by China’s billion-plus population, but the country’s potential to become one of the globe’s powerhouse wine producers. There is no doubt that the quality of Chinese wine is on the up and up, with inward investment from large European and New World wineries. The Dynasty winery – in which Remy-Cointreau has a share – debuted on the Hong Kong stock exchange last year, and 300 million shares were immediately snapped up by global investors. There are now around 400 wineries in China. Chinese wine consumption is forecast to grow seven times faster than the average for the rest of the world, and by 2009 the Chinese are expected to drink 766 million bottles of wine per annum. The domestic industry is ramping up to meet that demand, but also to stake its place in the world of premium quality wines. Already the sixth-largest wine producing country on the planet, vine plantings are rumoured to be increasing by as much as 20% per annum.

xOne of the longest- established and best-known names in Chinese wines is Dragon Seal, established in 1987 in the Hebei province, around 100 kilometres northwest of Beijing. French winemaker Jerome Sabate overseas a French-trained Chinese team, in a winery equipped with stainless steel tanks imported from France, in various sizes to allow separate vinification of each batch of grapes. The top wines of the range are matured in a mixture of French and American oak barrels.

IAt the same time, innovative merchant Bibendum has introduced its own Dragons into the den: two wines under the Noble Dragon label. This is a joint venture between the Changyu Pioneer Winery (China’s oldest winery), Lenz Moser of Austria and Bibendum. All fruit is Chinese grown, and the UK, Austrian and Chinese teams worked together for two years to develop this brand.

Interestingly, Changyu says in its mission statement that it aims to become one of the world’s top 10 biggest producers by 2008.

I have just tasted through each of the ranges. I was impressed by this selection, which certainly does show the potential for Chinese wines, but which stand up pretty well right now as examples of fresh, modern, well-made wines with a bit of real personality and solid varietal character. China is certainly one to watch over coming decades, and any of these wines will make a fascinating introduction.

Dragon Seal

Dragon Seal (China) Brut Sparkling Wine
There’s plenty of pop in Dragon Seal’s non-vintage sparkling wine, with a decent stream of small bubbles rising from the centre of the glass. It is a 100% Chardonnay blanc de blancs made in the traditional method and aged for nine months before disgorgement. The nose is yeasty and gently toasty, with nice almond overtones to fresh, light citrus aromas. On the palate it is crisp and sharply focused, with a good mousse that softens the edges, leading into a racy citrus mid-palate where some herbal flavours and a little counterbalancing depth of toast and spice begins to emerge. There’s no great length here, but that is being hyper analytical of a well-made and fun sparkling wine, that would certainly be something different, and which would also be good with Chinese seafood dishes perhaps. £7.99, Red or White.

Dragon Seal (China) Riesling 2004
Dragon Seal’s Riesling is ‘real’ German Riesling, though amusingly the back-label translation reports “cuttings imported from the Rhine river in France.” It has a very pale straw colour, and a fine, crisp nose with a faint memory of lychee and some zesty lime notes. On the palate it has medium weight and quite a full texture, with a rounded, quite fat and oily lemon and apple fruitiness, just hinting at waxy nectarine fruit and a hint of sherbetty sweetness, but quickly constrained by white fruit and mineral acidity. Perhaps closer in style to an Alsace wine than a German one, this is a very decent wine that would seem like a good and logical partner to spicier Szechuan food perhaps. £5.99, Red or White.

Dragon Seal (China) Chardonnay 2005
Winemaking is described as ‘traditional’ for this Chardonnay, with cool alcoholic fermentation, no malolactic fermentation and no oak. It pours a pale straw colour and has a nose of pear and melon fruit, with a hint of pear-drop and estery floral notes. On the palate this has a lively fruit personality, with crisp, but ripe and sweet edged pineapple and very ripe pear fruit. There’s a coolness too, with good acidity that is lemony and fresh, adding up to a stylish, well-balanced Chardonnay. £5.99, Red or White.

