An invitation to judge wine competitions in Japan and China last month gave me an irresistible opportunity to take a good look at the fledgling wine industries of these two Asian powerhouses side by side. Comparisons are, as they say, odious and the differences are in fact far more interesting and extensive than any features they have in common.
In Shanghai for the third China Wine Challenge organised by Ron Brown, a Tokyo-based wine merchant, the emphasis was on imported wines. It's hardly surprising that China's growing middle classes have been drawn to French wine, Bordeaux in particular, and the New World. China's extensive home-grown wine industry of almost 1,000 wineries is dominated by the giants of Great Wall, Dynasty and Changyu, but quality is generally mediocre and prices high. The Chinese focus on status, cheapness and fancy packaging, so value is the new battleground.
While the number of Chinese wine entries was small, those few that did compete for Best Chinese Red and White were classy, notably the 2010 Grace Vineyard Tasya's Reserve Chardonnay and the 2010 Silver Heights Family Reserve. A growing number of small grower wines like these stand proudly alongside the 2009 Jei Bei Lan made by Li Demei which won the international cabernet sauvignon trophy at last year's Decanter World Wine Awards. Coincidentally, from 28 August, Waitrose will be the first supermarket to stock a Chinese wine, the 2011 Changyu Cabernet Gernischt, Ningxia, £9.99.
What Japan lacks in brash consumption, it makes up for in a more mature appreciation of quality of value. Most of the wines at Tokyo's Japan Wine Challenge were also imported, but not all. Judging a table of Japanese wines made from the native koshu grape, I was astonished to find our panel giving one gold and three silver medals.
In the Yamanashi wine region at the end of July, 100 wineries from 24 regions put 690 Japanese-only wines up against each other in the similar-sounding Japan Wine Competition. Some were made from wild or hybrid grapes with weird and wonderful names like Yamabudo and Yamatonadesiku. The actual wines made from them were also weird but less wonderful. Wines made from koshu on the other hand confirmed its growing reputation as a force to be reckoned with. The quality of Japanese chardonnay was another eye-opener.
We don't as yet see enough koshu wine in the UK, but Grace's wines are among the best. Floral and smoky, the 2011 Grace Kayagatake, around £17.99, Great Wines Direct (020-3468 4269), Selfridges, is delicately citrusy, while its sister, the 2011 Grace Hishiyama, around £21.49, Selfridges, Luvians (01334 477752), has similar smokey aromas with a wonderful purity of flavour and texture and a steely, bone-dry finish.Reuse content