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Travel Report: Wine in China from the Inside

Published on while traveling with OIV

After several weeks hopping around China with my wine glass and chop sticks in tow, I am now piecing together my thoughts, and offer this snapshot on the tsunami that is the Chinese wine industry today.

My first pestering question is “why is China trying to be a wine-producing country?” While there are many factors circling this development (from speculative business opportunities to a lust for Western luxuries), there is a more straightforward answer. In its efforts to reduce the population’s alcohol consumption, the Chinese government wanted to decrease the production of cereals for high-alcohol spirits. They replanted vines where cereals once grew, without much regard for terroir, or even proper vine-growing techniques.

Furthermore, French winemaker Gerard Colin, the original winemaker at Grace Vineyards, predicts that a phylloxera crisis will hit China in the next 10 years because nothing was planted on American rootstock. In any case, if higher levels of grape quality are to be attained, eventually many of the vines must be replanted.

However, quality in the vineyard is another tough subject. There is no concept of “vigneron” in China. No passionate, hardworking, wine-loving individual works the vineyard with everything he or she has got to ensure their grapes will produce the best wine possible. In the communist China style of grape production, everything is based on contracts, and no one owns their own land. Generally the large wineries arrange to buy grapes from villages all over the vast country. Grapes are collected and shipped to local fermentation stations for immediate pressing, and then sent to the winery. With this framework, how can farmers feel pride in what they produce? How can they ensure standards of quality in the grapes, or even want to?

The closest you can get to ownership here is a long-term contract of up to 70 years. But despite the disadvantages outlined thus far, many foreigners see real potential in China and are moving in. For example, Gerard Colin is currently working with Château Lafite to develop a true domaine in the Penglai region on China's eastern coast [where, for example, the dominant wine producer's premium Château Junding is also situated - see thought-provoking graphic here - JR]. Reworking the soil, vines, and winemaking to exceptional quality is the aim.

Visiting the top wineries in China was the most sobering part of my trip. I’m sorry to say that many of these facilities seem more like assembly lines to me, not unlike how I would imagine a Nike sneaker factory. There's nothing romantic about these places. Comparing them to the many beautiful wineries in Argentina, Spain, France, etc that I have seen so far on my travels around the world on my OIV course, I am left to believe that wine is just another manufactured product in China, an opportunity for profit. I know it's a business, but I'd like to think there is something more to it than that.

Another frustrating thing, since this was the point of our visits, is the lack of clear information. It's hard to believe many of the facts and figures we are given. Also while many Chinese wineries still admit to blending their own wines with bulk wine from other countries (for example, Dynasty told us they used "a small amount" of Australian wine last year - what that means is anyone’s guess...), it’s common knowledge that on several occasions wineries just bottle the bulk wine under their own label and pass it on as Chinese wine. I asked one of the winemakers about that and he told me Chinese people would not know the difference whether they used Australian or Chinese wine.

From what I've seen so far, China just does not seem like a country that embraces wine culture as we know it in the West. After several banquet-style lunches and dinners, I've experienced first hand the Chinese way of drinking alcohol. It's a friendly custom to make rounds and rounds of "gan bei" toasts throughout the dinner, basically saying cheers to the hosts and the happy occasion and then... bottoms up! You must clear the glass in one swallow, just like a shot of tequila! No matter whether you're drinking beer, hard liquor, or wine, in most of China this is the way to drink. And while I found gan bei a warm and jovial tradition, I wonder if it even matters what the aromas and palate of a wine are if you're meant to chug it like a sailor?

Coming to Shanghai provided the glimmer of light I needed to reconsider my opinion on wine in China. While Shanghai is hardly a fair representative of mainland China or its wine market, it is unmistakably bubbling with excitement and evolving into a more sophisticated wine scene. Partly driven by the vast wine drinking ex-pat community and also by its rich, well-travelled Chinese businessmen, Shanghai has a wine culture that is significantly more developed than anywhere else in the country. There is a growing number of wine shops and wine bars sprouting up in the city. In unison, they are all preaching the importance of wine education as the key towards developing the market. And, more importantly, they are investing heavily to do so. (A note to all sommeliers, wine educators, marketing experts, and so on: there is an abundance of wine jobs in Shanghai at the moment!)

In terms of imported wine, France and Australia are still on top. And apparently for the average Chinese wine drinker, Bordeaux is wine, and wine is Bordeaux. Interestingly enough, in a blind tasting, Chinese drinkers are reported to reach for fruitier, lighter wines, and rarely chose a Bordeaux wine as their favourite. [This does not surprise me one jot - see Will China ever be a serious wine producer? - JR]

Wine importers are reshuffling and staking out their ground in China. Although they have not officially announced it, importing giant ASC is purchasing Sino-French this coming year (as reported initially here). And many importers/distributors small or large are reporting the difficulties caused by Hong Kong's zero wine duty introduced earlier this year when the HK government dropped all import taxes on alcohol. In China, taxes are almost 50% of value so wine is especially expensive. As a result, reports of smuggling premiers crus in to China from Hong Kong to compete with Chinese prices are mounting, and this phenomenon may become a serious problem.

Overall the thing that impressed me most was how fast everything seemed to be moving. There are many young companies with big plans for revolutionizing Chinese wine consumption. I would be very eager to go back in several years to see how successful they have been.

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