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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
11 Oct 2003

See Notable Chinese wine producers for details of China's most significant wineries.

One of Hong Kong's most prominent corporate financiers was entertaining a top Chinese government official in Beijing not long ago and asked him what he would like to drink. What I'd like to drink is a brandy, sighed his guest, but I suppose I'd better have wine since everyone else seems to nowadays.

The speed of the transformation of China's increasingly populous upper and middle class from a spirits-drinking society to a wine-drinking one has been quite extraordinary. And as one might expect from such a proudly industrious and self-sufficient nation, China seems determined to supply the great majority of what is needed herself. According to world's most pernickety wine statistics collator the OIV [l'Office International de la Vigne et du Vin], total vineyard area in China increased from 188,000 hectares in 1997 to 260,000 just three years later, an increase of 38 per cent or half the total area planted to vines in Australia in 2000. China is now one of the world's top ten producers of wine.

There is nothing quintessentially Chinese about the sort of wine produced. About half of all vines planted are the famous red Cabernet Sauvignon of Bordeaux, and almost all are equally well-known varieties internationally. In the early 1990s at the very beginning of the wine boom, encouraged by a government unhappy at the proportion of its cereals which went for distillation, white wine was in demand. Vast quantities of cheap wine were imported from South America and southern Europe and blended in with local produce to be sold as 'Chinese wine'. At one stage a significant proportion of what went into the bottle owed little to grapes.

But by 1997 the healthful effects of red wine consumption were officially promulgated. Over the next two years, out went the white wine vines and in, with typical Chinese efficiency, went the red - so much so that there is now a national shortage of white wine grapes. Meanwhile China has become much, much less dependent on bulk imports and dubious helpmeets. Wine imported in bulk, which reached a peak in 1997 and1998 and is currently chiefly from Chile, was down to well under 10 per cent of the total volume of wine sold in China last year, enough to fill 457 million bottles.

And in a significant step towards vinous respectability, from May last year putting products other than grapes into wine was officially outlawed. Some wine industry leaders are already calling for a proper national wine law, a sort of Appellation Chinoise Contrôlé. (There is clearly a need for more control when one producer is still selling a Cabernet dated 1992, a year when hardly a Cabernet vine existed in the whole country.)

In China today ads for wine are sprouting up in all the most obvious upmarket places, airline magazines and the like. The wine course offered by Beijing's agricultural university is over-subscribed ten times over. The front page of China Daily recently [26 September] carried the tale of a scientific expedition stranded on an island in Tibet that had been sponsored by a Chinese wine company. The man who dreamt up London's wine-based tourist attraction Vinopolis has just been drafted in to do something similar in Shanghai. Already under construction outside Beijing is developer Li Chun Ming's International Wine Culture Village complete with faithful, if slightly spooky, replica of Tasmania's Government House in Hobart dominating the Tassy section of this theme park, one of the first to be completed because Li and his syndicate have also invested in a Tasmanian vineyard.

While Chinese wine investors are spreading their wings abroad - the country's largest wine company Changyu is feeling so confident that it has begun a partnership with its Thai importer to produce wine in Thailand - the global drinks companies which flirted with the Chinese wine business in the 1990s seem in retrospect to have retreated at just the wrong time. Pernod Ricard, frustrated by lack of profitability, pulled out of Dragon Seal in 2001. At about the same time Rémy-Cointreau washed its hands of Imperial Court and Allied-Domecq divested itself of the Huadong winery, producer of China's first drinkable Chardonnay. All of these companies, having absorbed not a little foreign winemaking expertise, are now in 100 per cent Chinese hands - although the Sino-French triumvirate who run Dragon Seal day to day are so steeped in their Bordeaux training that French is the working language.

Most wineries in China are currently working out whether to follow the French or New World wine model, and you can be sure that that decision will not be based on emotion. Changyu has clearly opted for France in an alliance with Castel of Bordeaux (owners of Nicolas, Oddbins et al) called Château Changyu-Castel. Other past outside investors include Jeanjean and William Pitters of France while Sella & Mosca of Sardinia, Torres of Spain and the owner of Norton in Argentina all have some sort of current involvement. [China is one of the few wine-producing countries with only the lightest of imprints of Australian influence, although at least one large winery boasts that it was designed by Australians.]

The first guidebook to Chinese wineries has been published in Mandarin and profiles well over 40 of them (450 are said to exist, though only 10 of them are of any great size). Names include the relatively well established Dynasty, Great Wall, Huadong and Dragon Seal (which was founded near Beijing by a French missionary as long ago as 1910) as well as the more recent likes of wineries called Of Course, Cupidgod and Château Rouge. Too recent to be included in the book is Grace Vineyard near Taigu [sic] in the central Shanxi province, new territory for the vine. Grace's Tasya's Reserve Merlot 2001 was the best Chinese wine I tasted during my visit to China last month. (I tasted, nay drank, many top-quality imported wines at the various fine wine events that now proliferate in Shanghai and Beijing's opulent hotels and restaurants.)

