CHINA: SLEEPING GIANT OF WINE?

Roger C. Bohmrich, Master of Wine
September 2019

China is associated with many things, but it is fair to say that wine is not among them. It would come as a surprise to many that China shares credit with Caucasia and Anatolia as the birthplace of fermented beverages. The history of wine in China is confused in part because the word “jiu” has been used to refer to the entire family of alcoholic drinks and not only “putao jiu” or grape wine (Eijkhoff, 2000). We do have evidence that the world’s first fermented beverage was made in China 9,000 years ago from a mixture of ingredients including wild grapes (McGovern, 2003 & 2009). With this cultural legacy, China’s emergence as a player in the world of wine may be preordained rather than unexpected.

In 2014, the news that China had overtaken France as the largest consumer of red wine merited an article in the Financial Times (Daneshkhu, 2014). China is now the fifth largest wine consuming country after the U.S., France, Italy and Germany with a volume of 17.6 million hectoliters (OIV, 2019). The very low per capita intake of around 1.2 liters (Li & Bardaji, 2016), a tiny fraction of the levels in France or Italy, signals the potential for dramatic increases. China also ranks fifth in wine imports, which have grown by 79% since 2014. By value of imports, China places fourth.

China is, surprisingly, the world’s largest grape grower at 11.7 million tons in 2018 (OIV, 2019). This is misleading, however: merely one-tenth of the output is dedicated to wine. Chinese viticulture focuses overwhelmingly on table grapes. Still, the small share of wine grapes makes China number ten in total volume at 9.1 million hectoliters, roughly equivalent to South Africa or Germany and not far below Australia or Chile. Most drinkers in the U.S. and Europe would never guess that China makes as much wine as these well-established producers, whose labels are easily found in their favorite restaurants and shops. The explanation for this is that, despite the volume of wine made in China, virtually none is exported. To realize its full potential, China will at some point have to take up the challenge (and opportunity) of the largest wine-importing markets, notably Germany, the United Kingdom, and U. S.

China has become a wine grower despite rather than because of natural conditions. China’s surface essentially matches the U.S., yet a large portion, perhaps as much as 90%, is unsuitable for cultivating most crops. There are mountain ranges to the north, west and far south. The Gobi Desert covers 500, 000 square miles in China (and Mongolia) while the Taklamakan Desert is 130,000 sq. miles or almost the size of Germany (www.britannica.com). The vast Plateau of Tibet at nearly 15,000 ft. in altitude – too high to grow wine grapes – accounts for one-fourth of the country’s surface (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. A satellite image of China showing the mountains and deserts which dominate the landscape. Text added by author. Image Google Maps.

A significant swath of the country does fall between the 30th and 50th parallels circling the Northern Hemisphere and taking in most of the winegrowing regions of Europe and North America. The climate is considered temperate by the broadest definition. Yet, this fails to reveal the vagaries of China’s continental monsoon climate. In simple terms, it is characterized by very cold, extremely dry winters and wet, hot summers, albeit with significant variations according to region.

Despite unforgiving winter conditions, well-known international grapes are planted across northern China from Hebei to Xinjiang. In theory, these Vinifera varieties are unsuited to such extremes. To protect the plants from the double threat of subfreezing temperatures and desiccation due to extremely low humidity, vines are buried at the start of winter and unearthed in spring (Fig. 2 & 3).



Figure 2 & 3. The same vineyard of Huailai Amethyst in Hebei Province during summer (above) and winter (below). Vines have been buried, not removed, prior to winter. Photo courtesy of Huailai Amethyst Manor Wine Co., Ltd.

The isotherm or temperature line crossing China from northeast to southwest shows where temperatures tend to drop to -17° C or less than 2° F. Vines north of this line must be buried in winter (Jiang, 2015). The vine stock is usually trained at an angle to facilitate the unnatural bending and burying of the trunk; even so, some vines perish (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. A vine stock in Ningxia trained at an angle close to the ground to enable bending and burying during winter. It resembles the “Chang” character in Chinese. Photo courtesy of Great Wall Chateau Yunmo (COFCO).

