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  • Guest contributor
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  • Guest contributor
13 Dec 2016

These entries in our wine writing competition come from one of the youngest competitors, writing with an impressive grasp of a foreign language. Here's how he describes himself: 

Age: 24 

Nationality: Chinese (currently living in Dijon, France) 

I am currently enrolled as a student in the Master's Programme in the École Supérieure de Commerce in Dijon as well as being a WSET Diploma student. My prior experience in wine was related to selling and serving wines in La Bordeauxthèque in Beijing during college as well as being a wine judge at the International Wine Challenge. Having received my bachelor's degree in English Broadcasting Journalism from the Communication University of China, I decided to travel to Mexico and ended up as a Mandarin teacher in two local universities. I worked for two years before quitting my job to come to Dijon to further my studies in Wine Business.

Your Next Salty Baja Red

It has been roughly two years since I kept myself amused by tasting and noting down every single bottle of Mexican wine that I tasted while I was teaching Chinese Mandarin in Campeche and Mérida, both very quiet cities on the Yucatán peninsula in the south of Mexico. As my empty bottles piled up, my landlord one day kindly asked me, of course in a rather soft-spoken way, to make a Christmas tree out of them. Alas! I finally realised that his backyard was already jumbled up with my empty wine bottles. Now that I have left Mexico for a while I realise that the past two years in Mexico were a preciously hedonistic and memorable experience if not fruitful. By the time I returned to China, I had practically become a loyal Mexican wine drinker with a few bottles packed into my luggage to impress my friends.

Mexico may not strike many people as a wine country. This is where beer, tequila and even mezcal can probably beat local wine production hands down. The tropical climate helped narrow down the viticultural areas to just a few states: Baja California, Querétaro, Coahuila, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes and Sonora. Interestingly enough, it is however the first country in the Americas to have planted vines. Proudly, Casa Madero, a winery established in the Valle de Parras in Coahuila in 1597, claims such an accolade and is probably the oldest winery in the New World.

Despite having only a few wine areas, Mexico's wine industry is highly concentrated in Baja California, which is by far the country's most important wine region contributing 90% of Mexico's output. Inspired by California's success and spurred by the domestic demand for local wines and brandy due to an increase in import tax on alcohol, vineyards in Baja California surged rapidly over the last few decades under the booming investment of some global companies such as Domecq as well as countries such as the US and Italy which have shaped Mexico's budding wine industry.

With few restrictions, Baja California has become a wine laboratory where experiments with varieties are well under way. It is a daring wine region after all where Merlot, Cabernet, Petite Sirah, Barbera and Zinfandel can all be found, all producing good wines. The risk that a consumer has to take however is that these wines can be the result of both ambitiously inspiring experiments as well as the fermented juice from left-over grapes. Among all the interesting blends, it is widely believed that some of the excellent Nebbiolo-based wines are the rising stars of the region. I found most tend to be deeply saturated and slightly robust in tannin with a lifted nose of dusty jamaica, a flower otherwise known as roselle.

As the different results of the seemingly whimsical blends cut both ways, so does the saltiness in many Baja wines. I mean, real saltiness, not minerality or anything else. From what I can tell from my trip to the vineyards and my experience of roughly 200 bottles of Mexican wines, 80% of which come from Baja, saltiness can be a shared characteristic as common as the impact from the climate on the fruit in Baja's red wines, which could be way too jammy and excessively generous. Some winemakers and critics, however, use 'minerality' as a descriptor of this saltiness and suggest it is Baja's trademark reflection of terroir. If so, then I hope that they have not yet tried wines such as Tres Valles Kojaa 2009, Viña de Liceaga S 2013 and Viñas Pijoan Leonora 2009, inside which I thought a salt jar had been turned over. That said, I do realise that our thresholds to saltiness, as anything else, vary from person to person.

