Baby Steps

The Chinese wine industry is still in its infancy, but producers big and small are testing the waters and trying to find the best regions to literally put down roots.
Jancis Robinson MW

A visit to China earlier this year, my eighth this century, was instructive. China’s wine drinkers, who tend to be relatively young and often female, are no longer in thrall to red Bordeaux the way they used to be. On my first night in Shanghai I was invited to a wine bar, Wine Universe By Little Somms, where, over top quality French cheese and Spanish charcuterie, I was served wines by Dagueneau, Roumier and Egon Müller, and shown, if you please, Milan Nestarec’s natural grüner veltliner called What the Flor from the Czech Republic. Owner-sommelier Jasper Sun’s wine selection, crammed lovingly into tiny premises, would be the envy of any wine bar owner anywhere.

Make no mistake, Burgundy is as fashionable in Shanghai and Beijing (and even more so in Hong Kong) as everywhere else – which has been a major factor in the recent price rises for fine Burgundy. But the many keen wine students in China (representing the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s second-biggest cohort after Britons) are seriously experimental nowadays, drinking white wines with relish in sharp contrast to the red-only diet that ruled when China was first getting into wine a decade or two ago.

The Chinese have thrown off their obsession with French wines. Imports from Australia and Chile, admittedly facilitated by free trade agreements, and at lower average prices, have been catching up. Jacob’s Creek has become virtually synonymous with wine in the Chinese mass market.

Although wine has played a very important part in the westernisation of China, there are problems with inserting it into Chinese culture. Much has been made of how difficult it is to match a single wine to the Chinese way of eating: multiple shared dishes with widely varying levels of sweetness, acidity, umami and spice. The customary pickled vegetables alone are enough to kill many a wine.

But on this last trip, a further practical problem became evident. The usual way of eating is for diners to reach all these dishes in the middle of the table, often on a lazy Susan, with their chopsticks. This is fine if what you’re drinking is the traditional little bowl of tea, but if this is substituted for or, as so often, supplemented by a glass or two of wine, then it can be physically difficult to reach the food over these glasses. Several times on this last trip I found myself virtually fenced in by a row of glasses, and witnessed quite a few glasses broken at the table.

But what of wine made in China itself? It turns out there is not nearly as much of it as some statistics have suggested. Grapes are an important element on many tables in China and are by far the main product of vineyards in China.

But Chinese wine is certainly made and the number of producers capable of making wine that can withstand international comparison is slowly but steadily growing. The big challenge is finding the right conditions for viticulture in this vast country.

I have now visited wineries in most of the provinces where wine is grown and none of them are ideal. In all of the provinces in the north and west vines have to be systematically and expensively buried every autumn and uncovered every spring to protect them from what could be fatally low temperatures in winter. This is a major reason why it costs so much more to make wine in China than in most countries. Vines are, not unexpectedly, weakened by this operation involving bending them quite severely, so their productive life is much shorter than elsewhere, and a certain percentage of vines are fatally damaged in any case by their annual burial.

This is all very labour-intensive, and already more than half of China’s massive population has moved to the cities. So, well-funded wineries such as the delightfully named Chateau SunGod (many wineries call themselves Chateau or Manor), the showcase winery of the state-owned giant COFCO, have efficient mechanical means of burying vines. Chateau SunGod is in Huailai, a distinctly promising wine region in Hebei province 80 kilometres north-west of Beijing (and easy to access through stunning mountain scenery thanks to China’s burgeoning motorway network).

During an intensive presentation on the advantages of Huailai, comparisons with Ningxia – hundreds of kilometres to the south-west – were frequent. Thanks to massive investment by a provincial government keen to divert the local population from farming sheep to vines, Ningxia has very effectively become known as China’s wine province (not much else happens there, after all). It has produced a significant proportion of the best Chinese wines I have come across, many of them made by talented female winemakers on relatively small properties such as Helan Qingxue, Kanaan and Silver Heights. But a change of local government has signalled a change of direction towards developing a big, pan-provincial brand.

Huailai, meanwhile, makes much of how dangerously dry Ningxia is in comparison, how much sandier and less varied Ningxia’s soils are, and how much longer the Huailai growing season is. Huailai producers are also hoping to distinguish themselves from the Chinese norm of producing mainly cabernet with a bit of chardonnay by promoting their Marselan, the prolific Languedoc crossing of grenache and cabernet, which is apparently easier to prune and grow than cabernet sauvignon and is usefully resistant to the downy mildew that is the main threat here. I tasted a few attractively juicy Marselans but I’m not sure it’s a long term bet for an ageworthy wine.

Even less explicable, some Huailai producers are keen on the very light, albeit aromatic, wines made from the table grape longyan, while petit manseng is favoured for late harvest wines, and not just here. Sweet ice wines are the speciality of Inner Mongolia in the far north-east, while Xinjiang in the far west makes wine from virtually disease-free vines in a fiercely continental climate but with a fairly short season. It has much in common with all those –stans, the Central Asian republics, to the immediate west along the Silk Road.

The most important Chinese wine region where vines don’t have to be buried is Shandong on the east coast where the new era of Chinese wine production started (although it looks likely that grape wine was known in Neolithic times). But Shandong has problems of its own, chiefly sub-monsoonal rains in July and early August, together with springs so dry that the young vines may need irrigation then to prevent them drying out. This, incidentally, is where Château Lafite’s keenly-awaited first release of a Chinese wine is grown.

The first producer of Chinese wine fine enough to find a ready market outside China, Grace Vineyard, chose Shanxi province, between Ningxia and Hebei, to put down roots more than 20 years ago, but they have since planted more vines in Ningxia.

By far the most scenic wine region I have visited is Yunnan in southern China where LVMH’s ambitiously priced Chinese red Ao Yun comes from. On precipitous hillsides outside mountain villages overlooked by the Himalayas, Tibetan farmers tend these vines which need no winter protection, and where rainfall is pretty respectable. The main problems here are inaccessibility (it’s now a four-hour drive from the nearest town but in the initial stages would take more like 16 hours before roads were improved) and, thanks to shade from surrounding mountains, relatively short days. The growing season is particularly long (grapes can often be picked in November) and because LVMH’s winery is so high, at 2,500 metres, they have found that wines need much more aeration to prevent reduction than they would at sea level.

At least two new wine enterprises have chosen this part of Yunnan in the upper Mekong valley to set down roots. Frenchman Bertrand Cristau has already presented the first cabernet (described as a Grand Vin de l’Himalaya) from XiaoLing Estate, and Alex Xu has planted pinot noir nearby for his Miao Lu project.

All in all, the Chinese wine scene is fascinating, but still decidedly embryonic.

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