A Vitis vinifera stem found in the Yanghai Tombs in Xinjiang shows that these varieties were brought along the Silk Road by the 4th century BCE (Jiang, 2009). Grape seeds carried from Asia Minor by General Zhang were planted at China’s ancient capital, Chang’an, two centuries later. In 1892, numerous European cultivars were introduced to Shandong by Zhang Bishi, who founded the Changyu Winery. It is only in the past decade, however, that wines made from these familiar grapes have begun to attract the attention – and, selectively, the approval – of journalists and professionals in the West.

One variety, Cabernet Sauvignon, has long dominated the mindset of winemakers and drinkers in China, driven by the veneration of red Bordeaux. The apotheosis of this phenomenon is the cult of Château Lafite Rothschild. According to Jiang Lu Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for half of all vineyards in China (Jiang, 2015). China proves just how adaptable Cabernet can be as the later-ripening variety is grown in nearly all regions and along a wide spectrum of climatic conditions – except for the frigid northeast where the cold-hardy, native Vitis amurensis is at home.

The two other Vinifera grapes with a reasonable presence are also of Bordeaux origin: Cabernet Gernischt (as Carmenère is known) and Merlot, each accounting for around ten percent of plantings. Cabernet Franc is present as well along with Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and others. These familiar names could be useful door openers when Chinese wineries decide to tackle the export challenge. Another arrow in their quiver might be Marselan, a French cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, which is yielding generous, densely colored wines well-suited to fans of California reds. There are also ice wines made from hybrids such as Vidal together with richly flavored Petit Manseng, the grape of Jurançon, France. Though less common, these varieties could help foster China’s credibility as a source of fine wine.

Of China’s many wine regions, the one which has sparked the greatest excitement is Ningxia. Located in the north central interior of the country, Ningxia boasts many of China’s most glamorous labels such as Kanaan, Jiabeilan Qingxue, and Silver Heights. Cabernet Sauvignon is definitely the star. Moët Hennessy set up the Chinese outpost of Domaine Chandon here as well. Ningxia is thus not unlike Napa Valley in its widely varied product mix, yet certainly not in climatic patterns (Fig. 5).

In Ningxia, the heaviest precipitation comes at the height of summer; there is virtually none in winter. The yearly total is just one-third that of Napa, however, and brutal winter temperatures require vines to be buried. On its face, the climate hardly seems promising for world-class wine. The vineyards are planted on flat terrain in the gravelly alluvial soils of the Yellow River and fans of the Helan Mountain, which also provides shelter from cold winds blowing out of the northwest (Lee & Lamm, 2016). Irrigation using water diverted from the river was introduced here 2,000 years ago (Eijkhoff, 2000). The altitude, around 3,600 ft., is similar to parts of Mendoza, Argentina (Fig. 6).

Figure 5. A comparison of four wine regions: Ningxia, China; Bordeaux, France; Napa Valley, California, USA; Mendoza, Argentina. This chart indicates that Ningxia has a unique climatic profile unlike Bordeaux in terms of minimum and maximum precipitation and temperatures. Chart compiled by Roger C. Bohmrich MW, 2015. Permission to reproduce this chart is granted provided credit is given as noted.

Figure 6. The vineyards of Ningxia looking northwest toward Helan Mountain. The scenery is reminiscent of Mendoza, Argentina as are some other features. Photo Lee & Lamm, 2016.

Ningxia’s breakthrough moment came when Jiabelan Grand Reserve 2009 came away with the International Trophy for red Bordeaux varieties at the 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards. Since then, Ningxia has regularly won more medals in foreign competitions than other Chinese regions although Xinjiang is beginning to make a mark with Cabernet, ice wine and even Rkatsiteli.

Two French wine groups, Moët Hennessy (LVMH) and Domaines Barons de Rothschild (DBR), have each launched image-making red blends which herald a new phase of Chinese wine. LVMH has made a bold move into the Himalayas at fabled Shangri-La, in Yunnan, releasing Ao Yun in 2017 (www.lvmh.com). The vineyards are among the highest in the world, reaching 2,600 meters or more than 8,500 ft. (Fig. 7).

