One of the more potent symbols of the westernisation of China has been the extent to which the Chinese have taken to wine. Consumption is rising at an estimated 15 per cent a year, so that not just Shanghai and Beijing but also the second-tier Chinese cities have become more popular destinations for French wine exporters than New York and London. So effective has the Bordeaux sales machine been that a considerable proportion of the fortunes recently made in China have been spent on red Bordeaux – especially the grandest names and particularly, for a while, the first-growth Château Lafite – with a direct inflationary effect on global wine prices. Then, as the Chinese discovered France’s second most famous red wine, burgundy prices rose, too. China’s new connoisseurs have even begun to invest in wine estates themselves. According to Bordeaux estate agents Maxwell Storrie Baynes, more than 50 local wine chateaux are already in Chinese hands and demand continues unabated.
The vine is not entirely new to the Chinese however. It was known to gardeners in far western China at least as early as the 2nd century AD when wine, very possibly grape wine, was certainly made and consumed. European grape varieties were introduced to eastern China at the end of the 19th century, but it was only in the late 20th century that grape-based wine insinuated itself into Chinese (urban) society.
China’s love affair with grape wine – putaojiu as opposed to mere jiu, meaning any alcoholic drink – was so effectively encouraged by the state, partly in an effort to reduce cereal imports, that the latest figures from the Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin show China’s total vineyard area (including those devoted to fresh and dried grape production) nearly doubling, to an estimated 1,384,000 acres (560,000ha), between 2000 and 2011. The figures suggest that China has been the world’s sixth most important wine producer since the turn of the century. Independently verified Chinese statistics are hard to come by, however, and wine bottlers have notoriously bumped up production with imported wine, grape must and concentrate, and even liquids completely unrelated to grapes.
In the early years of this century, it was difficult to find wines labelled as Chinese of any real quality. So fashionable was anything presented as a fair copy of red Bordeaux (for linguistic and cultural reasons, the average Chinese consumer insists wine must be red) that there was little incentive to try very hard. Cabernet Sauvignon, and to a lesser extent Merlot and Cabernet Gernischt (Carmenère), dominated plantings, but wines were typically under-ripe and over-oaked. By about 2010, however, a small elite of carefully made, truly Chinese-grown wines finally emerged.
China can offer a staggering range of soils and latitudes: climate is more problematic. Inland China suffers continental extremes so that most vines have to be banked up every autumn to protect them from freezing winters. This adds considerably to production costs, not least because a proportion of vines are lost each year through being manhandled. The continued movement of the Chinese from country to city, however, means that increased mechanisation of this laborious operation is likely.
Meanwhile, much of the coast, especially in southern and central areas, is subject to monsoons at inconvenient times for grape-growing. On the face of it the Shandong Peninsula in eastern China looks one of the more likely places to grow European grapes. With a truly maritime climate that requires no winter protection of vines, it offers well-drained, south-facing slopes. The first wineries and vineyards of the modern era were established there. Storms can strike inconveniently at any time between flowering and harvest but winters are mild. This is where about a quarter of China’s hundreds of wineries are now based, but fungal diseases in late summer and autumn are the main drawback.
Changyu was the Shandong pioneer and is still by far the dominant producer, while Chateau Changyu-Castel is a separate joint venture with the Castel family of Bordeaux. When, in 2009, the owner of Château Lafite decided to establish a serious winery in China, in conjunction with the Chinese giant company CITIC, rather to the surprise of industry observers, it chose Shandong’s Penglai Peninsula.
Further inland, Hebei province has the advantage of being even closer to Beijing, and its viticultural potential is probably not yet fully unlocked, but ambitious wine producers have been moving systematically west.
Hong Kong-owned Grace Vineyard was established in Shanxi province in 1997 and by 2004 was producing some of the finest wines in China. It has since, like many others, been exploring Ningxia, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces further west. Indeed, Ningxia’s government is determined to make its reclaimed land – at around 3,300ft (1,000m) on the gravelly east-facing banks of the Yellow River – China’s most important wine province. Pernod Ricard and LVMH (for sparkling wine production) have already been lured there, and both the tentacular giant COFCO and Changyu, originally based in Shandong, are becoming significant producers.
In Xinjiang province in the far northwest, where much of the population is Muslim, ingenious irrigation systems harness meltwater from the mountains, but the growing season is short – sometimes too short for wine grapes to ripen properly, and the vineyards are thousands of miles from most consumers. Hunnan/Yunnan province in the far south near Tibet is almost as far away, but its latitude means that winters are much milder. The privately owned Shangri-la winery is producing premium Cabernet Sauvignon, with both Chinese and Australian expertise, at well over 9,800ft (3,000m) altitude on the Diqing Plateau. A new frontier indeed.
These are names to be found on labels of wines from China that have pleased me more than most. The list is dominated by Ningxia names partly because that is the region I visited most recently, just over a year ago.
Château Changyu Moser XV
He Lan Qing Xue
Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com
The seventh edition of The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson is published on October 7 (Mitchell Beazley, £40) and as an iBook (£19.99). More on worldatlasofwine.com