BEIJING (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Four clusters of wines sit on a long vintage metal table in a spacious Beijing art gallery, where a mix of Chinese and Western antiques are displayed. Accompanied by popular music from the 1950s, a group of judges take turns sampling the bottles. They pour some of each wine into a glass, take a sip, taste and swirl, spit it out, then write down their impressions.
But this is not a scene from a professional wine competition. It is the Grape Wall Challenge, one of the few Chinese wine-tasting events that puts the spotlight on Chinese wine consumers instead of oenological experts. This year, the eighth annual event took place at Pop-Up Beijing around the Chinese New Year.
First held in 2009, the event traditionally focuses on popular wines from around the world priced at less than 100 yuan (S$20) that are usually neglected by experts and the media. But this year, event founder Jim Boyce from Canada decided to introduce 16 small-scale, high-quality Chinese wines.
"When I started doing this tasting contest years ago, I couldn't find 16 Chinese wines like this," says the Beijing-based wine blogger. "Today, I have about 50 choices to get down to 16, so we can see the quality going up very fast."
This year's selections are available nationally, and had won prizes or got good reviews overseas. They largely came from small to medium-scale wineries including Shandong's Chateau Nine Peaks, Shanxi's Grace Vineyard, Xinjiang's Tiansai and Ningixa's Hansen, Kanaan, Legacy Peak and Silver Heights.
The price of the white and red wines range from around 150 yuan to 330 yuan. In the course of four flights, the judges - most of them casual wine drinkers - are asked to score each wine as "love it", "like it", "dislike it" or "hate it".
According to the International Wine and Spirits Research, China has emerged as the fifth largest consumer market and No 10 wine producer globally. However, the general consumers' knowledge of wine remains weak.
"There is a huge gap between experts and consumers in terms of wine knowledge," says Professor Ma Huiqin of China Agricultural University who has been in the wine industry for more than 20 years.
Prof Ma, who leads the discussion, points out that some Chinese wine experts like taking notes in English and using perplexing tasting terms.
"Experts can easily distinguish black truffle from white truffle," she says. "But few Chinese consumers will know the flavor of truffle, let alone telling the difference."
The Grape Wall Challenge is just one event designed to bridge the gap. After the first flight, the consumers go from nervous to confident. They talk openly about which wines they like and dislike, and even debate the aesthetics of some bottles.
"The wine industry makes wine too complicated, but we want to make it simple, and we want regular people's opinions," says Mr Boyce. "You don't need an expert to tell you which Peking duck is the best. We think it's the same with the wine."
According to Prof Ma, a good bottle of wine usually requires quality grapes, which produce rich fruitiness, and good technology with proper oxidisation. But when it comes to one's favourite wine, opinions diverge widely.
One of the judges, Cui Yunan, a branding chief of food startup Yikouliangshi, enjoys wines from Ningxia's Kanaan the most. "Its wines are pretty sophisticated," says Mr Cui. "But what really impresses me is my feeling, 'I want more', after each sip."
Prof Ma's favourite is Silver Heights' Family Reserve cabernet sauvignon-merlot. "It's more than a good wine; It's a wine with character," she says. "(The winemakers) not only consider the drinking experience of the consumers, but also give some thought to the food and wine match."
She also notes that the tasting does not usually reveal a complete picture of a wine as such mass tasting often puts the wine at the center of attention without consideration of the food and company.
She says she is impressed by the casual wine drinkers' choices of wine and believes that consumers' opinions should be fully valued.