June 21, 2013 7:08 pm

Breaking China

The countryside is now studded with palaces built in a style one might call Château Walt Disney
Chinese wine chateau©Ingram Pinn

I don’t know about other wine lovers but I felt a small glow of pride when the Chinese government made wine its diplomatic weapon of choice in the trade war over the cheap solar panels it exports to the EU. Yes, the volumes of European wine imported into China really are now significant enough to be worth slapping an additional tax on!

The wine-in-China story is one with many different and often unrelated facets. There is the surge of imported wine into the country, the great volume of it pretty ordinary stuff, imported in bulk to be given labels which bear only the most creative relationship to any known brand in their place of origin. One of my favourites is Château Lateet, prominent when the reclame of Bordeaux first growth Château Lafite was at its height in China. “Bordeaux Port” on a label decorated with a fair copy of the engraving on a Lafite label was good too.

Solicitor Nick Bartman, who had been based in Hong Kong and was aghast at how slack controls were on wine labels in China, approached me three years ago seeking help to publicise the problem to wine exporters. He told me recently: “We’ve done one major job in Shandong and I reckon we’ve done €30+ million damage to the fake wine business. I’ve worked with the police and others. Wine companies have been closed and others are now under strict supervision. There’s more to do but it’s time for me to move on.”

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Jancis Robinson

France, Spain, Chile and Australia in particular vie for this high-volume, low-profit sector of the wine business in China. Australian and other southern hemisphere exporters will presumably be hoping to benefit from the higher duties on wine imported from the EU. But the taxes are unlikely to have that much impact on sales of fine wines in China – not least because most of them are shipped to Hong Kong with its zero wine taxes. They are then somehow spirited across the border into China with its punitive but apparently avoidable duties of almost 50 per cent by value.

Much more of a threat to this market is another Chinese government phenomenon: the crackdown on official gifts. This has been a hugely important factor in China’s fine wine market and helps to explain the inordinate trouble wine producers there take with their packaging. Any ambitious Chinese wine comes in excessively lavish packaging, sometimes worth more than the wine itself. And there is a certain market, albeit increasingly fragile, that actively seeks out the most expensive wine possible regardless of quality. It is significant that the top Chinese wine with which peripatetic Bordeaux-based oenologist Michel Rolland is associated costs considerably more than his own Pomerol. Incidentally this Château Bon Pasteur was recently added to the growing list of Bordeaux châteaux acquired by Chinese investors.

Partly thanks to dogged work by visiting French proprietors, red bordeaux dominated the fine wine scene in China initially – but there is now an active desire to widen the horizons of that small proportion of the Chinese population who drink wine (although even they will probably do so only on special occasions). Burgundy is the obvious next stop on the Chinese wine route – a truly terrifying prospect for those who already have difficulty securing allocations from this extremely small fine wine region.

As a result of the army of new wine importers, all hoping to capitalise on this new market but insistent on exclusivity, China is awash with brand names that are completely unknown in their country of origin. According to Shanghai wine lover Young Shi: “There is lots of awful burgundy in China.” She is a graduate of the courses run by the London-based Wine & Spirit Education Trust, the world’s leading wine education provider which expects to see the number of its students in Hong Kong and the rest of China overtake its British students this year.

Appearance is all when it comes to the production of wine in China. The countryside is now studded with palaces built in a style one might call Château Walt Disney. They purport to be wineries but often harbour more air, marble and, in some cases, spirits than wine. There sometimes seems no end to the number of Chinese plutocrats whose dream is to make the best and/or most expensive wine in China. Much of the expertise is imported, sometimes into countryside that has never previously seen a vine.

Syrah from Château Reifeng-Auzias

So lavish is the packaging of this adventurous Syrah from Château Reifeng-Auzias, a Franco-Chinese project based in temperate Shandong, that the bottle and box weigh almost 3kg

Lilian Carter is an Australian winemaker who worked three harvests at the winery that Pernod Ricard use for their Helan Mountain brand in the wine province of Ningxia. Along with Professor Li Demei, one of China’s most respected winemakers, Carter has now been recruited to establish WangZhong, a privately owned 130ha estate southwest of the Muslim city of Urumqi in the province of Xinjiang, five hours’ flying time west of Shanghai. Most of the grapes there, as in the majority of Chinese vineyards, are the red bordeaux staples of Cabernet and Merlot but Demei’s involvement is likely to guarantee interest in the debut 2012 vintage.

Stéphane Derenoncourt, the French consultant oenologist and rival to Michel Rolland, has been drafted in by the ex-chairman of the vast CITIC group to develop vineyards in Manasi county west of Urumqi, dramatically overlooked by the foothills of the Himalayas and not far off the old silk route. The advantage of this terrain compared with other wine regions such as Shandong in the east, where Château Lafite is establishing a vineyard, is its lack of humidity and vine diseases. The disadvantage is icy winters that mean each vine has to be buried painstakingly each autumn.

And then there is the project in which the owner of St-Emilion first growth Château Cheval Blanc and LVMH are involved with a local investor in Yunnan province close to the Tibetan border. This is apparently in the most beautiful but isolated sky-high setting – Tibetan-influenced and far enough south to need no winter protection. The Wild East indeed.

Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com

Twitter @JancisRobinson

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