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A Wine Lover's Diary, Part 457/458: China Bound (August 27, 2013)

Monday, August 12: Went for a blood test (not my favourite thing to do) and then lunch with Stephen and Jacques Pauwels to discuss next year's wine tour to Tuscany and Umbria. Ordered a bottle of Donnafugata Chardonnay Catarratto 2010 with a squid ink risotto.

Brought up the suitcases and tried to hide them from Pinot because she freaks out when she sees them, knowing we're going away. For dinner, the remainder of the ink squid risotto with a bottle of Château de Sancerre Sancerre 2011 (great match).

Tuesday, August 13: Cleared my desk to leave for China with Deborah for twelve days. Deborah drove Pinot up to Innisfil, where she will stay for the time we are away with Valerie, her dog-sitter whom she loves. In the evening, packed for an early morning departure.

Wednesday, August 14: A limo picked Deborah and me up at 7:15 am to drive to Toronto airport for our 9:45 am Delta flight to Detroit, where we connect for Beijing. We are attending a wine festival in Gansu province. At first the Detroit flight was delayed 50 minutes, which made us worry about our connection – and then we were told that the aircraft was taken out of service due to mechanical difficulties and another plane would be flown in from Cincinnati. This meant we would definitely miss our connecting flight to Beijing. The helpful ground crew lady rerouted us via Tokyo, which meant we would arrive eight hours later than scheduled. The flight to Tokyo took twelve hours, an hour layover there before a three-hour flight to Beijing.

Thursday, August 15: Arrive in Beijing half an hour early at 9:30 pm local time. At the immigration desk there are four buttons inviting you to respond to the invitation: "You are welcome to comment on my work." Deborah pressed the "Highly satisfied" button and the officer was very pleased.

We are met by Susan, Richard and Eddie, the niece and nephews of Jason Tang, whose company is building a winery here and who is the man behind the Gansu 2013 – "The 3rd Organic Wine Festival of China Hexi Corridor" and "The 1st Wine Festival in China Wine City." (In October last year the city of Wuwei, on the Silk Road in Hexi Corridor between the Gobi Desert and Quilian Mountains, was awarded the title of "China Wine City.") Richard gives Deborah an enormous bouquet of pink tiger lilies and we link up with Tim and Kate Hanni, who are also on this trip (along with Peter and Ann Gamble, Ken and Ann Fugelsang and Pooch Pucilowski and Heidi.) We are staying at the Grand Millennium Hotel, a very elegant hotel with an enormous high-ceilinged lobby with colourful glass pillars and a marble floor.

Friday, August 16: After breakfast we tour Beijing with a guide called Nikki. The Chinese can choose their English names. Nikki wanted to call herself Lois, after Superman's girlfriend Lois Lane, but her English teacher wouldn't allow her – probably because there was another Lois in the class. On the bus Nikki tells us that a Starbucks coffee here costs the equivalent of $8.50. The weather is extremely hot and humid. At the end of the day we learn the high was 107° Fahrenheit and that didn't take into account the humidity factor. It's like moving around in a Turkish bath. The only thing to quench our thirst is lots of water and banana popsicles they sell on the streets.

Best cooler: banana popsicle
Best cooler: banana popsicle

Another street cooler option: melon
Another street cooler option: melon

Forbidden City at 107°F
Forbidden City at 107°F

Our first stop is the Forbidden City, which is mobbed with tourists – 30,000 a day. Then to lunch at a restaurant called Jade Bridge. In the afternoon we visit the Temple of Heaven and see a 500-year-old juniper tree. Then on to the Dowager Empress' Summer Palace. She is said to have had 155 horses slaughtered for her dinners – dishes for her to look at, to smell, to eat and to share with her 500 guests. We ate less lavishly but very contentedly at Yu Xian Du restaurant, a multi-storeyed restaurant that specialises in weddings. We visit the restaurant's Chinese Royal Gourmet Museum, which depicts the preparation and service of imperial banquets. The electronic interactive exhibits are amazing: you can flick through a huge recipe book with the stroke of a hand on the screen or see what is the dish that corresponds to each sign of the zodiac by moving your foot across a panel on the floor. A hologram shows how the feasts were prepared and served by Lilliputian 3-D figures.

Greeting at the Chinese Royal Gourmet Museum
Greeting at the Chinese Royal Gourmet Museum

We dine at a huge table set for 20 with an enormous slow-moving lazy Susan in the middle. Then we tour the wine cellar. Before returning to the hotel we stop in at the Bocui Club in the Dafang Hotel to visit the wine bar and poker club, which has wine lockers for members. Back in our room by 10 pm and sleep til 3:30 am.

Saturday, August 17: Today is Deborah's and my anniversary. A 7:15 am fight to Lanzhou with Susan, Jason and his nephews and two singers who will entertain us at our meals. Deborah has her large tube of Occitaine hand cream which she had purchased at Narita Airport in Tokyo confiscated at security. She is not a happy person.

The flight to Lanzhou takes 2½ hours. In the airport parking lot is a bus that will take us on the 3-hour ride to Wuwei. I see a guy with a sign advertising the Wine Festival in Wuwei and in my haste to take a photo I drop my camera and the lens breaks. Now I am not happy. Wuwei is 140 miles north of Lanzhou. We drive through sandstone hills, endless corn fields and the occasional brick factories. When we arrive in the dining room for lunch our attention is directed to a large red banner that reads, "Tony and Deborah's 16th Anniversary." Susan had called ahead and arranged for the banner and an anniversary cake with a central candle that, when lit, explodes open like a firecracker and lit eight tiny candles.

In the evening Pooch, Ken, Tim, Ann and I are driven to a banquet that opens the Wine Festival. Another huge meal beginning at 6 pm after we had finished lunch at 3:30 pm. On the lazy Susan, along with virtually the same dishes we had eaten at lunch, was a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. At each place beside the chopstick holder was an ashtray. There were endless toasts with Mocao Pinot Noir (NV) and Zixuan Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2007. I presented the Vice Governor of Gansu with a bottle of Reif Vidal Icewine 2010.

Susan with Ken Fugelsang at the wine festival
Susan with Ken Fugelsang at the wine festival

Sunday, August 18: We are in the Hexi Corridor that runs between the Gobi desert and the Qilian Mountains of Inner Mongolia. Part of the Silk Road which begins in the city of Xian, the Hexi Corridor runs from Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, 1100 km to the northwest to Dunhuang. China's satellite launching station is in Jinguan, from where all Chinese manned space craft and satellites are launched. It's also the home of the Modern Physics Institute.

Fifteen per cent of China's grapes come from the Hexi Corridor, which also supports the cultivation of melons, apricots, peaches, pears, cherries, wheat, potatoes, onions and, of course, corn. Also vast fields of marigolds. The vineyard measure is a mu. Fifteen mu equals one hectare.

The Chinese consume 1 litre of wine a year. Wine production has grown by 20% between 2006 and 2011 and is projected to rise by 54% be 2015. The wine-growing region of the Hexi Corridor is between 36° and 40°, latitudes that include Napa and Bordeaux. The soil here is very sandy and with minimal rainfall the farmers can grow their grapes organically.

We are staying at the Tianma Hotel in the centre of Wuwei. Our group is bused to the Grand Dragon chateau for the ceremonial opening of the wine festival, complete with dancers, drummers, banners supported by helium balloons. Interminable speeches as we stood on a stage in the sunshine. Then a visit to the wine cellars before heading off to lunch at a restaurant whose name translates as "Get Married." En route our bus driver tries to outrun a police car, honking furiously to get the cops to move. Driving in this part of the world is a nightmare. It's a constant game of chicken between cars, trucks, three-wheeled carts, mopeds, bicycles, and pedestrians with no respect for red lights by anybody.

