The world of winemaking and viticulture in China is still very much the Wild West, experts say, with many of the vines planted in the wrong places and much of what’s produced condemned as faulty, fake or just plain undrinkable.
So when an audience member at a Vinexpo 2012 seminar in Hong Kong asked celebrity winemaking consultant Michel Rolland what Chinese winemakers needed to do to produce top-end wine, he smiled and said, “That’s a long one.
“I don’t know yet if China is able to produce great wine,” said Rolland, who has acted as a consultant for industry leaders Great Wall and Dynasty. “Certainly, regarding the immensity of the country, there is a region where the vines will grow much better, and much better than what we know today.”
According to the International Organization of Vine and Wine, China is the world’s sixth most prolific wine-producing nation. However, much of the land under vine has challenging terroir characterized by extreme temperatures, humidity and summer rains that bring a high risk of crop-destroying fungal diseases.
The region many consider most promising is Ningxia, in north-central China, which has hot, dry summers. The area is battling desertification, and local agriculture relies on ancient irrigation systems from the Yellow River, which runs along its eastern side.
The first Chinese wine to nab a top honor at the Decanter World Wine Awards, in 2011, was the 2009 vintage of Jia Bei Lan from He Lan Qing Xue winery in the north of Ningxia. As the winner in the Bordeaux blend category, it beat hundreds of wines from Bordeaux itself.
Betting on Ningxia's potential, international drinks giant Moët Hennessy has begun work on 163 acres of vines there to produce premium sparkling wine in a joint venture with a state-owned agricultural development company.
China-based consultant Nicolas Carré told the newspaper “Le Figaro” that the topography and gravel soils of Ningxia make it “a perfect environment for vines.” But even the winemaker behind the award-winning Jia Bei Lan wine, food science professor Li Demei, points out that with average winter temperatures hovering around -4°F (-20°C), Ningxia is a quite different proposition from Bordeaux. In comparison, the coldest areas of France drop to an average low of around 32°F (0°C) in December and January.
“We have much difficulty [growing] quality grapes due to the extremely tough climate,” says Li. “I don't think the Chinese wine can compete with premium international wines.”
The He Lan Qing Xue winery made only 1,000 cases of his award-winning vintage, which was mostly split between the Ningxia government (part-owner of the winery) and the wine’s distributor, The Wine Republic.
Li says that Ningxia growers must bury their vines each winter to protect them from the cold, and dig them out each spring. This method — which is also used in some parts of Canada — makes canopy management, training plants and maintaining robustness in aged vines extremely difficult.
The main cordon must be kept low to the ground, and shoots are pulled up to recreate the canopy each spring. They are then bent back down and buried under about a foot of dirt or sand before freezing temperatures set in. After a few years, when the shoots start to get woody and inflexible, new shoots must be brought up to take their place.
Despite the viticultural challenge of burying vines, wines from places such as Xinjiang (another region with bitterly cold winters that is tagged by the government for further wine-related development) have won international awards.
Boutique wines from Ningxia outperformed several Bordeaux contenders in a blind tasting by French and Chinese judges in Beijing at the end of 2011, though some believe the competition was stacked in favor of the Chinese wines.
“The French wines were commercial wines produced by the millions of bottles, while the ones from Ningxia came from small productions,” says Alexis Sabourin, of Bordeaux producer Château Crusquet Sabourin. He believes the 2011 Decanter Awards prize “proves that China can produce good wine. The question that remains is whether it can produce great wines.”
At the Beijing blind tasting, the Jia Bei Lan was third after a 2009 Summit from Ningxia winery Silver Heights – cited as a favorite by several foreign wine professionals interviewed for this article. Top place went to Grace Vineyard's 2009 Chairman's Reserve, which hails from Shanxi, a rugged northern province that enjoys cooler, drier summers than most. Like Ningxia, though, Shanxi suffers from very cold winters, with an average January temperature of about 10°F (-12°C).
Grace Vineyard is a 15-year-old family-owned operation that has a business relationship with the Spanish company Torres. It is the best-represented Chinese producer in the award-winning cellar of Maison Boulud, the Beijing outpost of celebrity restaurateur Daniel Boulud.
