Chinese Wine Anyone?

Chateauneuf du pape versus shanxi: the imminent dawn of world-class Chinese wine appears regularly in sponsored editorials and uncritical reviews. Are we ready to embrace local hongjiu? If not now, when?

Expats tend to be pretty dismissive of Chinese wine. At the same time, reports come fairly regularly with gushing praise for China’s burgeoning viticulture and soon-to-be-great wine regions. This month, we’ll take a look at some of the advantages and issues China has when it comes to producing world-class wines.

First, the advantages. China’s size and the diversity of its landscapes means that it’s bound to have some areas that would make a French vigneron raise a gallic eyebrow and wave his hands about approvingly. There are about 40 distinct areas under the vine, from Xinjiang in the west to Jilin in the east, stretching down to Yunnan and Guangxi in the South. Of these, over 30 are planted with Vitis Vinifera—the species responsible for the overwhelming majority of wine around the world. (Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, for example, are varieties of this species.) The remaining areas are dedicated to growing native species.

The historical influences are obvious. This column doesn’t want to bang on about the Romans every month, but to reprise the rhetorical question from Monty Python’s Life of Brian: What did the Romans ever do for us? Wine, Brian, that’s what.

Some of these areas have genuine wine-making traditions. The 4th century city of Niya in what’s now western Xinjiang boasted a multitude of small vineyards and winemaking culture which is thought to go back to at least the second century BCE. So why is it that in 2018 Chinese are importing, creatively faking and generally aspiring to French wine, not the other way around?

Li Demei, writing for Decanter, puts it down to three historical influences: the rise of baijiu in mainland China, the “increasingly weakened control of the western region, and the impact of Islam which advocates temperance” caused winemaking to drop to relatively low levels both in terms of quantity and, arguably, quality.

All of which brings us neatly to the issues China faces in becoming a credible producer of world-class wines. We’re not asking for a slew of Lafite-level chateaux or Antinorian Super-Tuscans here. Why is it that Chilean wine, for example, is globally respectable when Chinese wines struggle against disdain outside (and even within) the domestic market?

The historical influences are obvious. This column doesn’t want to bang on about the Romans every month, but to reprise the rhetorical question from Monty Python’s Life of Brian: What did the Romans ever do for us? Wine, Brian, that’s what.

And history is where the trouble starts with Chinese wine. It’s not like manufacturing cars or growing chilies. Traditions have shaped our landscapes entirely differently: beautifully terraced rice paddies in Guangxi and Yunnan and equally impressive vineyards on the banks of the Rhone and the slopes of the Navarre. The hundred or so generations that have passed since Zhang Qian introduced wine grapes to Chang’An have grown up, lived and died surrounded by those landscapes and sustained by their produce.

Other European empires have also, for better or for worse, brought about the wine-making cultures of Australasia, North and South America, and South Africa, and—crucially—those scattered vignerons have accelerated, in some cases massively, improvements in the process of winemaking. In turn, those enhancements create a positive feedback loop so that now, your 100 RMB bottle of French Languedoc Syrah is made using technology and methodology developed in Australia.

However, the real stinker is this: China simply doesn’t grow enough grapes to satisfy its own wine market. That’s doubly terrible, because good wine absolutely demands meticulous pruning, and a general shortage discourages this. So, with not enough juice to satisfy domestic demands, how do the Chinese deal with the deficit?

Remember that bottle of Changyu you walked straight past in Wal-Mart? About thirty percent of it should be from Chile, or Spain, or France, or Italy—all countries with surplus wine. China has a free trade agreement with Chile, for example, which facilitates imports of bulk wine. This goes to the wine-makers who—theoretically—add it to their domestically-produced wine in order to make up the shortfall.

What they definitely would never, ever do, is bottle the Chilean separately as a more expensive “reserve” wine or even a fake French wine, and then top up their cheaper wines with water, locally distilled alcohol and coloring. They wouldn’t do that, so don’t worry.

Alec Forsyth started selling wine in France over twenty years ago, and is a proud holder of the Wines and Spirits Educations Trust (WSET) Higher Certificate in Wines and Spirits. He has been the head buyer for a local Dongguan wine merchant since 2011, and has been selling imported wines to the Dongguan cognoscenti for several years.