Baja is a region heavily reliant on rainfall. The saltiness in the wine links to the saline soil and the salty underground water which is commonly used for irrigation by many producers to counter the region's very low annual precipitation. Naturally, a year with significantly more rainfall will turn out to be a less salty vintage for Baja California. To diminish the impact of vintage variation on the saltiness in the wine, some wineries started their reservoir projects to collect rainwater for irrigation. Villa Montefiori built one a few years ago, for instance.

While clean water and rainfall are critical to avoiding salty wines, there are many other factors winemakers need to consider. As the soil and the source of underground water differ from place to place, vineyards with sandier soil tend to have a better performance in handling salty water due to better drainage; selecting rootstocks can help vines root down into the salty earth. Once the salt goes into the grapes, the only possible way to reduce salt is perhaps reducing extraction by all means, which also makes the wine thinner, lighter and brings out salt by contrast .

Of course, to a certain extent, saltiness in a wine, as a matter of fact, can be plausible. That is to say, it could be an appealing signature of wines from Baja California. Being a characterful taste in a wine, a salty tinge is able to add further dimensions to wine on the palate, making the fruit core more expressive and savoury. But this is only true with adequate substance and concentration. Just try to imagine three glasses of liquid presented in front of you: one glass tastes like sea water; another is limpid, pure water lightly seasoned with salt; and the last is the more full-bodied and well-flavoured gravy. Sea water is undrinkable for the amount of salt and pure water with salt can be upsetting for there is no substance at all to back up the twist of saltiness. The only one that may taste good is the gravy where the salt here plays a supporting role that integrates with other elements. In a wine, discreet saltiness can actually be the catalyst that makes the fruit taste more savoury and mature so long as the wine has enough to offer to create a balance. This is probably the style that the Baja 'terroir-driven' winemakers should seek.

As new a wine region as it is, Baja California is still working its way to fully exploit its potential and fascinating possibilities. It is no surprise for me to have found some of the wines too rustic and alcoholic, or too jammy and salty or too generously sweet and soft. Having thrown some good money for bad wines, I also found some very thrilling Mexican wines, a number of which, to my surprise, are not from Baja California at all. The future of Mexican wines is definitely promising and there is a chance that regions such as Coahuila, Querétaro and Zacatecas may take over from Baja California one day. 

With wines from other regions in Mexico, excluding whites, the following Baja wines are my favourites among those tasted over the last two years. [Please note we have not edited the descriptions below.]

Villa Montefiori, Paoloni Nebbiolo 2012
Tasted at the winery, 04/2106. 100% Nebbiolo. No obvious saltiness in their wines thanks to the reservoir. The winemaker and the owner Paoloni make several labels mostly with Italian varieties, from Brunello to Aglianico. Try also their Nerone 2013 and Selezionato 2011.
Dark colour and meaty fruit. Very fleshy, ample and complex. A serious wine one can just tell from the unwavering depth of the nose. Dark chocolate, leather, roasted spices and violet along with robust, dense palate. Tannin is at full attack yet sinuous, silky and cradled by sappy fruit and wonderful integration of oak. Very rich and goes on and on. An outstanding Nebbiolo from Baja California that will reward ageing. 13.5%
18/20. Drink to 2027. Around 900 pesos or US$60.

Vinicola Relieve, Ciclo Nebbiolo 2010 Valle de Guadalupe
Tasted in Campeche, 04/2016. Second bottle in Mérida, 05/2016. 100% Nebbiolo. Aged 12 months in American barrels. I've not yet visited this winery but many wines they produced did impress me. The Ovis 2010 is a great example of how saltiness can go well with the wine here in Baja.
Nothing like most of the Baja Nebbiolos. Light garnet hue with a well-developed nose, lots of dried red fruit, dried rose petals as well as tarry mineral, leather and some tobacco. Very complex, nuanced and classic Italian style! Beautiful acidity on the palate, fairly full-bodied with lots of refined tannin and exquisite fruit. Lingers persistently! This is classy and mind-blowing. I've tasted this wine twice, the second bottle was somehow less interesting though. 13.5%
17.5/20. Drink to 2021. Around 550 pesos or $5.

