We had to admit we were sceptical when we were invited to preview the featured wines from the world’s first Asian Wine Festival at an event hosted by The Flying Winemaker and Hotel ICON. Having previously found wines from China to taste a bit like a cross between burnt gas and grape juice, we came to the event with admittedly low expectations.
We were instead pleasantly surprised to find wines from across Asia that give the region a fighting chance with wine-producing regions in France and California. During a quick, breezy tasting hosted by The Flying Winemaker owner Eddie McDougall, we had a chance to taste the top 12 wines from the 2016 and 2017 editions of the Asian Wine Review (also, in full disclosure, a brainchild of The Flying Winemaker). We were told that these were the top wines that had been blind-tasted by a panel of 10 judges from Asia’s foremost wine experts, including Jeremy Stockton, general manager of Watson’s Wine; Yvonne Cheung, director of wines of Swire Hotels; Denis Gasti, wine critic and educator, and Eddie McDougall himself.
At very reasonable price points, most of the wines were in the $250–400 range and offered a strong alternative to typical varietals you might purchase from Bordeaux, Chablis, Rhone, Napa Valley and New Zealand. While the whites were overwhelmingly the winners, there were a few reds that were absolute standouts. Interestingly enough, Israeli wines were included in the Asian Wine Review (who knew?), but they were a bit of a disappointment for us. The full list is available here.
If you’re bored with the current options at your wine shop or want an interesting bottle to spice things up for your next meal, ask if they have an Asian wine list and use the following quick guide of the best bottles to try:
Hatten Wines Sparkling Tunjung NV – this sparkling variety from Bali is one of our favourites of the bunch and was popular amongst the other guests at the event too. It’s super clean, grassy and light yet not too delicate. It’s almost too fizzy for a sparkling wine but also enjoyable in that way as it reminded us of the kick we got from drinking Martinelli’s cider during the holidays as a kid. A lively and vibrant wine that’s memorable on its own or perfect for pairing with light canapés or cheese, at $233 it provides a great, affordable alternative to champagne while offering a good step up to Prosecco and cava in that price range.
Grace Gris de Koshu 2015 – this standout from Grace Winery in the Yamanashi region of Japan blew us away and was another favourite at the event. It’s beautiful, clean and delicate, with a floral nose that opens over time with each sip, much like a sake. The hints of orange and chalk really brought to light a different level of sophistication in Asian wine that we hadn’t seen before. We genuinely loved it, and at $250, it’s great value and a good alternative for when you’re looking for a Chablis or even less costly white Burgundy. Perhaps best paired with light- and medium-bodied fish or just alone – anything more flavourful would overpower the wine. It also offers a great opportunity to try the Koshu varietal if it's a grape that you haven’t previously tried.
Silver Heights Family Reserve Chardonnay 2014 – a true surprise out of Ningxia, a wine-producing region in the north-west of China from the Torres-owned Silver Heights. We found the Family Reserve from celebrated winemaker Emma Gao perception shifting as a Chinese wine and Chardonnay. For $350, it offers a delicious meal in a glass, with notes of baked cheese, light French oak and an abundance of vanilla. A refreshing alternative to the typical Napa Chardonnays, the Family Reserve is even for those who abstain from oaky Chardonnays and offers a great complement with semi-hard cheeses, oily fish, chicken or pork. Plus, who wouldn’t want to taste a decent Chardonnay from China?
Silver Heights The Summit 2013 – our favourite red of the bunch for hitting our criteria of affordability, taste and ease of drinking amongst different levels of wine aficionados. Also another home run from Ningxia. This Cabernet Sauvignon could compete with a French Bordeaux for my wine glass. Approachable, good value and at $465 it’s a red that offers a good, balanced blend of tannins, ripe fruits, cured meats, toasted spices and oak. Incredibly nice finish and one to enjoy either alone or with food.
Jade Vineyard Aria 2014 – this stunner blew us away and unsurprisingly was awarded 2017 Best Red Wine of the Year from the Asian Wine Review. At $1,068, this Cabernet Sauvignon from (you guessed it) Ningxia is a bit hard to swallow for the price but is a wonderful surprise coming from China, and we found it comparable to a French Bordeaux or pricey Napa Cab. Tasting notes indicate blackcurrant, hints of clove, a long finish and even a hint of vanilla. With well-balanced acidity, it would pair well with a salty pork or heavy protein dish (but is not necessarily a steak wine) and is really enjoyable alone as well. Worth the splurge if you want to see what a top-range Cabernet Sauvignon from China tastes like. We can’t wait to see what it will be like in a few years after some additional ageing.
Château Dryad Selection Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 – also a surprising delight from Ningxia. Sweet, caramel-y, with those dark berry fruits that give you the tannins you crave with a good steak. This blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Shiraz, 5% Merlot offers something unique for those nights when you just want to try a different kind red. At $358, it’s an affordable and approachable alternative to an imported Napa Cab or French Bordeaux. Give it a shot – it will definitely be a topic of conversation at your next dinner party.
Hevron Heights Winery Eden Quintessence 2007 – this dessert wine was just too sweet
even for ice wine but perhaps an interesting option or gift for those who love really sweet desserts
or need a kosher wine for a special occasion. Like liquid candy, this wine is very creamy and has
a lot packed into it at once, with notes of butterscotch, rose, caramel and roasted chestnut. Yes, it really does taste like all of these things at once, so be prepared. At $1,328, it’s not inexpensive by any means but offers a new dessert wine to mix things up the next time you see it on the dinner menu.
There are definitely hits and misses even with the selected wines yet it was exciting to see the progression in winemaking in Asia. We challenge wine drinkers looking to uncover a different side to the region to check out the list for yourself. Give this new generation of Asian winemakers a chance and tell us what you think – we’d love to hear from you.
A complimentary copy of the the second annual Asian Wine Review and complete list of wines reviewed is available here. The Asian Wine Festival runs from 18–19 April 2017 at Hotel ICON. For a complete list of events and to book tickets, visit The Flying Winemaker. Thanks again to The Flying Winemaker and Hotel ICON for the invitation.