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Playing a numbers game: blind-tasting the stars of the wine world

Chateau Changyu AFIP, one of the top Cabernet Sauvignons from China’s Changyu Pioneer Co., has been served at state banquets. But how does it fare against the other stars of the wine world? Patrick Schmitt MW finds out in a blind tasting.

In the gamut of fine wines there’s one label that’s been drunk by more world leaders in the past decade than any other. It’s a wine that’s been sipped by the likes of Justin Trudeau, Angela Merkel, Francois Holland and Vladimir Putin. Indeed, it’s been served at

state banquets more than 40 times since 2009. And do you know what it is? Here’s a tip: it’s not from Bordeaux, nor from any classic European wine region. It’s from China.

Enjoyed by more heads of state in the past 10 years than any other fine wine label has been Chateau Changyu AFIP, one of the top Cabernet Sauvignons from China’s biggest and oldest wine producer, Changyu Pioneer Wine Co. So liked by China’s president Xi Jinping, it has not only been used to spoil visiting dignitaries at key dinner engagements, but also to oil discussions at high-profile events in Beijing and Shanghai. Indeed, had you attended the 2016 G20 summit in China, then this is what you would have drunk. Or, had you been President Obama, this is what you would have sipped with Hu Jingtao over supper in 2009.

But what does it taste like? Well, that was something we decided to put to the test in London last month. Taking place at Asia House on 14 October was a pioneering sampling exercise. It was one that we believe has never been done before, anywhere in the world. And it featured the high-profile wines served at the world’s most high-profile meals. It was a tasting of those sips served at recent state banquets, and, importantly, it was done blind, with each bottle assessed by some of the world’s most experienced palates: Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine only.

On the next page you can see the full list of the wines that were served and the people who tasted them, but while this tasting may have been fun for the attendees, it had a serious purpose. The element of enjoyment came from the chance to assess some of the world’s great wines without knowing what they were. After all, a famous, revered label will always influence one’s judgement. The purpose was to test whether a new Chinese top-end Cabernet was on a quality level with established fine wines. Of course, with the only common thread to the tasting being the state-level occasions where they were served, we weren’t comparing like with like. But tasters in each case, the wines were assessed individually for quality, which does, of course, allow for a comparison of their ratings.

Based on the scores from 10 Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers, Chateau Changyu AFIP is certainly worthy of a presidential event. With an average score for the wine of 94 points, and a score from one judge of 96 points, it is undoubtedly a high-quality drop. But it’s the relative performance in this tasting that’s also telling. It was the second-highest-scoring label in the 100-strong line-up. It had bettered, according to our esteemed judges, top expressions of Pomerol and Rioja, and had been considered on a par with great wines of Pauillac and Napa. As for the bottles that achieved an average score higher than the AFIP, such famous names achieved just one point more.

But what about the style of the wine? While this is an intense wine in its youth, it’s not a super-ripe, hugely concentrated style of Cabernet, as one might associate with the top examples from Napa. And neither is it lightweight, as one might expect from a cooler vintage in the Medoc. Somewhere between these two extremes of Cabernet, the AFIP has plenty of juicy fruit, but also freshness – it’s rich and layered, but not heavy, with no jammy characters or warming alcohol. And this has not been at the expense of lovely pure blackcurrant fruit.

As for other aspects to the wine, the AFIP has a hint of Cabernet’s characteristic dried mint and dark chocolate, along with plenty of polished tannins, meaning that this is a wine with structure, but a dry, chalky texture. It shows the hallmarks of a wine in its youth, with the potential to age and develop greater complexity with time – one hopes we can test that in a future tasting. After the wine had been revealed, there was one word used by all the tasters to describe their overriding feeling about the AFIP, and that was “impressed”. Such a sentiment was doubtless also felt by the presidents who have drunk it, from Barack Obama to Angela Merkel.

The wines: in the order they were tasted, where they were served, and the average scores (on the 100-point scale) from the tasting in London

The tasters

Patrick Schmitt MW
Simon Field MW
David Round MW
Jack Whitaker MW
Matthieu Longuere MS
Patricia Stefanowicz MW
Isa Bal MS
Eric Zwiebel MS
Svetoslav Manolev MS
Yves Desmaris MS

Served by the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II at the banquet dinner for Japan’s Emperor Akihito during his visit to the country at Buckingham Palace in 2007.

Served by German chancellor Angela Merkel to the heads of state at the 50th anniversary of the European Union in 2007.

Served by the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II to French president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008 when the French president made a state visit to the UK.

Served by Spanish King Felipe VI to Chinese president Xi Jinpin when President Xi made a state visit to Spain in 2018.

Served by Barack Obama at his final state dinner in October 2016 when Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi made a state visit to the US.

Served at state banquets for many foreign heads of state when they visited China, such as Alexander Van der Bellen, president of Austria (2018); Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada (2017); Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany (2015); François Hollande, president of France (2013); Vladimir Putin, president of Russia (2012); and Julia Gillard, prime minister of Australia (2011). AFIP has also been served at the 2016 G20 summit in China, the BRICS summit, the China-EU Leaders’ Meeting and Youth Olympic Games welcome dinner.

Served by Donald Trump to Emmanuel Macron in 2018 when the French president made a state visit to the US.

Served in the welcoming dinner for Queen Elizabeth II hosted by French president Jacques Chirac at the Elysée Palace in Paris in 2004.

Served by French president François Hollande to Chinese president Xi Jinpin at the dinner for the 50th anniversary of China-France diplomatic relations in 2014

Served by Barack Obama to François Hollande in 2014 when the French president made a state visit to the US.

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