Today – more than ever – the wine world has its eyes fixed on China. Why might you ask?
If you recall, in January 2014, the following news caused a stir in all the newspapers: China became the biggest consumer of red wine in the world (1.865 billion bottles consumed in 2013), dethroning France at the same time(1)!
So as passionate explorers we looked forward to go there to get an overall picture of the situation. We spent 30 days in the country, visited 32 wineries in seven different regions and tasted more than 230 wines. Here follows the story of our one-month trip in China.
Until the 1980s – ie yesterday in perspective to the history of humanity – China was primarily focused on the production of table grapes in the Muslim regions of the west. And although the history of viticulture in the country seems to date back to 7000 years BC, modern Chinese viticulture is less than 35 years old.
Imagine… Within just three decades, China became the 5th largest producer of wine (in 2012), with a production of nearly 15 million hectoliters(2) ! And the country doesn’t want to stop here; far from it. China aims to become number one in the world within the next five years(3).
At present there are seven major production areas in the provinces of Xinjiang in the west, Ningxia and Shanxi in the center, Tianjin, Hebei, Beijing and Shandong in the east.
We began our exploration in the Xinjiang province in north-west China. First observation: the desert is king (only 70mm of rainfall per year!). The mountains, omnipresent, jealously guard their snowcapped well; one of the main sources of irrigation for vineyards together with the lakes of the region. The outside temperature is about 35 degrees in the shade – usual for July. Consequently, the harvest is early, at the end of August.
So many vineyards on the horizon… The hectares grow here at the speed of flowers in spring, and the landscapes offered to the eye of the traveler, are of rare beauty.
At the center of the province, near the city of Urumqi, viticulture has been driven by the Japanese in 1985, with a real boom late 90’s. Here the army is responsible for managing the 10,000 hectares planted. And wineries compete with gigantism: a cellar capacity of 40,000 tonnes for Tatary Winery, two presses with a capacity of 50 tons/hour each for Sandyland Estate and a production of 6 million bottles per year for Citic Guoan Wine(who even exports a little bit of wine to Parisian Chinese restaurants).
A little further north, near Korla, the young sub-region named Gobi, created in 1998 with the domain Les Champs d’Or, already has 6,000 hectares. A good start.
There, Tian Sai Vineyard, with its 140 hectares planted in 2010, is going to be a reference: the wines are very promising. There are international varieties such as Cabernet Franc, Merlot or Chardonnay, and two Chinese varieties: Bei hong (red) and Bei mei (rosé); Bei meaning “Beijing,” the city from which these two hybrids originate. Investments there are impressive: four helicopters have just been purchased and are waiting patiently to transport VIP guests from Korla airport to the guest rooms of the property.
Another incredible Estate is the newly built Château Changyu Baron Balboa Kinjiung which with its huge turrets are reminiscent of a jewel of the Médocaine architecture. The wines are not ready yet. They will open to the public very soon.
We told you about the extreme viticulture in summer… that’s not the only challenge! This is only the tip of the iceberg. In addition to this winter temperatures can drop to between -20 and -25 °C; forcing the estates to bury each vine at the end of the fall, to avoid the risk of seeing the vines fade away during the winter. A mammoth task.
Another issue is labour. As paradoxical as it may seem, there is a critical shortage of workers in this part of China. Even though the Chinese Government is investing heavily to attract new workers, they are not (yet) falling at the door. So consequently, the mechanisation of vineyards is very developed in Xinjiang.
Those who have heard of Chinese wine have heard about the Ningxia province, the area which has received the most media attention, and is to date the only recognized official Chinese wine region. Some signs are unmistakable: the Ningxia has its own regulatory wine organism (the only one in the country), an international experimental growing zone was put in place (where the OIV, or Denis Dubourdieu, has a vineyard plot) and Vinitech China was moved to Yinchuan, the capital of the province.
Here we are on the same latitude as Bordeaux. But contrary to what one might (wrongly) think, the climate is very different because it is continental, with low rainfall (200 mm/year) and the region is facing strong temperature differences between summer and winter, forcing wineries to cover the vines during the winter. Fortunately, the protection of the Helan mountains, the high altitude vineyards (1200 m), the 73 lakes and the Yellow River offer very favourable conditions for growing grapes.