Jason Tang at the Gansu Wine Festival
Jason Tang at the Gansu Wine Festival

After lunch we are driven to Wuwei's city hall for the contract-signing ceremony – more interminable speeches without translation. In the evening we go to the fair grounds and have a picnic dinner, prior to the opening. We tour the booths tasting Zixuan Merlot 2010, Mogao Pinot Noir, Qilian Icewine 2011 (made from Riesling Italico), Huangtai Fazenda Merlot (NV), Mogaoku Late Harvest 2009 (85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Pinot Noir), and Guofeng Cabernet Sauvignon 2006. Then we all go up on stage to critique the following wines: Mo Gao Pinot Noir 2010, Zixuan Organic Merlot 2010, Huangtai Vineyard Meite Collection Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot (NV), Grand Dragon Organic Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Goufeng Organic Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Mo Gau Late Harvest Berry Selection 2009 (85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10%Merlot, 5% Pinot Noir), Fortified Wine (Tawny Port style) and Qilian Legendary Icewine (Riesling Italico).

At Jason Tang's Yosemite booth everyone wants to have their photographs taken with Deborah and Kate, who are both blonde and blue-eyed. Men, women and children come and sit beside them and put an arm around their shoulders for the camera.

Monday, August 19: This morning we have a tour guide named Debbie on out visit to the Huangtai Grape Base and then onto Mogao's vineyard (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, a variety called Cabernet Gernischt, Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Blanc). Then we visit the Mogao winery, which makes an excellent XO brandy. Along the highway we pass endless corn fields, adobe mud farm houses and fields of marigolds and sunflowers.

We lunch at a restaurant called Yining Zhai, where we are served a delicious local tea made from chrysanthemum petals, dried longan fruit, rose hips, sesame seeds, walnuts and dried apple, and a dish called fa cai – a kind of black grass that grows in the sand and stops erosion. We also get to taste Mogao Cabernet Gernischt (NV).

Dinner at San He restaurant as guests of Mr. Zhang, the mayor of Linze County, where Jason's Tang's new winery will be built. One of the guests is a man who produces Jia Leng Ye, a nine-grain spirit that tastes like an aromatic grappa. There is an endless round of toasting and now I understand why the servers only replenish your glass with one ounce of wine, since you are meant to knock back everything in your glass when toasting.

Nine-grain 'grappa' on the lazy Susan with smokes
Nine-grain "grappa" on the lazy Susan with smokes

With our group is Nikki, a teacher who sings traditional Beijing opera, and Sun Yan, who was operatically trained in the Western tradition.

Tim Hanni MW flanked by Nikki and Sun Yan
Tim Hanni MW flanked by Nikki and Sun Yan

Pooch and Peter Gamble have brought along a number of wines from back home. We open the Gambles' Versado Malbec 2010 from Argentina, Clos du Soleil Eclipse Winemaker's Reserve 2009 (50% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Cabernet Franc from Similkameen Valley), Southbrook Poetica 2009 from Ontario and Picket Fence Pinot Noir 2009 from Russian River Valley. Kate sings to the karaoke machine. Ironic to see a Lady Gaga video playing behind Mayor Zhang as he toasts everybody.

Tuesday, August 20: Today we visit tourist sites in Wuwei city. The logo for China's Tourism is a horse stepping on a swallow (Bai Ta). The tomb of Mojuzi from the Han Dynasty is guarded by bronze cavalry figures, then to a series of 100 towers – each one slightly different in design and a temple that contains the ashes of Confucius; and finally a Buddhist temple. Dinner at our hotel in Wuwei with Chinese wines – Huangtai Fazenda Dry Red Wine, Zixnam Merlot, Guofeng Cry Red Wine and Grand Dragon Red.

Bronze cavalry
Bronze cavalry

Repairing the mosaics at the Buddha shrine, Wuwei
Repairing the mosaics at the Buddha shrine, Wuwei

Windmill blades en route to wind farm
Windmill blades en route to wind farm

Wednesday, August 21: Bused to Zhangye, a city in the centre of the Silk Road. All three routes have to pass through here. We visit the Royal Temple of Buddha, built in 1098, the largest remaining building from that era, housing an enormous statue of a reclining Buddha. It is 34.5 meters long, the largest representation of Buddha in China, and it depicts him at the time of his death, aged 80. There is an optical illusion as you move along the statue: the eyes are closed at one point, at another one eye is open and then at another, both eyes are open.