“It’s important to feature something that we can be proud of here in the Chinese market,” says the head chef and master of the restaurant’s wine list, Californian Brian Reimer.
Maison Boulud served Grace Vineyard wines to film director and Napa winery owner Francis Ford Coppola when he asked to try something Chinese. “We gave him a case and he ended up taking three cases home by private jet,” says Reimer.
Grace also gets fruit from vineyards in Ningxia and Shaanxi (a province to the west of similarly named Shanxi), both of which bury their vines in winter — something that is not acceptable for every vintner.
When Greek winemaker Mihalis Boutaris (of the leading Greek producer Boutari) went on the hunt for the best possible Chinese terroir, he refused to plant anywhere that required vines to be buried — a technique he calls “unsustainable” and “a colossal stupidity.” After months of searching, Boutaris settled on the southeastern part of Gansu Province, west of Ningxia, where he planted vines with a Chinese partner, Mogao Winery.
The infrastructure and level of development in Gansu are far behind the more developed east coast of China, making the logistics of running a business there difficult. However, Gansu has the closest to a temperate climate that Boutaris could find.
Summers get some rain but are not too hot, and winters are not too cold. A strong variation between day and night temperatures gives fruit better potential for retaining acidity and developing a deeper color, firmer tannins and more fragrant aromatics. Boutaris's vines are only two years old, so the proof will be in the fruit, but he has high hopes for his project.
“There will be something quite unique about it, because the climate is unlike any other wine-growing country, any other wine appellation,” says Boutaris. But he warns that difficult terroir is just one of the limitations that could make European-style wine dynasties hard to develop in China.
“Climate is not the only cardinal constraint,” explains the fifth-generation winemaker. “The other is the fact that you can never own land. So you can never build a legacy."
And at this point, even the first step — the question of where to start developing wineries — is still very much in dispute. “Ningxia is obviously the flavor of the moment,” says critic Jeremy Oliver, the first Westerner to write a book about wine for the Chinese market published in Mandarin. “But I think that time will show that people will go farther north.”
Oliver says several Australian winemaking consultants working in China are focusing on Inner Mongolia. “Apparently they think the sites there for viticulture are sensational. The thing is that there’s no one living there.” That’s a hard sell for a communist government that “approached viticulture until relatively recently as a means of employing people.”
One foreign wine professional who has worked in China says he has a “gut feeling” about many of the sites Western companies chose for vine-planting projects. In his view, those firms that also import goods into China very likely settled on less-than-optimal terroir as the result of political pressure from the Chinese government.
Dean Xu, a professor of management at the China Europe International Business School in Beijing, believes that is indeed likely. Xu says it’s “no secret” that provincial leaders are under pressure to attract foreign direct investment to their local areas.
“From the government's point of view, of course, it is better for foreign companies to have production facilities here to have local employment and to make a contribution to GDP growth.”
And from the companies’ point of view, a Chinese foothold can help with importing their overseas wines and liquors. “They can use a local company to establish distribution channels or deal with the government and local partners,” says Xu, who adds that dealing with the Chinese government is not easy.
A New Zealand Trade and Enterprise report on China's 12th five-year economic plan predicts an impending squeeze on imports by the government in Beijing as it tries to nurture its domestic wine industry. However, Xu believes pressure for local production of goods has eased in recent years.
Infrastructure and tourism potential also seem to play a role in site selection. When French producer Château Lafite Rothschild began setting up a vineyard in China in 2011, the company opted for an area with challenging terroir, albeit well-developed infrastructure, though a spokesperson for Lafite says the government did not weigh in on its choice of location.
After a 15-year search, Lafite planted its first 30 acres of mostly cabernet vines on neatly shaped, ochre-colored terraces in Shandong province. Its local partner, CITC, a government-owned investment group, holds a 30 percent stake in the venture.
Shandong is China’s main wine-producing area and has the country’s longest history of modern winemaking. But because of its location on the 2,000 mile eastern coastline, it is prone to marine monsoons, hot rainy summers and autumns, and damp conditions that encourage fruit rot and pests.
