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Will Chinese Wine be as Successful as Chinese Food?
By Michael Apstein
Jun 19, 2018
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At the end of the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, which was held this year in Beijing, I sat amazed at how extraordinarily efficient and smoothly run this wine competition was: A dedicated sommelier for each panel of judges, perfectly timed pouring, not a drop spilled or a glass broken, a bevy of technical support assistants for the tablets judges used to record their scores, even robots transporting bottled water to be delivered to the judges’ tables.  I commented about this to the Chinese judge sitting next to me.  His response:  “We have a strong central government.”  An understatement, to be sure, but it explains why I predict that within a decade China will be producing world class wines. When the Chinese government sets its mind to something, for better or for worse, it gets done.  And it appears as though the government is intent on seeing top-notch wine come from its shores. 

Before embarking on what I learned about China and wine, a few words about the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles are in order.  This prestigious world-wide wine competition is held in a different city each year.  To mark its 25th anniversary, the organizers chose Beijing as the host.  Three hundred thirty judges representing 50 nationalities (12 from the U.S.) tasted just over 9,100 wines submitted by wineries from 48 countries, including China. 

Wineries hold awards from the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles in particularly high esteem for two reasons.  The percentage of wines that receive awards is low, with only 1% receiving a Grand Gold (equivalent to a point score of 91.1 and above), about 9% receiving a Gold (equivalent to a point score of between 86.6-91) and about 19% receiving a Silver (equivalent to a point score between 84.5 and 86.5).  Furthermore, the judges are judged.  The organizers assess the performance of the judges by including the same wine twice in a flight each day to see if their assessment of an individual wine is reproducible. 

Though my panel did not judge any Chinese wine, I had an opportunity to taste many during the three days of the competition and during the remainder of my two-week trip and also observed the “wine culture”--or lack thereof--in China. Cutting to the chase, Chinese wines made from vinifera grapes, such as Dragon Seal’s Cabernet Sauvignon, are surprisingly good for such a young industry.  It helps that some of the leading French wine companies, such as Moët Hennessy, have signed on.  Indeed, at this year’s Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, the Chinese walked off with a total of 131 medals, 5 Grand Gold, 46 Gold and 80 Silver medals, an increase of 68% over the previous year.  Not surprisingly, most of the award-winning Chinese wines were made from the so-called international grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Marselan, a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache found primarily in the Languedoc.

Viticulturally, China could be divided by a line that runs from the Shandong Peninsula in the northeast in a southwesterly direction to roughly Sichuan. North of this the vines must be buried during the winter to survive China’s continental climate.  Burying the vines is expensive even in this labor-abundant country, and tricky as well.  Workers must act swiftly to prune and bury them immediately after harvest before the ground freezes.  Even this technique is not fool-proof.  Estimates vary, but some--up to 5 percent--of the vines fail to survive each winter despite this effort.  Vines subjected to this treatment year after year also have a reduced lifespan.  Despite the need to bury the vines, the industry is flourishing in Ningxia, the area two hours northwest of Beijing that is already home to about 100 wineries and 100,000 acres of vines (roughly twice that of Napa Valley) and is thought by many to be a leading candidate to become the Napa Valley of Chinese wine production.

South of the dividing line, humidity wreaks havoc on the vines. Moët Hennessy may have solved the humidity problem at their property in the Yunnan province near the Himalayas by going up in elevation--planting at altitude of 7,800 feet.  The very steep slopes here make viticulture difficult and add extra expense to production.

Although records suggest that wine was made in China over two millennia ago, during the Han Dynasty, the modern industry is barely two decades old.  With the country’s vast expanse of land and diverse climates, it is not surprising that there are dozens of potential regions for fine wine production in China.  The industry is so young that, as of now, these regions have political, not geographic boundaries, reminiscent of American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) as opposed to European appellations.  Like everything surrounding the Chinese wine industry, that could change quickly.  Producers in the Helan Mountain area of Ningxia are already starting to divide that zone according to geographic characteristics. 

Again, not surprisingly, given the nascent stages of the industry, no one region reigns supreme.  Medal winning wines from this year’s Concours Modial de Bruxelles came from five different areas: Ningxia, Xinjiang, Hebei, Shandong, and the area surrounding Beijing.  Moët Hennessy’s AoYun, a stunning Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine that retails for $300 a bottle in China and in the U.S., shows that the Yunnan province also has great potential.

The wine culture in China, like the industry itself, is in its infancy.  Wine accounts for only about 2 percent of all alcoholic beverages produced in China--beer and rice wine remain the mainstays because they are much easier to produce, according to Professor Demie Li, an authority on Chinese wine from Beijing University of Agriculture.  Despite a tiny per capita consumption, its population of 1.4 billion puts China among the top ten countries consuming countries.  Li estimates that perhaps 20 million people are regular wine consumers and, like wine consumers in other countries that do not have a traditional culture for wine, most are based in large cities.  Since China has more than 20 cities with populations over 10 million, there is substantial room for growth within that subgroup.

Red wine remains the most popular, by far, according to Li, but not because of food and wine pairing, a concept that has yet to hit China (in part, no doubt because of the plethora of types of Chinese food, from fire-y hot in Sichuan and the west to sweeter in Shanghai and the eastern part of the country).  Rather, its popularity stems from the Chinese affinity for the color red, the perception that it has health benefits and its prestige because it is more expensive than white wine.  Since most wine in China is consumed outside of the house, often in a business setting, the red color stands out.   Li notes, however, that there has been a gradual shift towards consumption of white wine in China’s coastal areas.

The growing consumption of wine--one estimate puts China as the number two (behind the U.S.) consumer of wine, as measured by value, by 2021--explains the exploding interest by investors and the government in the industry.

Soon, you might be ordering a glass of Chinese Sauvignon Blanc with that kung pao shrimp you’ve likely come to love….

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Email me your thoughts about China and wine at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein

June 20, 2018