China now ranks as the world’s largest red wine market, having edged above France. But the vast majority of wine consumed – about four in five bottles – is produced domestically, and China is now the world’s fifth largest wine producer. Very little of this wine is seen outside the country, leaving winemakers and wine drinkers elsewhere to ponder: Is it any good?
Baudouin Neirynck is an assistant professor at the Institute for Tourism Studies in Macau, and is researching a book about China’s wine industry. “The main players such as Judy Chan [Grace Vineyard], Emma Gao [Silver Heights] and Li Demei [consultant and academic] represent expertise from outside of China in terms of viticulture and vinification,” he says.
The family-owned Grace Vineyard, in Shanxi Province (one of three wineries there), was an early quality pioneer and continues to get better, with premium wines such as the powerful Chairman’s Reserve, and Deep Blue. Even its third-tier Tasya’s Reserve wines (named after one of Chan’s daughter) are very classy: the 2010 chardonnay is crisp with a distinctly Burgundian mouthfeel, and the 2012 cabernet sauvignon clean and restrained.
Grace is probably the most famous quality label, and some of the wines do make it to other countries (Selfridge’s in London, for example; and DFS in Hong Kong by March). But owner Judy Chan, who has been running the winery since 2002 (it was established in 1997 by her father), says she has to concentrate on the domestic market “as made-in-China still has a negative imagine overseas. Even though we are more and more famous, the brand still takes a long time to build”.
French-trained winemaker Emma Gao owns Silver Heights Vineyard with her father. They’re located in Ningxia, at quite high altitude. The classy Emma’s Reserve cabernet is characterised by its length, the gentleness of the tannins and a refreshing touch of acid, which is typical of the wines from the region.
In terms of trying to isolate the best wine region or regions, Ningxia is the buzzword right now. It is a small, landlocked province in the northwest which borders Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia and Gansu (of which it used to be a part, before it was established as an autonomous region for the ethnic Hui Muslim minority). It’s an impoverished region that used to be famous only for its goji berries. Huge players like Changyu and Great Wall, as well as Grace, had long seen its potential and were buying grapes there before they established their own vineyards, comments industry consultant Tersina Shieh, who is based in Hong Kong.
A number of factors beyond terroir are in the region’s favour, most notably strong government support for the development of a wine industry. Ningxia simply wants to be “it”. A significant result of this, and an obvious advantage, is that there are large land tracts leased out by the government, meaning that wineries don’t have to buy from a myriad of small farms. This remains a problem for Grace, says Chan, because growers usually emphasise (high) yield over quality, and compensation reward packages have to be in place. Neirynck adds that vines can be planted on land where not much else would grow, and that their planting is a strategy to stop the advance of the Gobi desert, which Ningxia borders.
What makes this region truly special, he says, is the potential for organic and bio-dynamic viticulture due to a very dry environment. There is no need to spray: fungi such as oidium, botrytis and powdery mildew are almost unheard of, a dream for some grape growers.
The easterly Shangdong province had been tipped to be the top region, but spraying is essential there, and summers are wet. Ningxia may be dry but it is also cold and, as in other northerly vineyards such as in Xinjiang, vines have literally to be buried in the winter to protect them. Moet, meanwhile, has started making wine in Yunnan Province, close to Shangri-La, where the climate is much less extreme.
“China is big and there must be regions where great wines can be made,” concludes Shieh – but it may be premature to think about identifying the best region or regions. Says Neirynck: “The future success of the Chinese wine industry lies with better grape buying contracts with the aim of monitoring grape quality in a more productive way.
Shieh adds: “The issue is with people – matching the right regions with suitable varieties, improving vineyard management and controlling yield.” She cites a case she witnessed in Shangdong where chemicals for spraying vines were mixed randomly, and the pump was not working properly, so the chemicals were running onto the road. Chris Foss, head of the wine department at Plumpton Agricultural College in England, under whom Shieh studied winemaking, would have been horrified, she laughs.
Disclosure: Grace Vineyard supplied samples of Tasya’s Reserve wines.
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