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First lady of wine
By Ruby Gao

WINE critic Jancis Robinson, arguably the most powerful woman in the world of wine, compares herself to a glass of Burgundy — subtle and complex, offering varied sensations.

Burgundy red is known for its aging potential. But Robinson’s tasting skill has been called into question by some experts (though not in public, of course) during her recent visit to China. They suggest age has affected tasting acumen.

Asked earlier by Shanghai Daily whether getting older affected her tasting, Robinson replied that her skill is unimpaired and, if anything, age has improved her ability to concentrate.

The 64-year-old British expert was the first person outside the wine trade entitled to write MW (Master of Wine, the ultimate title) after her name.

The prolific writer has published at least 25 books, including two that are considered wine bibles, “The World Atlas of Wine” and “The Oxford Companion to Wine.” She produces the world’s first TV series on wine aired by the BBC.

As the whole world becomes more knowledgeable about wine, consumers feel more confident of their own opinions, and wine critics are needed less and less.

“All ordinary wine drinkers will become experts after I’m dead. So I still get a few years to be helpful,” Robinson tells Shanghai Daily.

She was in town to sign the Chinese edition of “Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course,” organized by ASC Fine Wines, and to conduct a 2-day tasting together with two other critics, Bernard Burtschy and Ian D’Agata.

They chose the seven most competitive bottles among 53 Chinese wines at the Chinese Wine Summit.

“She’s still powerful enough to influence a wine’s market performance. But that doesn’t mean I will change my wine style to please her,” says Deng Zhongxiang, a French-trained Chinese winemaker at Ningxia Lilan Winery.

Some wineries do change their styles to please Robinson or powerful critic Robert Parker, who both give scores to wines.

‘Nowhere near great’

Robinson says the best Chinese wine she tasted on this trip is Kanaan Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, which she called “very honest and interesting, well balanced.” Noting that the wine is made by a woman (Wang Fang), she says, “Three Chinese winemakers that I remember, whose wines impress me, are all women.”

However, Robinson has reservations about the quality and diversity of Chinese wine in general.

“I still think Chinese wine is nowhere near great wine, but I do understand there’s a will to make (great wine),” she says.

Chinese wine also does not yet have a track record of improving with time, she adds.

Robinson says it’s “amazing” that China, as the world’s fifth (in volume) wine producer, still produces an extremely narrow range, dominated by Cabernet and Merlot reds and Chardonnay whites.

“How are you ever going to move on unless you expose consumers something else?” she says.

Robinson attributes this in large part to history and the popularity of “flying winemakers” or foreign experts for hire.

Initially, when China was falling in love with wine, Bordeaux (mainly made with Cabernet grapes) was driving the market, she says.

Flying winemakers (predominantly French and Australian) have helped China’s wine industry but they have also heavily influenced the expression of local characteristics, she says.

“The best wines express a place, a person, and a point in the historical continuum,” Robinson writes in her book “Tasting Pleasure: Confessions of a Wine Lover.”

She calls the flaws in Chinese wine “stylistic rather than technical.”

The quality of some oak for aging barrels is not very good, some reds are too sweet, unbalanced and “lack fruit weight on the mid palate,” she observes.

Mislabeled wines

Cabernet Gernischt, a local variety, doesn’t ripen properly, bringing out wine’s natural green acidic characteristics, she says, adding that winemakers may compensate for that by leaving a lot of sugar in the wine.

“The biggest challenge is to ensure that all wines are authentic,” she says, referring to the problem of fakes and mislabeled wines. “There should be a definite correlation between what is said on the label and what is in the bottle ... to ensure all the wines are 100 percent made from grapes.”

She expressed concern that many Chinese get the wrong impression of wine because of a first tasting experience with a bad domestic wine or a cheap, imported bottle.

Robinson says she is impressed by the quality wines, citing her visits since 2002 to Shanxi Province, Beijing, the Xinjiang Uygur and Ningxia Hui autonomous regions.

In Ningxi the local government is trying to develop the wine industry, she notes in the seventh edition of “The World Atlas of Wine,” devoting a section to the area.

On this China trip, Robinson visited Yunnan Province to see a new wine project invested by the LVMH Group.

In her latest tasting of Chinese wines, Robinson’s judgement was questioned by some Chinese wine experts and writers, since many acclaimed labels didn’t make it through to the finals.

“Her tasting judgment is contrary to our general expectation. Many wineries are unconvinced but dare not say so because she is Jancis Robinson,” says one wine insider, asking that his name not be published.

Her tasting, actually, has been questioned in the past.

According to another insider, Robinson and leading Chinese wine experts visited Ningxia not long ago and were served a bottle that everyone else thought was corked except for Robinson, who insisted that it was a very good wine.

“I believe she is a great taster, but she’s not that young. Her nose and palate may have begun to degenerate,” says the insider, asking not to be identified.

Wine tasting is a lifelong pursuit for critics, so doubts can be devastating.

Asked about skeptics, Robinson says with a laugh, “I definitely haven’t got older (as a taster).

“But I find that as I get older, my ability to concentrate becomes much better,” she adds.

Women have a physiological advantage in tasting, Robinson says. When scientists measure tasting ability, from consistency to the ability to spot characteristics, experienced women tasters do better than men, she says.

Western societies don’t expect women to know much about wine when it’s ordered in restaurants.

“Instead of worrying about choosing the right wine, we just choose the wine we feel like drinking,” she emphasizes.

“On the macro level, when people are making a seating plan, I will often be put next to the most important person,” she says.

Whatever critics say, Robinson is one of the most experienced wine tasters.

“Some of the best wines I’ve ever had have been old Bordeaux but there is so much else. My most impressive memory is a 1947 Cheval Blanc, a very famous Saint Emilion,” she says.

She has also tasted fakes.

Robinson is one of the few people who tasted the Thomas Jefferson Bottles, the rarest and most controversial wines that broke auction records but were finally determined to be fake.

“I was extraordinarily lucky to be there (Jefferson’s Mouton Tasting), the only journalist ... among the 19 tasters,” she says in her book, “Tasting Pleasure.”

“The pre-revolutionary bouquet was reticent at first and then built up to a great cloud of sweetness hanging over the whole room,” she says.

Robinson decided to go for the Master of Wine title while she was working on a BBC TV series in 1994. At that time, a journalist compared her to a glass of Beaujolais, “flighty and evanescent.”

Her reaction, “I will show you that I am not!” Robinson recalls. She adds that her pregnancy at that time helped her excel in tasting.”

Her practical, down-to-earth philosophy has contributed to her popularity.

“It (wine) should provide as much pleasure for as many people at the lowest possible cost,” she says.

Robinson, a self-described girl from a village school, went on to study math and philosophy at St Anne’s College, Oxford.

She fell in love with wine when a boyfriend ordered a bottle of Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses 1959 at Rose Revived restaurant outside Oxford. She joined the Oxford University Wine Society.

She says she enjoys “nothing more than to idle in every wine shop” to enrich her wine cellar.

“I only buy wines which I think worth aging. My cellar is quite conventional. There are quite a lot of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone and a lot of German Riesling, which lasts a very long time, though not everybody realizes it,” she says.

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