China will be the world’s biggest wine producer within five years, according to a leading light at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
While China is currently the world’s fifth-largest producer of wine, Boris Petric, an anthropologist with the research body, estimates it will soon have the most land under vine and produce more wine than any other country.
In effect, Petric's prediction means that China will double its vineyard land over the next five years. In comparison, in 2012, Spain had 1m hectares under vine, followed by France with 800,000 hectares, according to figures from the Organization of Vine and Wine (OIV). While China's vineyard has increased by 90 percent since 2011, the 2012 figures put its total at 570,000 hectares and a large proportion of these vines are dedicated to table grapes.
Similarly, China produced 14.8m hectoliters of wine in 2012, while France and Italy each turned out 40 million hl.
However, according to Petric, China’s strategy for growing vines is not down to a national love of wine. “Firstly, it is for political reasons, in order to help poor regions that are struggling economically," he says. "[It also assists] desert regions, where the vines help to fix the sand and prevent sandstorms in cities.”
The region of Ningxia, for example, is fighting desertification and relies on ancient irrigation systems from the Yellow River to grow crops.
Petric believes that China's battle against alcoholism is another reason for planting vines, as wine offers a lower-alcohol alternative to the domestic white spirit baijiu. He notes: "Alcoholism is a catastrophe in China.”
While foreign wine giants such as LVMH and Pernod Ricard are investing in Chinese vineyards, major Chinese groups are buying up vineyards around the world. Food giant Cofco, which accounts for around 17 percent of China's domestic wine market, has already purchased vineyards in Bordeaux and Chile to ensure a competitive advantage against foreign brands.
There are also many wealthy individuals who are looking to protect their money by acquiring assets beyond Chinese borders.
In China, wine is seen as a luxury item, said Petric. “The culture of gifting is very important in China and wine is often bought for show,” he explained, noting that sales figures and actual consumption were two very different numbers. However, he added that the number of wine enthusiasts and wine bars was gradually increasing.