Samui Wining & Dining
People’s Republic Wine?

Don’t scoff - China is not so far away from becoming a world competitor.


18Chinese wines do not exactly spring to mind when you consider top non-mainstream wines, but how about a spicy, aromatic and fruity red wine from the edge of the Gobi Desert? Mirroring the phenomenal progress in so many of its other industries, China is now the world's fifth biggest wine producer, producing more wine than Chile. In the old communist days, vines were for producing grape juice in China, and dodgy local tipples ruled. But it’s worth remembering the Chinese do have quite a heritage in wine - archaeological digs have uncovered evidence that they were making wine in 212 BC.

    Unfortunately, over the latter centuries this heritage was lost, and today, there is still a lot of poor wine out there. But over the last few years, some serious hard work, and imported expertise, is starting to pay off. In Beijing last year, Chinese red wines, mostly Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends, took the top four places in a China versus Bordeaux blind-tasting competition. (Poor old Bordeaux are fast becoming the Liverpool Football Club of the wine world. Past glories are not enough to save them from the indignities of being beaten by, previously disregarded, enological up-starts.) Among the country's top wines are the playfully named Chairman’s Reserve, from the Grace Vineyards, Silver Heights' The Summit and He Lan Qing Xue's 2009 Cabernet blend, which recently won at the Decanter World Wine Awards. Somewhat surprisingly, all these acclaimed wines come from the Gobi Desert.

      Admittedly, growing wine grapes in a desert isn’t normally a formula for wine excellence. But in the mountainous, impoverished region of Ningxia, some 800 kilometres west of Beijing, the local government has reclaimed desert like expanses and irrigated them profusely. The big advantage Ningxia has over many other Chinese wine regions is that the government owned land can be leased in large tracts, which can be farmed exactly as the producer wishes. By planting vineyards, mainly full of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the obvious (and ambitious) aim of the growers is to transform this area from a rugged backwater into China’s answer to Bordeaux.

      And it’s working. The region is now engaged in a joint venture with LVMH to produce its first Chinese sparkling wine. The resulting wine will be sold under the auspicious brand name Chandon, the international name for sister sparkling wines to Moët champagne. And LVMH is not the first French drinks giant to have committed itself to Ningxia. In 2008, Pernod Ricard took out a lease on a substantial proportion of one of the first big vineyards to be reclaimed, and sells under the Helan Mountain label.

      Numerous other wineries, some with cut-and-paste French chateau architecture, operate in Ningxia. With a clear focus on the future, and designed as tourist magnets, these wineries include not just an array of savvy private investors, but also big Chinese wine producers: Changyu, already in partnership with Chateaux Lafite in China’s first wine region, Shandong, in the north-east. Cofco, that makes Great Wall wines. And Dynasty, that has been making the Imperial Horse brand in Ningxia for many years

      Moët may be betting on sparkling white (rosé doesn’t sell in China), but the great majority of what is currently produced in Ningxia are red wine blends, as is the Chinese way. The wines have an attractive frankness of fruit, rarely more than 13% alcohol, nicely balanced by natural acidity and, oxidation apart, are generally both clean and expressive. Although summer days are warm and generally dry, temperatures reliably fall at night at this altitude (over 1,000 metres) so that the growing season is not too short. But winters are almost as severe, and early, as they are in China’s westernmost province Xinjiang, so that here too, vines have to be buried every autumn to save them from freezing to death. For the moment, the Ningxia government can provide relatively cheap labour, having moved so much of the population from the inhospitable mountains in the south to specially built settlements around the capital Yinchuan. But the danger is the continued trend towards urbanization in China, which could start to make wine production in Ningxia much more expensive.

      Just like selling Californian wine in the 1960s, or selling wine under a screw-cap in the 1990s, Chinese wine has to become a viable possibility before it can find enduring success in export markets. Initially, Chinese wine looks like following the path that Chilean took, producing large volumes of inexpensive wines to introduce consumers to an unfamiliar appellation. Followed by moving up the value chain to mid-priced varietals that are represented by larger, consumer-friendly brands. I believe it’s inevitable that China will become a global wine competitor, with its modest cost of production and ever-improving growing quality. And like everything else when it comes to China, due to the sheer scale of the place, it will impact the wine market like no other country before. The challenges will be China's emerging water crisis, and international consumer confidence in the integrity of Chinese agricultural produce.

      Ultimately, China's main market will be at home. Whereas, a wine-producing nation like Chile needs to export due to lack of domestic demand, Chinese consumption levels are rising incredibly quickly. Often, there is no export necessity. For example, Grace Vineyard could already sell two bottles for every one they produce, due to raw demand.

      In the meantime, a wine-trip to the Gobi Desert sounds like an exotic prospect to me. I would love to sample as many of their premium bottles as I can, before the local neo wine aficionados snap it all up!


Peter James


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