The desire for growth in Ningxia is strong, according to Mr Cao Kailong (Director of the Bureau of Grape and Floriculture Development of Ningxia): “many serious entrepreneurs invest in wine here and in the near future we wish to double the planted vine area of Ningxia, reaching 66,000 hectares”.
And investments by the local government for the development of wine tourism are considerable: 50 billion RMB (equivalent to € 6 billion) was invested in the construction of roads and for the delivery of water and electricity.
And the region has excellent estates producing top quality wines, such as Silver Heights (probably making the best Chinese red wine), Helan Qingxue, Leirenshou, Helan Mountain or Château Septembre.
We left the Ningxia province for the Shanxi province – an 1:30 hour flight to the east. While in the car on our way to the airport a message to our attention was broadcasted on the local radio station: “We hope you enjoyed your stay here and we wish the WINE Explorers a good trip in China.” Nice and friendly attention.
Shanxi is a beautiful province, covered by green mountains. It is also (and unfortunately) the most polluted region in China. Vineyards, preserved by altitude, are grown between 700 and 1200 m. There are absolutely delicious wine to be found. After 4 hours of driving, following the winding road carved into the rocks, we finally arrived at our first winery visit, Château Rongzi. And what a surprise!
It’s not a castle that stands in front of us, but a whole village – under construction – which literally sits on top of the mountain. Impressive… The 400 hectares of vines, planted in 2007, currently produces 400 tons of juice for wines of great quality, especially the reds. Admittedly, they are taking advice for winemaking from Jean-Claude Berrouet; which hoisted the Estate to the top.
Another nugget from Shanxi is Grace Vineyard, with 200 hectares of vines planted in 1998, and whose owner, Judy Leissner, is one of the leading figures of wine in Asia(4). “The sun, the high altitude, the very poor soils and the 500-600 mm of rainfall during the year provide ideal conditions for growing grapes”, we were told. The Chardonnay from this domain is remarkable.
Admittedly, China has impressed us: many wineries have succeeded in producing good quality wines. The downside, however, is important: drinking good wine in China will damage your wallet: at least 25 to 30 € per bottle. It is also common to see wines sold for over € 100 – especially through VIP membership and directly from the property. This is a very popular practice for wealthy Chinese customers.
Also to be noted, the majority of the Chinese production, sold in supermarkets for around €5, is not shown during tastings and I am conjuring up a terrible image.
Cabernet Sauvignon is king in China, and many other international varieties are also popular (Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc). However Cabernet Gernischt(5), the most grown Chinese red grape – whose origins are European – has particularly impressed us. Traditionally blended, we had the chance to taste it on its own in stainless steel tank at Helan Mountain: a herbaceous nose, very spicy (pepper, violet, clove) with black fruit; some nice tannins on the palate, crisp and fresh.
To conclude this first part on China we would like to share a Chinese tradition with you – it is friendly, traditional and millennium – but so painful for these Western stomachs of ours: the Ganbei, which is translated here by “bottoms up”…
This is a crucial element of business in China, you will not escape hearing your hosts yelling “Ganbei!” all the time during a business lunch. The matter is serious: the protocol is strict and refusing to drink is forbidden for the risk of upsetting your host.
On the first night we arrived in China we had our first traditional dinner according to these rules, drizzled with baijiu, the traditional Chinese rice alcohol. A bottle of MOUTAI, one of the most prestigious Chinese baijiu, arrived at the table, but it was still 65% alcohol! Despite our throats burning, sweating and the alcoholic element… we tried to look good. Invitations to toast went in all directions at breakneck speed. We ended the evening in a sacred state. This is something that one has to experience at least once in one’s life to understand the phenomenon. But be prepared…
(1) according to Vinexpo
(2) Source OIV 2013 A figure to be qualified, however, since Debra Meiburg MW told us recently and rightly so “it is hard to get statistics because China imports a lot of bulk wine, which is then mixed with local production ”
(3) source : Le Figaro
(4) Judy Leissner was awarded “Wine Personality of the year“ in 2012 by The Drinks Business.
(5) Cabernet Gernischt, grown in the country for at least a century, seems to be a very close cousin of Cabernet Franc, according to recent studies.
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