Figure 7. One of the vineyard parcels where the grapes for Ao Yun are grown. This plot is at 2,600 meters or more than 8,500 feet. Photo LVMH © J. Penninck.

The first vintage, 2013, is based on 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc. This writer found the wine layered and expansive as well as imposing and assertive. Intended to make a statement, Ao Yun is currently selling in the U.S. for $250 to $350 per bottle (Fig. 8).

Figure 8. The new flagship wine of Moët Hennessy in China, a Bordeaux-inspired blend, from Yunnan. The vineyard parcels are at altitudes from 7,200 to more than 8,500 feet. Photo LVMH.

DBR selected a more conventional locale near the east coast in Shandong. Here, vines do not have to be covered with soil in winter; on the other hand, the greatest heat and heaviest rainfall coincide in mid-summer, exacerbating the threat of pests and disease. DBR launched Domaine de Long Dai 2017 (Fig. 9) in September 2019 (www.lafite.com). It is an unusual blend of about 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Marselan and 25% Cabernet Franc with a splash of a local variety. Jancis Robinson described the wine as having some stylistic similarities to Lafite with “lots of acidity” and “fine tannins” (Robinson, 2019). James Suckling awarded 2017 Long Dai 94 points, writing that it was “polished and creamy” as well as “distinguished” (Suckling, 2019).

Figure 9. The long-anticipated initial release of the Lafite branch of the Rothschilds, from their property in Shandong, China. Photo Domaines Barons de Rothschild.

China has a very long history of alcoholic beverages largely unknown to the outside world. Already a significant producer, China has so far been focused on its home market. Until very recently, its wines would not have been an easy sell abroad. Dramatic improvements in just a few years suggest China may now be ready to reach out to international consumers. Cabernets and Bordeaux blends will likely lead the way. High-end bottlings such as the new releases from foreign companies can be ice breakers, persuading outsiders that Chinese vineyards can indeed yield world-class wine. Some predict China may be the world’s biggest economy before long. It is no longer outlandish to think it could eventually become the largest wine consumer.



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References

Bohmrich, R (2015), Chinese Wine Today-Defying Preconceptions, Presentation-Society of Wine Educators Annual Conference.

Daneshkhu, S (01/29/2014), China overtakes France as biggest consumer of red wine, Financial Times, www.ft.com.

Demei, L (12/09/14), Great Cabernets from China at the Decanter Shanghai Fine Wine Encounter, www.decanterchina.com.

Demei, L (02/05/2009), Seven wine regions in China: Pros and cons, Grape Wall of China, www.grapewallofchina.com.

Eijkhoff, P (2000), Wine in China; its history and contemporary developments, P, Eijkhoff, Son, The Netherlands/Nederlands Wijngilde, Utrecht.

Jiang, H-E et al. (2009), Evidence for early viticulture in China: proof of a grapevine (Vitis viniera L., Vitaceae) in the Yanghai Tombs, Xinjiang, Journal of Archaeological Science 36, 1458-1465.

Jiang, L (03/26/2015), Grape Wine in China Today, Presentation-University of California-Davis.

Lee, H & Lamm, T (2016), Wines of Ningxia, China – Old World or New World or Unique, Presentation-Society of Wine Educators Annual Conference.

Li, Y & Bardaji, I (June 2016), A New Wine Superpower? An Analysis of the Chinese Wine Industry, AAWE Working Paper No. 198, American Association of Wine Economists.

OIV/International Organisation of Vine and Wine (2019), Statistical Report on World Viniviticulture.

Robinson, J (07/06/2019), Lafite’s Chinese wine unveiled at last, www.jancisrobinson.com.

Suckling, J (09/19/2019), A New Beginning for Chinese Wine and Shandong? www.jamessuckling.com.

https://www.lvmh.com/houses/wines-spirits/ao-yun/. Accessed September 2019.

http://www.lafite.com/en/domaines-barons-de-rothschild-lafite-are-pleased-to-reveal-the-identity-of-their-chinese-estate-domaine-de-long-dai/. Accessed September 2019.