Adobe Guadalupe Rafael 2011 Valle de Guadalupe
Tasted in Campeche, Mexico, 05/2015. 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 48% Nebbiolo. Adobe Guadalupe is a quality-driven winery based in Valle de Guadalupe with bed and breakfast service and a horse ranch provided to visitors. They currently have 21 hectares planted with nine varieties. Saltiness is more pronounced in vintages such as 2012 and 2013, but actually makes most of their wines more savoury as they managed to handle the balance. Try Kerubiel 2012 as well.
Focused nose of good depth with an austere dimension. Leather, mineral tones, blackcurrant, jamaica flowers with a toasty oak background, which is yet to integrate. Very fine-grained and polished tannin that caresses the palate with fluent, succulent acidity. A finely crafted wine, balanced, restrained and lengthy. Will age. 13.9%
17.5/20. Drink to 2025. Around 700 pesos or $50.

Sinergi Durand VT Ïcaro 2011 Valle de Guadalupe
Tasted in Campeche, Mexico, 05/2015. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah. A boutique producer. Ïcaro is regarded as one of the best expressions among its peers. Heavy and polished style that may reward the money you paid. Their second label Ala Rota 2012 is however too musky and horsey for my taste.
Brooding hue with concentration. Persistent, deep and complex nose that meticulously gives out primary fruit, some baked dark cherries as well as cigar box and some jamaica flowers, leather and a touch of mineral accent and muskiness. Harmonious, lush and well-judged oak. Massive palate with a bit abrupt acidity (could be storage?). Full-bodied with smooth, melted tannin. Chunky, caressing fruit. Very promising. 13.5%
17/20. Drink to 2025. Around 800 pesos or $55.

Aborigen Valle Seco 2013 Valle de Guadalupe
Tasted in Campeche, 01/2016. Petite Sirah, Mouvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon. Aborigen is a Hugo D'Acosta project. They produce many labels of wines based on different blends. I have not tried many of their other wines. Their P125 series, however, are pretty decent smart buys that are sold in a Baja wine shop in San Cristóbal de las Casas. 
Deep ruby core with warm, zesty yet refined nose. An array of black cherries, plums and some integrated creamy oak touch. Some cigar-box with a lift of violet, eucalyptus, black chocolate and exotic spicy characters. Good expressions of the climate with complexity in the glass. Palate is round, elegantly warm with ripe tannin and richness. Well poised and lengthy in finish. Baked fruit, but very well-handled and easy to appreciate. 13.5%.
17/20. Drink to 2020. Around 350 pesos or $25.

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Vinícola Torres Alegre Cru Garage Syrah 2011 Valle de Guadalupe
Torres Alegre is a boutique winery in Valle de Guadalupe which flies high (literally, as you can see in the picture above). Victor Alegre, the owner and winemaker apparently knows what he is doing. They have made some inspiring wines with grapes sourced from other vineyards. Try their Cru Garage Sauvignon Blanc 2012 as well.
Deep ruby hue with youthful bramble fruit, dark cherries, fleshy plums and toasted spices and a hint of mocha. Profound while expressive with decent complexity. Dense and concentrated on the palate, very silky and polished tannin with nicely knit acidity and lingering length. Impressive tannin quality! 12.7%
17/20. Drink to 2024. Around 900 pesos or $60.