Lunch at Jia Heng Hotel, memorable for its Mongolian hotpot of donkey meat. After lunch we tour the Zhangye Urban Wetland Park, a huge conservation area. Then to Bangiao to see Guofeng's 330 acre vineyard, farmed by 30 different farmers – 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and some table grape varieties. Along the Hexi Corridor they have to bury the vines for winter and uncover them in April. From here to a second vineyard, which looked in much better shape. This will be the vineyard that will supply Jason Tang's winery with fruit.

Table grapes in Guofeng's vineyard, Bangiao
Table grapes in Guofeng's vineyard, Bangiao

Our final stop is the site for Jason's winery in the city of Linze, which is adjacent to a man-made lake within sight of a pagoda at the top of a hill. The hill was created by the earth that was dug out to make the lake. We climb 216 steps to the pagoda for a magnificent panoramic view. From here we can see our hotel – Ningwozhuang Hotel – on the other side of the hill built on another artificial lake.

Pagoda in Linze near Jason Tang's winery site (216 steps up)
Pagoda in Linze near Jason Tang's winery site (216 steps up)

Our hotel in Linze
Our hotel in Linze

At dinner in the hotel we have another memorable dish as part of a banquet hosted by the deputy mayor of Linze: goat intestines served in the skull of the goat.

Goat intestines in the skull of a goat
Goat intestines in the skull of a goat

Thursday, August 22: Woke up to rain this morning and a cold shower. We are the first guests in the hotel, it appears. After breakfast we have a two-hour meeting with the mayor of Linze and six of his officials to discuss the plans for Jason's winery. Then to Zhangye Danxia National Geopark, a series of brilliantly coloured mountain ranges.

Zhangye Danxia National Geopark
Zhangye Danxia National Geopark

After lunching at a local restaurant we drive to Jiayuguan to the see the fortress that guarded the western extremity of the Great Wall. Built with tamped earth in 1372, its walls are 35 feet high surrounding a huge inner courtyard with special quarters for the general and his family. There are ramps that allowed horses to climb up to the top of the walls.

Western entrance to the Great Wall
Western entrance to the Great Wall

General's quarters inside the fortress at the western end of the Great Wall
General's quarters inside the fortress at the western end of the Great Wall

Painting on door panel in the fortress
Painting on door panel in the fortress

We dined outdoors at a fast-food street restaurant in Jiayuguan called Mei Lianfang – a series of spicy shiskababs with Tsing Tao beer.

Friday, August 23: Today we visit Singing Sand Mountain for a camel ride. We are given cloth boots of iridescent orange that tie up below the knees. These are to protect us from the camel dung, from the sand and from losing slip-on sandals when we're aboard the camels.

De rigeur camel-riding footwear
De rigeur camel-riding footwear

Deborah and friend
Deborah and friend

Camel riding to the Singing Sands Mountain
Camel riding to the Singing Sands Mountain

We proceed in formations of six, the camels tethered to each other and led on foot by a guide. Half way up the sand mountain we alight and walk up wooden steps to the top to see a magnificent vista of sand hills. Here you can rent a tube or a small wooden toboggan to slide down. I opt to run down, rather like skiing.

Back on the camels to the Mingsha Mountain Crescent Spring – a beautiful pagoda with a crescent-shaped lake set against a backdrop of sand hills. We lunch on street food in the square by the market on barbecued scewers of spicy lamb, squid, lettuce wrapped in tofu sheets and a hot soup of donkey meat.

Mingsha Mountain Crescent Spring pagoda
Mingsha Mountain Crescent Spring pagoda

The grottoes of Magao
The grottoes of Magao

Our next stop is the Magao Grottoes, a series of caves dug into the side of the mountains by monks and decorated to honour Buddha. The frescoes feature thousands of images of Buddah, as well as sculptures, including one of the Buddha which is the second largest in China. It was carved from the head down by digging a cave into the mountainside at head level and working downwards. Amazingly, the proportions are perfect. In one of the hundreds of caves is a small sculpture of the Buddha which an art historian has called "The Mona Lisa of the East." The enigmatic smile changes according to the angle from which it is viewed – although it pre-dates Leonardo's portrait by hundreds of years.

