Although the Chinese have been making wine for thousands of years, most Westerners don't find Chinese wine to be very appealing. This is partly because the Chinese go for quantity not quality and they often raise nutrient-robbing peanuts in their vineyards. The Chinese also add herbs to their wines and increase oxidation, something Westerner vintners try to prevent. Wine is sometimes simply called “red liquor” to distinguish it from “white” grain alcohols.
Chinese wines has gotten a little better, in part because of 2003 government regulations that ban thickeners, saccharin, cyclamates, artificial colors and other additives. There are still no rules in China that wine has to be made from grapes. On store shelves you can see find wine made from apple-juice concentrate mixed with grain alcohol. You can also find bottles labeled "Claret" that contain cooking wine or flavored sugar water mixed with alcohol. Many wines labeled as Chinese are blended with foreign wines — most bulk Chilean wine — and contain only a small amount of Chinese wine.
Grapes can be grown in many places in China but some of these places are so cold in the winter that the vines have to be buried to keep them warm. About 40 percent of China’s wine production is in Shandong province between Bohair Bay and the Yellow Sea. Xinjiang and Hebei Provinces are being developed into wine producing areas. Xinjiang has long been famous for its table grapes. Among the greatest challenges to producing wine in China are the wet summer season and lack of experience of Chinese grape growers, most of whom have never tasted good wine. Australian wine maker Ken Murchison told the Times of London, “I have to train them that quality is more important than quantity.
Many vineyards in China are small and remnants of Western wineries that date back to pre-Communist times. The number of Chinese winemakers has increased from a few dozen in the Mao era to around 300 today. Some produce wines made with Cow's Nipple or Dragon's Eye grapes, regarded by many Westerners as too sweet for wine.
Websites and Sources: Alcohol Use in China oxfordjournals.org ; Warrior Tours warriortours.com ; Wikipedia article on Mao Tai Wikipedia ; Mao tai blog piece /endogenousretrovirus.blogspot.com ; Wikipedia article on Beer in China Wikipedia ; China Wine Info wines-info.com ;Gluckman on wine Gluckman.com ;
Domestic Chinese Wines
More than 80 percent of all wine consumed in China is made domestically, according to Vinexpo. According to the Datamonitor Group, a London-based market analysis firm, China's domestic wine industry generated more than $6 billion in revenue in 2008. Mike Ives wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “It's hard to define the industry's scope because no reliable data exists and some domestic winemakers use imported grapes, write Beijing-based wine experts Fongyee Walker and Edward Ragg, but it's clear that China's vineyards "cannot supply enough wine to meet the nation's thirsty lips." [Source: Mike Ives, Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2012]
Wines produced in China generally fall into two categories: Western-style and Chinese-style. On the latter Mitch Frank wrote in the Wine Spectator: “Both reds and whites are achingly sweet, tending to be high in alcohol" — up to 16 percent — "and resembled vermouth or Sherry with flavors of raisins, toasted nuts, orange peels and hard candy.”
Most wines are red and cheap and meant to be mixed with or chased by other beverages. Until fairly recently it was common to find wine packages taped to a bottle of Sprite or tonic water, The cheapest wines sell for about $1 a bottle in rural shops but that is more than double the price of baijui which has much more of a kick.
Many wine companies import large quantities of cheap wine from Spain or Chile or some other place and put it in their bottles without saying so on the labels. There are no laws in China that prevent wineries from doing this. Until 2004, wineries could even sell “wine” that was half juice.
Domestic Chinese Wine Companies
As of 2005 there were 400 wineries with wine grapes grown on 100,000 acres. Even so about 10 domestic wine makers dominate 90 percent of wine market in China.
The top wine companies are Yantai Changyu Group, Dynasty, Great Wall, Huanxia Winery, and Tonghua, controlling an estimated two thirds of the market. These and other companies tend to focus on a particular region or particular income group. Tonghua and China Red are strong in the northeast. Dynasty does well in Shanghai. Great Wall is popular with lower income Chinese.
Great Wall produces 90 percent of all wine bottled in China. Most of its wines are blends with just enough Chinese wine to be branded Chinese, with most of the rest coming from Australia and France.
Changyu and Grace Vineyard have produced wines that have scored well in Wine Spectator taste tests. Most of their wineries are in the east within a few hundred miles of Beijing in the coastal areas around the Yellow Sea or the fertile Yellow River Valley. Changryu is in Yantai in coastal Shandong Province. Good quality grapes grow well in areas with humid summers and rocky hillsides buffeted by breezes from the Yellow Sea. Grace Vineyard in Shanxi Province, about a six-hour drive from Beijing, was founded by a Hong Kong Chinese family and is helped by Australian wine maker Ken Murchison. Situated on a plateau above the Yellow River, it produces 1.5 million bottles a year, including some of the most highly-regarded Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in China. The golden Chardonnay, Tasya’s Reserve, according to Murchison, is the best.
Tianjin Development Holdings, the investment arm of the Tianjin government, is China’s No. 1 wine producer. It makes the top selling Great Wall and Dynasty brands. Dynasty is the third largest wine producer in China. Based in Tianjin, it is a partner of Paris-based Remy Cointreau, which cofounded the company in 1980 with Tianjin Development Holdings. Dynasty sells more than 22 million bottles of wine a year, including 35 brands of Western wines, sold mostly at supermarkets. It Cabernet varieties sell for around 40 yuan. Chardonnay sells for about 20 yuans. Red wines account for 95 percent of Dynasty’s sales. Dynasty does not have its own vineyards. It buys grapes from suppliers.
Suntime Winery is based in remote western Xinjiang Province. It employs a French winemaker and has imported millions of dollars of winemaking technology from Europe. In the early 2000s, Tsingtao entered the wine making
Ninety-nine percent of China's Dynasty Fine Wines Group’s s wines are sold domestically. Lu Wen, production director for company told AFP the domestic market is "big enough" for the company to grow, with wines priced below 40 yuan ($6.40) - compared to the 50 percent duties levied on foreign imports - play a key role in local wine's domination in China. Dynasty's financial controller Rex Yeung said culture also plays a part in the popularity of Chinese wine. "Other than Lafite, many (Chinese customers) just can't pronounce the names (of foreign wines)," he said. [Source: AFP, June 1, 2014 ] business.
Visiting a Chinese Winery in Qingdao
Mike Ives wrote in the Los Angeles Times, As downtown Qingdao faded in our rearview mirror, a misty green hillside came into focus, and the minivan rolled into the driveway of a mansion that looked — improbably — like a French chateau. For the next hour, Zheng walked me around the nearby hills, which were studded with trellises of Chardonnay, