There’s an old Chinese proverb that goes something like this: it does not matter if your tavern sits in a remote location so long as the smell of your wine is appealing.
These wise words from long ago attest to how far back China’s wine culture dates. Despite wine remaining a minority taste in the vast country, wine drinking in China actually dates back thousands of years, and a fresh demand for good-quality wine is on the rise. Back in 2014, Vinexpo reported that over the previous decade, China had overtaken both France and Italy as the highest wine-consuming nation in the world. There are, after all, a lot of people in China, and their collective tastes are changing. In 2015, China overtook France as the second-largest region planted with vines after Spain. Currently, most wines made in China are red varieties produced from international Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, but the diversity of the land and grape-growing possibilities are as vast as the country’s land mass itself. It’s a fascinating playing field in the game of vines – one that is evolving as quickly as the nation itself.
There are six significant vine-growing areas within China. Ningxia is the most established region, producing the lion’s share of well-regarded wines, with companies like Pernod Ricard invested in growing in the area. In the north-west is Xinjiang, which generates China’s largest supply of table grapes. Hebei to the east makes mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and is bordered by Shanxi, which has a seasonal climate that also accommodates Chardonnay and Merlot growing, while Shandong further east produces nearly half of China’s wines. The northern regions get frigidly cold, meaning many grapes must be buried under the ground in wintertime, adding cost and difficulty to the process. The remoteness of many of the vineyards also present additional challenges to transport logistics, like in Yunnan in the south-west, where they toil to produce various grapes. Moët & Hennessy have set up a new high-altitude vineyard in the area near the border of Tibet, surrounded by the Himalayas.
Lillian Carter is a winemaker at Tiansai Vineyards in Xinjiang. She has lent us some of her insights into the country’s expanding wine market:
Within the wine business, vine growing in China is well known, but outside, it remains largely unknown; why do you think it’s still so under the radar?
I’ve come up against this many times. So many people say they didn’t know they grow [in China]. It’s not really part of their export product, so you don’t come across it outside the country, as there is enough demand domestically. The costs of exporting it might not stack up, and China doesn’t have such a great reputation for high-quality, safe products, so it will take quite a lot to have it accepted by the global community. It’s certainly trying to be accepted, but there isn’t a need to push it outside China yet. But, gradually, it will be.
Is the wine world keeping an eye on China’s wine production?
Yes, definitely. It’s often misunderstood by grape producers, as they might see it as a threat in the future, but that’s a bit naive. I would counter that argument to say there is enough of a market at this stage for good domestic and international wines to thrive, and international wines will do better if the local Chinese consumers have positive experiences drinking good Chinese wines versus rubbish Chinese wines. Then they are more likely to enjoy exploring international wines.
Wine growing has been happening for centuries in China, but only recently has the population been prioritising wine over other alcohols; why do you think there has been this shift?
I think it’s health driven and focused. You can see that across a lot of other categories in the China market, the interest in what they are putting in their bodies. I think there is a genuine interest in wanting to know more, learn more. Wine appeals to the Chinese appetite for knowledge with the wine-education programmes and the wanting to get deeper involved. Wine does fascinate in general, and the Chinese maybe enjoy the academic side and enjoyment of knowing more about it.
Do the prices of Chinese wines correlate with their quality?
No, unfortunately not. The marketing side of things is a bit unknown, and the channels to get to market are not well developed. I think the owners often have a misunderstanding of the value of their product. It’s assuming the customer doesn’t have any indicator of knowledge of quality and that, if they set the price high, it must be a good wine.
What advice do you have for those wanting to purchase Chinese wines?
I’d say try to hunt down the more well-regarded producers by doing research online and buying directly from the wineries. Also, avoid the wines that are into the thousands of renminbi.
What’s been the response to the wines you’ve helped to grow in China?
Quite a lot of them have been well received in international competitions. We have had awards from Decanter and RVF magazines and have been critiqued by international palates with great surprised responses and accolades.
What are your favourite wines produced in China now?
I enjoy finding wines made from more interesting varieties than Cabernet or Merlot, like Malbec, Shiraz or Petit Manseng, and less traditional varieties.
Eddie McDougall is the dynamic force behind The Flying Winemaker in Hong Kong and chairman of the Asian Wine Review, the world’s first wine guide for wines grown and produced in Greater Asia. He enlightens us on the great grapes growing in China:
Being so prolific, why is there so little known about China’s wine production internationally?
There’s nothing to hide; it’s just not readily available internationally. There was never the scale to push beyond domestic borders. They are already servicing a huge population, so there’s no need to go outside at this point in time. As wine interest grows in China, so will the appetite for local wines. Some top brands have made it outside the borders based on successful results at international competitions. They have been winning awards for primarily red wines from places like Ningxia.
What hurdles do wines from China need to overcome?
Perception of quality is the biggest hurdle, but that will come over time as confidence builds and consumers become more curious about the local wares.
Is the wine world at large keeping an eye on China’s wine production?
Very much so – in fact, most of the large corporate players are also making wine in China in view of the shift towards locally produced wine.
Why do you think China has embraced wine drinking in recent years?
The growing middle class and students and workers returning to China from Western countries have induced a type of lifestyle. Wine producing in China is most certainly a combo of the three.
Is China’s wine-tourism industry heating up now?
Absolutely – there’s so much opportunity for ecotourism, especially in places like Yunnan and Hunan.
Are there any unique attributes to any of the wines being produced in China compared to other nations?
The wine styles are very international, so there’s nothing really specific in terms of taste profile or style.
Which vineyards in China are doing really interesting things right now?
Grace Vineyard [in Shangxi] is probably the most adventurous, as they are experimenting with several grape varietals to find the right fit.
Any tips for journeying into the world of Chinese wine?
Be adventurous. Start with the classic varietals like Cabernet, then try others like Marselan.
Which Chinese labels should we be looking out for?
I would keep an eye out for Li’s Winery, Nine Peaks, Silver Heights and Treaty Port.
To learn more about wine in China, download the Asian Wine Review at www.asianwinereview.com.