We mentioned in our previous article that China became the biggest consumer of red wine in the world in January.
Why such enthusiasm for wine? Mainly due to the opening of China to the world. And while during these last few years there has been a decline in the consumption of spirits such as baijiu, wine, however, is booming.
Drinking red wine is considered to be good for one’s health, but that is not the only reason for the increase in consumption! New generations travel and study abroad and westernize their consumption. They see wine as a fashionable product, generating social ties. And Chinese investors understood this very well: new vineyards born and grow super fast.
We have focussed on four major recognized Chinese wine regions, all concentrated around Beijing: Tianjin, Hebei, Beijing (itself) & Shandong.
We were heading southeast from Beijing to visit Dynasty, a Sino-French joint venture between Tianjin City Grape Garden and Remy Martin, established in 1980
We went there by train, departing from the Beijing Railway Station about to experience the joys of Chinese public transport. Whatever…
We spent hours waiting in the heat and the noise to get our tickets at a counter crowded with people. Around us people were sleeping on the floor, their bundles under their heads for pillows; others played cards barefoot, probably waiting for a late train. This became a real obstacle course which ended with us traveling with our 70kg-bags between our legs. We laughed out loud in the face of such anarchy.
Upon arriving at Dynasty, a big surprise awaited us. We found ourselves face to face with a real castle. There was even a miniature replica of the Louvre Pyramid (the Pyramid designed in 1983 by the Chinese-American architect Ieoh Ming Pei…rather fun) built in front of it.
The interior decorations and ceiling heights were overwelming too.
The 77-acres vineyard of Italian Riesling and Hamburg Muscat are surrounded by industrial buildings. The city literally circles the property. So I wondered where the grapes for the 40 million bottles produced annually by Dynasty comes from? The answer is simple (and common to many major wineries in the world), the rest of the vineyards – 3,700 acres of vines – is about 750 miles away, in the Ningxia region! Difficult to approach the notion of terroir in such conditions.
First observation on arrival: hoists have invaded the landscape. The ambitions of the region are clearly displayed.
Illustrated by Bodegas Langues, a vineyard designed by the Austrian billionaire Gernot Langes-Swarovski (grand son of jewelry designer Daniel Swarovski) and which is nothing but a nice gift from the owner to himself.
Imagine: an investment of $300 million for 500 acres of vines planted on the mountainside (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc); a fully automated gravity cellar with a capacity of 1,600 tons; two elevators designed especially to move the 600 HL stainless steel tanks, and best of all… a Chinese cooperage producing its own oak barrels, 100% “Made in China”! The wines are sold for €150 on average and can reach a couple thousand euros for a double magnum of the top cuvée, set with gemstones.
A neighbour, Château Huaxia Greatwall, which marked the beginning of the Greatwall in China (COFCO), owns 3,200 acres of vines – planted in the Province along the Yanschan mountain, on rich sandy-loam soils – for a production of 46,000 tonnes and a cellar with 23,000 barrels! Enough to make your head spin.
After an one hour ride on the Beijing underground, we arrived in the Fangshan district. Far from the big productions of the country, the new region only represents twenty wineries for now, between 25 to 100 acres in size.
To stand out from other regions, the local government has implemented a strict policy for winemaking: an interdiction to buy grapes from elswhere (everything has to come from the estate). An organic certification for viticulture and winemaking is also under consideration.
The Fangshan region first prospered through its production of marble. But the marble has been depleted and now they must find new ways to keep the 260,000 jobs at stake. The development of the wine industry is the new workhorse of Fangshan.
We visited Château Bolongbao, an experimental winery of 100 acres planted with Roussanne, Viognier and Petit Manseng, alongside with more traditional varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The challenges in the vineyard are massive: high humidity, summer rains and winter frosts which neccesitates protection of the vines during this four month period. But this does not prevent the production of quality wine throughout – souple, easy to drink and fruit driven.
At Château Lion, an hour’s drive away, they also had to adapt to additional and unexpected constraints. 4 years ago the château has been “cut in half” by an aerial railway linking Beijing’s suburbs to the center.
A blow that did not diminish the overwhelming optimism of its owner, who is very proud of his vineyard trellised in double Guyot. He even played with blind-tasting by letting us taste a delicious white wine out of the tank, with aromas of mint, peach and citrus which turned out to be a 100% Vidal, a white grape that is normally found in Canada for the production of ice wine. Hats off.
Here is an interesting region from a climatic point of view.
There is no need to bury the vines for protection during winter (unlike all the other wine regions we passed by in China), since the climate is warmer. The Shandong vineyards are on the same latitude as Greece or Turkey.
We had a few meetings in the Penglai distrcit, where 2/3 of Shandong’ grapes are produced. And if today Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) is having a foothold in the region*, there is a reason for that. The potential is there: beautiful sunny summers, moderate rainfall, poor soil compounds – for the most beautiful vineyards – with granite, limestone and minerals; a sea breeze drying the vines in summer thereby protecting it from many diseases; the possibility of planting a wide variety of vitis vinifera grapes and the ability of having older grapevines than elsewhere in China.
Here the properties compete in originality, like the Treaty Port Vineyards castle, Scottish-inspired, which sits just across the future Lafite estate. It even produces a whiskey with imported Scottish malt.
Another nice local (French) success is the Château Reifeng-Auzias, born in 2003 as a joint venture between Dominique Auzias (Château Auzias), Michel Behar (financial), and Wu Feng and Mei Ling (a couple in the Chinese oil business). The château would even be “one of the best planted vineyards in China and even elsewhere in the world“, according to Bernard Burtschy.
In the mountains of north eastern China, at the foot of Mongolia, is an oak forest of only a few hectares. Just enough trees for the two happy Chinese coopers based east of Beijing. So the oak barrel “Made in China” does exist. And after tasting, it seems that the tannins and aromas of these wines are thinner and more discreet compared to Hungarian or French oak.
However the Chinese oak barrel is just a sweet and ephemeral dream. It takes between 70-80 years for an oak tree to reach its mature height and it is impossible to replant trees in the mountains, it would be too expensive. “Therefore within 3-4 years the Chinese will be obliged to import oak from abroad if they wish to continue producing barrels“, the director of a cooperage explained to us.
Nowadays China is a major player in the wine world, both from a production (5th largest producer), as well as from a consumption (world n°1 for red wine) point of view. It must therefore be taken very seriously.
However, as Chinese wine exports does not exceed 2% of total production, and regarding the fact that the number of potential consumers in the country is growing every day, this trend is not about to reverse. Therefore Chinese wine will not be (not yet anyway) on all our tables tomorrow.
Let’s close this article with a magical moment experienced on July 16, the birthday of both explorers Ludo & JB: a walk on a neglected part of the Great Wall of China. A moment of absolute stillness and where the vastness of the world reminded us politely that we are only small drops of water in the ocean.
*Les Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) have joined the Chinese group CITIC in 2012 to build a winery in the wine region of Penglai. The vineyard is already fully planted ; the facilities are still in construction.
Thanks to the winerys for their warm welcome. Thank you to Nancy Pan and Brian Yao for their kind assistance and the numerous translations from Chinese to English.
For any other information related to the Chinese market : http://www.wines-info.com