Liv Tyler and Chinese Wine

Wine Tasting Booth at Salon des Vins - Strasbourg, France
Wine tasting booth

Having just uncorked our first bottle of Chinese wine, we began to reminisce about the small, lovely and affordable French wine collection we’d built in Prague (then quickly quaffed), thanks to the Salon de Vignerons Independants (French Independent Vintners Festival) that we attended in February 2005 and February 2006 in Strasbourg, France.

In addition to tasting over 300 different wines at those two events, we returned home with a small cache of 100 bottles. The taste and quality of the bottles we purchased belied the fact that most of them cost well under 10 Euros. We could continue our little daydream here, but we’ll leave you to read this article that we wrote about the Salon earlier this year.

Now, back to our current reality…

You might be wondering, “Why on earth are you drinking Chinese wine? Are you really that desperate?” The real answer is in fact, “Yes, we are.” Aside from an Uzbek wine (that we’re certain was Italian) that was served to us at an Italian restaurant in Tashkent and some new world varietals that graced our palates while in the care of friends in Bishkek, we’ve endured a bit of a drought while in Central Asia.

To rationalize further, we’re trying to follow-up on a trend in the development of better quality Chinese wines. We had heard and read pieces like this one last year regarding how the Chinese were trying to improve the quality of their wines by importing French vines and hiring high-priced French viticulturists.

We marched right on down to the local Carrefour (the French supermarket chain for those of you unfamiliar) in Urumqi. The bottle of Xinjiang West Region wine at 20 Yuan (just below $3) seemed dangerously cheap. We couldn’t understand a word the Carrefour employee said about it. Her body language communicated something between “this is a very good bottle of wine” and “our manager insists that we push this stuff on unsuspecting tourists.”

“Why not?” we thought. Let’s give it a try.

Chinese Wine Cork - Xinjiang, China
Chinese wine

If anyone can leapfrog into quality wines, it’s probably the Chinese. They have pockets of suitable landscape, soil and climate. And when it comes to harnessing technology of any kind, they’ve proved more than capable. Some may argue whether they can master the art anytime soon, but they can certainly master the science. The ongoing challenge for the Chinese, however, will be to improve the quality without inflating the price.

A Chinese Taste Test

Day 1 – Upon opening, the bottle is not quite undrinkable, but leaves a lot to be desired. Light, almost like grape juice, with an alcoholic finish and no depth. Time to replace the cork and give this wine a think.
Day 2 – Do we dare? Yes. Things are in fact getting better. Wine begins to develop some fruit and depth and becomes drinkable to a couple of desperate tourists who’ve been stuck in the mountains of Central Asia for too long.
Day 3 – Wow. The bottle is virtually transformed. Something occurred to us. Perhaps the Chinese authorities had crawled into our heads and could tell that we wanted to write a piece on Chinese wine. In an effort to sway our opinions and the direction of this piece, they entered our room in the middle of the night and swapped the 1999 West Region wine in our bottle with a Cotes du Rhone cuvee.

Seriously though, a little bit of air made all the difference to this wine. Although it wasn’t ready for the Strasbourg Salon, it is something we would consider drinking again. Two lessons – not only does aeration do wonders for just about any bottle of wine, but inexpensive Chinese wine can be perfectly drinkable.

And before you laugh at that last comment and dismiss Chinese wine, consider what the world thought of Chilean and Argentinian wine 20 years ago. As we travel throughout China, we will continue to play the role of wine-tasting guinea pigs. We’ll keep you posted on when we find that perfect, or at least that better-than-average, bottle.

Hello, Liv

Liv Tyler Wine - Sary Tash, Kyrgyzstan
Liv Tyler Wine?

So, what does all this have to do with Liv Tyler? Not much, except that we got a chuckle out of the wine selection in the village shop at our homestay in Sary Tash, tucked away in the southern mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Besides serving deep fried eggs and potatoes, the shop offered candy bars and only the best in post-Soviet spirits including – you guessed it – a bottle of Liv Tyler wine.

Now you know why we’ve been hesitant to try local wines in Central Asia. We like Liv Tyler, but seeing her image on a wine label doesn’t inspire much confidence in the contents of the bottle.

It couldn’t have been much worse than the Tajik wine (a fortified Marsala wannabe) we would experience just a few weeks later. While drinkable in the most minuscule of quantities, it’s not a bottle we’d buy again, even with its 1928 vintage label. Come to think of it, we didn’t even buy it. Some friends and fellow travelers had shared it with us to drown their sorrows after a run-in with the Turkmen Embassy. When we departed our quarters in Dushanbe, the bottle remained on the bookshelf, cork off, and only 1/4 consumed. It wasn’t even good enough to chase away a bad day.

We suppose we have to draw a conclusion here. It goes like this: Good, cheap French wine if you can get it. Mark our words, Chinese wine’s a ‘comin. Tajik wine: give it a pass. Liv Tyler on a bottle: look but don’t touch.

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  1. Jennie Tippit says

    Good to know! Alan and I like to try wine from different countries, and we’ll keep Chinese wine off the list for now. Hey, at least it wasn’t a screw top!

  2. says

    When I was in Penjikent this summer, they insisted that their wine was more highly regarded than that of the French, it’s just that word hadn’t gotten out yet. To prove it, they poured me another tea bowl of the brown clear (highly flammable) stuff. It was 11:30 in the morning.

  3. says

    Jennie, we’ll keep you updated on the top Chinese vineyards from our taste-tests. Maybe they will make it to a store near you soon ; ) Until then, just enjoy all the great Californian, Chilean, French, Australian, Italian and other wines available in the States!

  4. says

    Lesley, so glad you are enjoying the site and photos! If all goes as planned, the shop should be up before Thanksgiving with calendars, note cards, post cards, prints and other products with our photos. If you have some photos that you’d like to see in the shop, just send me an email with the link to the photo and I’ll make sure it’s there.

  5. says

    Erin, we laughed reading your comment. We could picture the scene exactly – so Taijk. Drinking flammable liquids in the morning reminded me of when we were in Georgia and would get served Cha Cha (think a hard version of grappa) at 10 AM. The reason? To help with digestion…any excuse to drink in Georgia.

  6. Michael O'Boyle says

    Funny stuff. You guys were born to do what you’re doin. I’ll look forward to Chinese wines in Pennsylvania State Stores in 80 years. Cheers, Michael

  7. says

    Michael, glad that you enjoyed the post and thanks for the flattering comment. Chinese wines in Pennsylvania State Stores…now that’s funny. Stranger things have happened.

  8. says

    After several years living in China and a trip to “Chinese wine country” in Xinjiang Province, I can safely report that the only drinkable wine being produced in the entire country is Tibetan “Shangri-la” labeled wine that was originally started by French missionaries who brought grapes with them from France. Don’t even go near any bottle that is labeled “Great Wall” (the biggest wine company in China) or “Chengdu” (second largest) – it’s all swill!

  9. says

    @Megan: We learned the hard way about “Great Wall.” Uh, not so great. Thanks for tip on Shangri-la – had never heard of it and didn’t realize that there even was Tibetan wine. It will be interesting to see what happens with China’s wine industry in the next decade though.

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