Next stop is the train station for what turns out to be a 16½-hour train trip to Lanzhou. We are four to a cabin with sleeping berths. Sales people come by with plastic baskets of electronic gadgets, fruits, nuts and cardboard bowls of dehydrated noodles. On the table in the cabin is a pitcher of hot water to reconstitute them. The scenery is arid desert here with thousands of wind farms. Peter cuts two empty plastic water bottles in half, complete with their tops, to make four wine glasses, from which we consume a bottle of Sperling Pinot Noir 2011.

Saturday, August 24: A fitful night's sleep until 7:15 am. We arrive around 10 am and make our way to Mr. Liu's restaurant and hotel – Han Shui Jin Ting. (Mr. Liu has designed Jason's winery.) After lunch we visit an outdoor watermill museum on the banks of the Yellow River, showing how water was supplied to the villages for agriculture.

Watermill museum on the Yellow River
Watermill museum on the Yellow River

Waterwheels on the Yellow River, Lanzhou
Waterwheels on the Yellow River, Lanzhou

Mr. Liu with Icewine
Mr. Liu with Icewine

In the evening we eat in a food court: a drink of apricot skin water, spicy deep fried potato rings, lamb kebabs, skewered chicken wings, sticky rice with plums and a spicy, garlicky hot pot with liver, squid, fish balls, vegetables and tofu. And a beer. We stay the night at Ningwozhuang Hotel.

Street food kebabs cooking
Street food kebabs cooking

A street food restaurateur
A street food restaurateur

Chinese refreshments
Chinese refreshments

Sunday, August 25: Up early so that we can visit the most famous noodle house in Lanzhou for breakfast, Lanzhou Beef Noodle East Palace. At 7:30 am the place is packed. The noodles are delicious.

Lanzhou's best noodles
Lanzhou's best noodles

Noodle kitchen
Noodle kitchen

Lanzhou transportation
Lanzhou transportation

Peach seller, Lanzhou
Peach seller, Lanzhou

We fly to Beijing and check into the Shangri-La Hotel. We're on the 64th floor with a commanding view of the city and its amazing modern skyscrapers.

Beijing skyscraper
Beijing skyscraper

Beijing buildings
Beijing buildings

Olympic stadium, Beijing
Olympic stadium, Beijing

We visit the the Olympic stadium, the bird's nest, and then go to dinner the Zhi Native Association, a restaurant and hotel complex that houses a museum with thousands of ancient Chinese recipe books. The meal we have is based on these old imperial recipes, including a dish that was served to the 18th president of the United States – beef on the bone inside a tiered wooden box with six different sauces in white saucers.

Beef on the bone inside a tiered wooden box
Beef on the bone inside a tiered wooden box

At 10 pm we go to the Oriental Taipan Massage and Spa for a foot massage. Three couples in the same room, the women manipulated by young men and the men by young women. We first soak our feet in what looks like hot cranberry juice and then get a full body massage with our clothes on before they work on our feet. The whole process takes ninety minutes. To bed at midnight.

Monday, August 26: Today Deborah and I fly home. We share the elevator down with a self-absorbed Ashton Kutcher. Susan takes us shopping to the old quarter of Beijing, where we tour the area in a a bicycle rickshaw. We visit a traditional family courtyard home that dates back 500 years to the Ming Dynasty.

Beijing's bicycle rickshaws
Beijing's bicycle rickshaws

A street in old Beijing
A street in old Beijing

Masks for sale in a Beijing market
Masks for sale in a Beijing market

Our final meal in China is on the 79th floor of the Shangri-La – shrimp salad and steak prepared by the hotel's chef, a Turk who has Canadain citizenship. Nearly involved in an accident on the drive to the airport but mercifully made it there in one piece as the driver manoeuvred us out of harm's way.

 

 

 

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