The director of Lafite’s project, Gérard Colin, says scouting for locations took into account strategic advantages that would make the winery “not only a base for production, but also a welcome center and public relations hub for promoting the range of DBR [Domaines Barons de Rothschild] products.”
The Chinese government has also identified the potential for wine tourism in Shandong and is planning to invest more than 1 billion renminbi ($157 million) in a 1.8 million-square-foot world grape and wine culture exhibition center in Penglai, on the northwestern side of the Shandong peninsula.
According to Lafite, a study by soil engineer Olivier Trégoat mapping its site at Penglai was positive. It found that despite the difficulties created by 80 percent of yearly rainfall occurring during the vines’ growth period, Penglai’s mild September and October temperatures offer the grapes a long maturation period.
This means they are able to develop anthocyanin and polyphenols (the chemicals that contribute to a wine’s color and tannin levels). Southern-facing slopes and free-draining soils are expected to reduce the impact of heavy rain.
As the vineyard plots were being bulldozed in 2010, Colin told AFP: “We’re looking to make the best wine possible, but not necessarily the best wine in the world.” The first vintage is expected around 2015.
A major question when considering the potential success of a premium-wine industry on Chinese soil will ultimately be whether the Chinese products can capture the attention of the domestic market. Most of the 3.9 billion liters of wine drunk by the Chinese in 2011 was cheap, domestically produced bulk red, but consumers who can afford premium quality want anything but local wine.
“Most of the people who are talking about Chinese fine wines are wine professionals,” says Wendy Wang, a Chinese importer of French wines based in Fujian province. “They care about Chinese wines, and they try to find some good wines from our local area.”
Drinking habits do seem to be changing. A 2011 study by independent researcher Euromonitor showed that in China, low-end wine (costing less than 20 renminbi, or $3.15, a liter) was losing market share to more expensive standard and premium wines (priced at over 50 renminbi, or $7.85, a liter). So far, though, the winners are still imported brands.
At Rare & Fine Wines, a shop in Hong Kong where the best seller is Bordeaux, store manager Vincent Woo says Grace Vineyard is the sole Chinese producer that can be found on his shelves. “We only carry these, so I have no idea about the premium Chinese wines,” he says. “Maybe one out of 100 or one out of 1,000 customers are really looking for that.”
Boutaris says he can’t even get Chinese people to try the local wines he’s had a hand in crafting for Mogao Winery under the label Sunshine Valley. Sales of the 2009 cabernet sauvignon and a 2009 pinot noir are almost exclusively conducted through five-star hotels and restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing that serve Western customers, and where “people actually taste the wine and then they judge.”
Anecdotal evidence, coupled with the Euromonitor report, suggests for Chinese customers, label prestige and vintage years are the most important factors in choosing a wine — a symptom of a still-new and unsophisticated wine market.
But Boutaris extends his gaze to the far horizon. “In the long run we will be vindicated,” he says. “At the end of the day, the product itself will be judged. That’s the business plan.”
Looking to try some Chinese wines? Here's a steer from the experts:
Silver Heights The Summit: “That’s a fantastic wine," says Jeremy Oliver. “I've seen the 2008 and the 2009. Very finely structured. It harks of Bordeaux, but is not Bordeaux. But there is an ethereal perfume. Pure fruit and really well handled.”
Dynasty Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon: “I had a recent vintage,” Alexis Sabourin of Bordeaux producer Château Crusquet Sabourin says. “It was smooth, with pure but short-lived aromas of cassis. It was light, but still well made. The wine was at the level of a good French table wine, or a petit Bordeaux.”
1421 Silver Chardonnay: “A great little chardonnay,” according to Oliver. “It’s quite distinctive, like nothing I’ve ever had. Very savory, very reserved, very nutty, with real character. Spotlessly clean, well made.”
Grace Vineyard Rosé: “It is a particular blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc grapes,” says Maison Boulud head chef Brian Reimer. “With light notes of rose petals and white fruits, we often suggest this wine when we have foreign guests visiting China for the first time.”
Chateau Sungod sparkling: Reimer's pick for Chinese bubbly, from the producer The Great Wall. “This is a very fruity light body wine,” and it shows the progress the production in China is making, says Reimer.