Dragon Seal (China) Huailai Reserve Chardonnay 2002
The top Chardonnay from Dragon Seal was barrel fermented, and spent 12 months in French oak with lees stirring. This 2002 retains a pale straw/gold colour and has a nose exhibiting a very nice, very classy melange of gently toasty, buttery and honeyed oak notes, with hazelnut and ripe apple aromas, and a hint of something nectarine-like and more luscious beneath. On the palate the spice and toast are dominant, but there is a little cod liver-oil note that is interesting though not entirely harmonious, though it is soon overtaken by quite ripe, juicy melon fruit and more of that spice and toasty grip into a finish with decent acidity. £7.99, Red or White.

Dragon Seal (China) Merlot 2004
This wine is made from 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, from cuttings imported into the country from France in 1987. It spends 10 months in French oak barrels. It has a nice, healthy medium ruby colour with plenty of spice, roasted cumin and toasty oak notes on the nose, and a core of very ripe, plum and violet-scented fruit. On the palate this has a lot of smoky, almost barbecued flavour with the spice and coffee-like grip of the oak rather overpowering the modest mid-palate weight of fruit, but it has some flesh and a certain charm about it, and a bit of real personality. This is unbalanced towards oak for me, but is an interesting wine with definite potential. £6.99, Red or White.

Dragon Seal (China) Cabernet Sauvignon 2004
With a modest 12% alcohol, all grapes for the Dragon Seal Cabernet Sauvignon are 100% Chinese-grown, and there is 15% of Merlot in this blend. It appears to be a very lightly oaked wine, certainly with far less oaky dressing than the Merlot in the range. The nose instead is bright and fruity, in a very good expression of Cabernet Sauvignon, with notes of blackcurrant and something black olive and herb-like, and a dusting of smoky, incense like wood. On the palate the fruit is savoury and attractively ripe, with nice black berry sweetness and edgy bite, a gentle tobacco spiciness, and a background level of tannin and acidity that does enough to support the wine, whilst leaving it very easy to drink. A fine, food-friendly style. £6.99, Red or White.

Dragon Seal (China) Huailai Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2002
100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Huailai region, this top wine is aged for a year in a mix of French and American oak, and a further six months in bottle before release. Pouring a medium-deep ruby colour, there’s a pleasant edge of capsicum and pepper on the nose, with plenty of Sandalwood, coffee and spice and a nicely rounded black cherry and plummy fruitiness. On the palate that little edge of green flavour manifests as a touch of underripeness perhaps, though a spicy, smoky, savoury character to the black fruit is good, and through the mid-palate the fruit is persistent. This has a lick of supple, grainy tannin that adds a pleasing plum skin roughness to the finish, and the overall balance and length are good. Another promising wine this, and shows the potential of these vineyards. £7.99, Red or White.

Noble Dragon

Changyu (China) Noble Dragon Shandong White 2005
Noble Dragon’s moderate 12% alcohol white wine is a blend of Riesling, Chardonnay and Muscat, and is suitably aromatic with lots of floral, perfumed notes and a touch of lemon sherbet. On the palate this stays crisp and airy, despite broadening out slightly through the mid-palate where the Chardonnay adds a more peachy weight. But the clean, lemon and lime fruit and acidity of the Riesling and Muscat really determine the character of this refreshing, juicy wine which is nevertheless rounded and very easy to drink. £6.99 from Bibendum and Wine Buy the Case.

Changyu (China) Noble Dragon Shandong Red 2005
This wine is mostly composed of Syrah and 30% Cabernet Franc, but I’m told there’s “a touch” of Dragon’s Eye in the blend too, an indigenous variety that is also grown as a table grape. This has quite a closed, compact aromatic character, with some tight blackberry and cherry fruit coming through. It is really quite fleshy and savoury on the palate, with a touch of black olive and a certain leafiness plays against riper fruit. Tannins and acidity are quite low, in wine that is lightweight but quite easy-drinking and charming. £6.99 from Bibendum and Wine Buy the Case.

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