Other Baja reds that I rated 17/20

Vinícola Relieve, Ovis 2010 Valle de Guadalupe
Villa Montefiori, Nerone 2013 Valle de Guadalupe
Viña de Garza, Amado IV 2010 Valle de Guadalupe
Villa Montefiori, Selezionato 2011 Valle de Guadalupe
Casa de Piedra, Paralelo Ensamble Arena Ba 11 2010 Valle de Guadalupe
Quinta Monasterio Cabernet/Merlot 2012 Ensenada
Villa Montefiori, Rosso di Montefiori 2013 Valle de Guadalupe
Viña de Garza, Amado IV 2007 Valle de Guadalupe
Vinícola Torres Alegre, Cru Garage Tempranillo/Petit Verdot 2006 Valle de Guadalupe
Vinisterra, Macouzet 2008 Valle de Guadalupe
Adobe Guadalupe, Rafael 2012 Valle de Guadalupe
Dubacano Nebbiolo 2012 Valle de San Vicente (Smart-buy!)
Vinícola Torres Alegre, Cru Garage Zinfandel 2012 Valle de Guadalupe
Vinisterra, Cascabel 2008 Valle de Guadalupe

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'Lafite Wind' blown away from China?

It is quite impressive how Château Lafite could possibly reach such a cult status that has been able to appeal to both acquired and popular tastes in a country where wine had been long regarded as an exotic taste, yet its followers have increased rather recently. La Fei(拉菲), the mandarin translation for Lafite, has become a household brand to Chinese people. As a luxury drink, it represents the status of its buyers and drinkers. While the middle class has pushed the wine market in China, the bureaucratic nature of the country has provided all the nutrients needed in the soil in which the gold vines of the fine-wine producers and merchants are deeply rooted.

But among all the fine wines, Lafite seems to carry the most significance. The very image of Lafite in China reminds me of a precise scenario in which the smartly dressed high and mighty are clapping each other on the shoulder while quaffing glasses of Lafite, sitting with red faces around a magnificent table on which plates are piled up. The popularity of Château Lafite and its elegant Chinese transliteration, in which the character 菲(fei)with a connotation of 'lush and elegantly fragrant' is always used to refer to exotic and foreign niceness with an understatement of fine-tuned romance. This perfect Chinese translation seems to have already shed some light on the taste of Lafite. This character even makes me think of long silky hair, I mean seriously, doesn't Lafite taste like long silky hair?

Of course, it took much more effort for Lafite to win over China's affection than simply coming across a brilliant mandarin name upon its early arrival in China around 25 years ago. And even after so many years, Lafite has not stopped flattering its rich Chinese buyers. 2008 turned out to be a coveted year for some of the finest Bordeaux wines to favour the Chinese market, a year during which Beijing was featured in the limelight of the Olympic Games and finally proved itself to the rest of the world as the sleeping dragon immune to the global economic crisis. Even Lafite took its hat off to the dragon. So the magical number 8 ('ba' in mandarin pronunciation and 八 in character) about which most Chinese people have a favorable impression for its similar sound to 'Fa' (meaning to have great fortunes) made its debut on the 2008 Lafite bottles. The Chinese character 八 in regular script was printed in red, which also hit the spot of Chinese aesthetic pleasure (red is considered the lucky colour in traditional Chinese culture). The deep bow of Lafite to the Chinese market has eventually paid off. The price of Château Lafite Rothschild 2008 went north under the melody of critics' hymn of praise and with its brand new lucky 'Chinese coat'. The auspicious blessings and the traditional element embossed on the bottle seemed to have worked well to resonate with the proud Chinese people. It even became a cue to prevent counterfeits for that vintage.

While Lafite was having a big share of its Chinese pie, Château Mouton Rothschild did not sit around either. It labeled the 2008 bottle with artwork by a Chinese artist on which sheep (as mouton in French and the homophonic character for 'splendour' in Mandarin) appeared to be the mascot for an auspicious start to the new year.

However, such a good start did not last long. The anti-corruption campaign advocated by president Xi Jinping after he took power has clouded the fine-wine market. For a long time, the market was stagnant as banquets using public funds and government gifting were strictly prohibited. Conspicuous consumption was also curbed. Many predicted a grim future for the fine-wine market in China. The obsession with Lafite in China also cooled down a bit and the market suddenly became rational. A recent article by wine-searcher suggests that the price for Lafite 2008 plunged further along with the rest of the first growths of the same vintage.

