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.
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.
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.