As we get ready to relay choice bottles for the festive season from 2017 to 2018, here’s a special interview to mark my favourite tasting of 2017. It is a taste of things to come from wines of China – a topic I have been writing about for the last five years (and will emerge in a book form some time soon, so watch this space!)
A sell-out wine event at this year’s Decanter London Fine Wine Encounter marked a watershed moment for Chinese fine wine in the international arena and brought revelation to many wine lovers: for most it was a first experience of premium quality wines from China, including a delicious white wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon (the most famous red wine grape)!
This special wine tasting was hosted by Lenz Moser, the namesake consultant at Chateau Changyu Moser XV, based in China’s north-west region of Ningxia – an area three times the size of California’s Napa Valley on the border of the Gobi Desert some 500 miles west of Beijing, which is emerging as a star wine region producing internationally acclaimed fine wines. Changyu was founded in 1892, the first Chinese commercial winery for European style grape wines. Lenz is the acclaimed fifteenth generation Austrian winemaker who had elevated the international reputation of Austria’s Grüner Veltliner. Together the Changyu Moser partnership has great international ambitions.
I spoke to Lenz Moser in London about why he makes white wine from the ‘King of red wine grape’ – Cabernet Sauvignon – in China, and his mission to put Chinese wines among the international fine wine league.
Your ‘Blanc de Noirs’ white Cabernet Sauvignon caused quite a stir. What’s the story behind this wine?
My partnership with Changyu is firstly about raising the bar for quality Chinese wine, play in the international arena and belong in the company of the world’s finest wines. Secondly it is about innovation. It is to show the world that China is moving away from the ‘copying’ phase and going on to lead innovation, which is the ultimate position to be in any business.
When we looked at exporting wines of China, we needed a white wine. We were not able to supply a great quality white wine from our existing grape varieties. But from my previous experience in Austria, I remember we had a very bad year for Cabernet Sauvignon in 1996, I ended up with a colourless wine but it tasted very good. What’s more, it still drinks well today – I still have exactly 100 bottles left and I can prove the point that white Cabernet Sauvignon can keep for a long time. So it occurred to me that I have made white Cabernet Sauvignon once before in my life. OK, it was out of desperation and necessity but it worked and sold successfully at the time. So I decided if I don’t have other good white grapes to work with right now then I will make white wine from Cabernet Sauvignon! It sounds completely crazy but I’ve done it! In our first year we produced 120,000 bottles. Year two we have 180,000 bottles just made now. And they are selling and we will sell every drop of it. People want to taste this particular wine and they love talking about it. It is a wine born out of necessity, being solution oriented. Because the Chinese taught us, that every crisis, wei ji, has two elements – a danger (wei) and an opportunity (ji), we have problems but we have solutions as well.
How is the general reception of your wines in the UK market?
Our wines are now in supermarkets and also carried by Berry Bros., Bibendum and Berkmann, all of them top UK distributors. In London restaurants and hotels – Oblix at the Shard, Hu Tong, China Tang at the Dorchester, Sexy Fish, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Royal Garden Hotel, the Four Seasons and so on, we are already out there! And our wines are doing well, especially by the glass.
Chinese reds often strive for “Bordeaux style”. Isn’t it important to find a unique style?
Firstly we have to be pragmatic – we have Cabernet, Cabernet and Cabernet. Any talk of other varieties and cross breeds will take time to plant and for young vines to mature. For the next ten years at least, and to produce world class wines, Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape.
With my colleagues and also other winemakers from Ningxia, together we are trying to find a style of China’s Ningxia wines. We don’t want to copy Bordeaux, California, Australia… There has to be a reason to export a wine thousands of kilometres from China. If it is a copycat, then why bother. We want to develop Ningxia’s own style which is about these small berries of Ningxia Cabernet Sauvigon. Ningxia is 1,100 metres high with a desert climate, just about the driest climate you can grow Cabernet Sauvignon so you have these small berries and thick skins, intense colours and tannins. If ripened perfectly, you get this explosion on your palate of flavour, and a touch of spice. So this could be the red Cabernet style of Ningxia – which is intense colour, abundance of fruit with a hint of spice.
What’s your international strategy for Changyu Moser wines?
Foremost the quality must be there. I want to make some of the best wines of China, and put them in the league of the finest wines in the world, which we have already achieved in terms of quality and it has been proven in blind tastings. I want to over-deliver on expectations and value so our wines are competitive at every price point. We have three tiers currently, the entry level wine at around £10, the second wine at around £25, and the Grand Vin at around £60. We opted to launch in the UK first, about 9 months ahead of other European markets. We are already seeing some success and lots of interests from journalists and buyers here, so we are gaining confidence to branch out step by step. Next would be the US, Africa, Japan and other key markets. We will not overstretch ourselves, always focusing on quality first, also training and working with the best people who can really convey our passion.
The Chateau itself at Changyu Moser is very impressive. Is tourism an important part of promoting the wines?
Ningxia has made conscious efforts to build up tourism, the infrastructure and hospitality services are impressive and still building as we speak. There are several very lovely chateaux already there, ours has an interactive museum where people can learn about winemaking in China and even the history of the country. Tourism plays a role in education and also lets people enjoy wine as part of the ‘good life’. At the moment we get about 80,000 Chinese domestic tourists a year, very few foreigners but year after year more are coming. We definitely want to see more international visitors, because China is not a traditional wine destination and it is a great sign that people are beginning to ask and explore where Chinese wines are made. Changyu’s strategy is: we want to be ready when the real boom comes!
Moser XV Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
A full-bodied wine with ripe, juicy blackcurrant, subtle note of eucalyptus and a touch of spice. Well balanced with a soft finish.
Moser Family Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
Generous dark red fruits with just a hint of spice on the finish. Lovely freshness and smooth tannins and a lingering finish.
Chateau Changyu Moser XV 2013
Intense dark berries with notes of cedar and choclate. The tannins are fine grained and smooth. Weighty, well structured with a long finish.
Chateau Changyu Moser XV White Cabernet 2015
This remarkable white wine made from the most famous red grape has a rosé tint. Bright acidity and luscious peach with plenty of floral and exotic fruit aromas.
Price: £ [TBC]