Chinese Wines Make Their Mark

January 28, 2011 11:42 am - Posted by Michael Keller in Learn

Those who’ve reveled in the streets of Beijing or Shanghai will remember their encounter with baijiu, a strong white liquor that may be called China’s national alcoholic drink. Visitors are often told by old Chinese hands not to sniff the stuff first. It is time-tested counsel, and the disregard of it can easily lead to the drink’s vapors causing the involuntary contraction of the muscles lining the throat. Such a whiff can derail the main event—when the clear liquid passes from mouth to throat with a burning surely only equivalent to that achieved by taking a pull on a bottle of industrial solvent, the watery eyes, the accompanying look of disgust, and the lingering flavor of some petroleum-derived fuel. It’s an acquired taste, as they say.

Fortunately for the palates of intrepid international quaffers, baijiu is not the only potent potable to have a long history in the middle kingdom. The Chinese have for centuries been growers of grapes and, people being what they are, drinkers of the fermented alcohol elixir that arises when those grapes are let to sit too long. And over the last century, Chinese vineyards have been working on their craft to produce wines that can stand on their own against others from around the world.

And in the last decade Chinese winemakers, now numbering some 400 across the country, have seen a boom in business. Demand is coming both from the burgeoning domestic middle class who see wine as a mark of success and elegance and also from foreign drinkers who are interested to try Chinese chateaux. Rising interest led the Chinese government in 2005 to plant more grape plants and provide greater acreage to wine production. That investment is beginning to pay off.

According to the Wine Institute, China made 14.5 million liters of the beverage in 2008, making it the seventh largest producer in the world and far surpassing any other Asian country. In fact, it produced more than Germany, South Africa, and Chile. That number also represented a rise in Chinese investment in the industry, with the country’s annual wine production increasing by almost 24 percent compared to 2004. An industry research group projected that Chinese wine production would increase by some 77 percent from 2011 to 2015, totaling 128 million cases per year by the end of the period.

Sun Hongbo, the general manager of Chateau Changyu, one of the world’s largest producers, said his company alone produces more than 30 million bottles of wine annually.

Some big names in the wine business have been helping the Chinese get up to speed in exchange for a lucrative foothold in the expanding domestic market. To name just one, Chateau Lafite Rothschild partnered in 2009 with a Chinese state-owned firm to grow grapes on 60 acres of land in Shandong Province.

But it almost goes without saying in the wine industry that quantity does not equate to quality. According to UK wine merchant and industry watcher Berry Bros. & Rudd, China is positioning itself not just to take the lead in production but also to compete in the quality category with some of the world’s great viniculture regions.

“China is set to establish itself as a leading producer of volume wine, but Berry believes China also has all the essential ingredients to make fine wine to rival the best of Bordeaux,” the company said in its annual Future of Wine report.

Jasper Morris, a holder of the British Master of Wine qualification, said in the Berry report, “I absolutely think China will be a fine wine player rivaling the best wines from France. It is entirely conceivable that, in such a vast country, there will be pockets of land with a terroir and micro-climate well suited to the production of top quality wines.”

Written by Michael Keller

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