The most striking thing about the recent growth in Chinese wine production is how rapid it has been. Only in 1998 did Suntime, a trading company listed on the Shanghai stock exchange and based in the far western province of Xinjiang, decide to go into wine. Today it owns 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of vineyard there (in mosque and kebab country) and claims to have built the biggest winery in Asia. For the moment it lags behind more established brands in terms of market share but has spent a fortune on a TV campaign featuring a couple of movie stars (the Chinese are at least as celeb-obsessed as the rest of the world) as 'spokespersons' for Suntime wines. The company has also recently gone to the lengths of cutting its retail prices by half, from an initial price of about five US dollars a bottle for its top Niya bottlings, in an effort to match sales figures more closely to its annual output of 54 million litres of wine - not bad from a standing start five years ago.

Hairong Duan founded his much smaller, more personalised winery Rongchen Vineyard in Huai Lai in 1997. Inspired by a visit to Bordeaux the year before and using money he had made on the stock market supplemented by a 20 per cent government loan, he has planted 200 hectares (500 acres) of heavily netted Cabernet and Merlot vines and is close enough to Beijing (and the Great Wall) to attract 100 tourist groups a year. During my visit a coach-load of Germans were smoking their way through a line-up of Rongchen reds in a tasting room that reminded me of a rather rundown village hall, prior to being driven to the bottle shop. The young owner says he would like to smarten things up a bit but cash flow is a bit of a problem.

Perhaps it was a more recent visit to California which inspired his latest stratagem, the release of his best wine to date, Rongchen Diamond Cabernet/Merlot 2001, at 800RMB (about $100) a bottle. He claims he has already sold 30 per cent of the stock and to show for his business acumen has a chauffeur-driven Mercedes 500 SEL, which looks decidedly out of place in the primitive villages around his wine estate.

He showed me his Cabernet grapes, still struggling to ripen on straggling vines at the end of September. They were in sharp contrast to the nearest neighbouring vineyard, planted as part of a French government project to show the Chinese how it is done. Here the vines had been carefully trimmed to correct the balance between leaf and fruit, which had already ripened and been picked. Vines in China, many of which have to be painstakingly buried each autumn to protect them from winters far colder than in Europe, routinely benefit from an almost unparalleled supply of inexpensive labour, so we can expect to see this summer hedging technique widely copied.

For the problem with Chinese wines at the moment, apart from completely anarchic pricing, is that to a European palate they tend to taste a bit vapid. Most vines are not only very young, they are often over-irrigated in inland wine regions in the headlong rush for efficiency, and in milder coastal regions such as Shandong the wines are diluted by damp, fungal disease-prone autumns. The better Cabernets and Merlots are closer to the lighter products of the cool climes of the Loire than Bordeaux's new full-throttle essences. That said, a lack of wine flavour may be no great disadvantage for Chinese consumers new to wine.

Already many Chinese drinkers, who understand well that it is only dry wine, not the traditional sweet concoctions also sold as 'wine', that is fashionable, are prone to dilute this strange new drink with cola and lemonade. This is hardly surprising since the taste of wine was utterly foreign to the voracious Chinese palate until relatively recently. Fermented fresh grape juice may have taken hold in China but it is still far from a developed wine market. Average per capita wine consumption is still only about one bottle per head per year in the sprouting, sprawling modern cities, making a national average of less than half that.

Part of the problem has been language. The same word and character has been used for any alcoholic drink, including most of the fiendish traditional ferments and distillates that have been used for the all-important toasts in Chinese business entertaining. Indeed it is wine's supplanting of this role at official Chinese banquets that has really marked its cultural advent.

Already some producers are talking grandly of exporting. Chez Suntime I was proudly shown the business card of a man living in Paris supplying Chinese restaurants in France, and introduced to a young Chinese woman representing the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce charged with selling Suntime's wines not only to Liverpool's Chinatown but also to British supermarkets. For once the adverb 'hopefully' could be used correctly about this mission. If the Chinese are to stand a chance of exporting their wines, however, they will have to coax more flavour out of their already extensive vines.

And as the French winemaker left at Dragon Seal after Pernod Ricard's pull-out Jérôme Sabaté points out, China's best wine regions are almost certainly not yet discovered, let alone planted. Though in a country like this, the gap between those two operations tends to be measured in a single government decision rather than over a painfully protracted series of meetings.

There is also the spectre of a further drop in tariffs on imported wines, to be reduced from a stiff 65 per cent pre WTO agreement to just 14 per cent next January - although this is likely to be of significance to an almost negligible proportion of native Chinese.

There is an old Chinese proverb, a young man from the Shanghai Times told me: Life is like wine. They both have different flavours at different times.

How true.

See Notable Chinese wine producers for details of China's most significant wineries.