After years of ethereal hype in China during which Château Lafite was canonised as the most admired and coveted first growth among all, the international average price of Château Lafite 2008 still stands high despite the largest drop in price compared with its peers but still around twice as much as Château Haut-Brion of the same vintage. But has the wind of Lafite already blown away from China?

It is truly something difficult to judge for a brand so successful in a country like China. There are many things worth noting behind Lafite's huge success in the Chinese market: in addition to smart marketing, especially its appearance in the movies and an early presence in the Asian market, it is also arguably the bellwether among the first growths and an overachiever in many vintages, guaranteed by experienced tasters and sound auction records; it also produces a fair amount of wine to be traded and invested, making the wine scarce but reachable; it has a rich history full of anecdotal stories and formidable figures, which is an invisible asset especially for countries where wine-drinking is more of a sophisticated and modish lifestyle. After all, who doesn't want to share a glass of Lafite with Thomas Jefferson and Madame de Pompadour? The poised, well-rounded and even kind of plush and pleasurable style makes those picky but unfamiliar Chinese palates feel confident to tell their friends that they sincerely love to drink it; it is easy to read and sounds romantic in Chinese translation and, above all, it has a exquisitely eye-catching château on the label...

All these facts functioned well in a country where wine at one time was merely an alien drink and some people used to blend it with Sprite or Coke so as to add sugar and avoid tannin. The once sweet-toothed drinkers soon realised that fine wines are not meant to be enjoyed sweet, so they decided to treat wine as it is. But the question came: While there is no longer a standard cocktail taste, which wine should they drink now? The short cut for the big boys and their followers was to bear a few names in mind or maybe just to follow suit so as not to lose face. In this case, for so many years, it has always been a French wine called La Fei that kept popping into people's minds. You see, Lafite's advent along with its beautiful label and elegant name quenched the thirst of the Chinese with power at a perfect time. When you want to strike up a conversation with the bigwigs at the table who pretentiously swirl their glasses, it is perhaps safe to talk about Lafite. At least, everyone knows something about it. After all, you don't want either you or your boss look stupid at dinner. 'Minister Wang, did you just see that film about Bordeaux and Lafite?'

So you can probably imagine what came next. The forgery of Lafite went wild while people got mixed up with all kinds of dazzling brands from the Lafite Group. Carruades de Lafite was nicknamed 'La Petite Lafite' by the Chinese fans and the price soared. But once the rich Chinese customers are no longer confident in drinking Lafite as they start to doubt the authenticity of the Lafite they have already swallowed, it could be the last straw to crack Lafite's Chinese legend. And over the years, the image of Lafite has been gradually downplayed as it was always tied to its lavish drinkers, many of whom uphold the conduct of immoderate squandering and corruption. In the era of new media, even the once most sought-after bottles can go sour overnight. As Château Lafite Rothschild is definitely not a scholar's wine, many perceive it nowadays as an expression of the worldly taste of Tuhao/Fu Er Dai, which is the nouveau riche in China, whose lack of favour in the mainstream also mirrors the rise of the educated middle class.

So if we presume that Lafite's spell has faded in China, will there possibly be another 'Lafite' in the future that one day even the non-wine-drinkers can talk about? It would definitely be very difficult, at least in China nowadays where the gates of the free market have just opened wide. But who knows if we would accidentally forge another brand out of this dazzling fragmented world of wines. As the obsession with claret seems to have faded a bit in the Chinese market, many believe the era of burgundy is due to come (I can't see why this would ever happen though). But with the recent slow-down of the economy in China and the gradual rationalisation in the mainland market, fine wines will have to find a new way to become popular other than simply putting up the price. And as a political campaign on frugality and wine education are in full swing in China, fewer customers would still be happy to pay bills which say 'Tu Hao price' (the price for the nouveau riche).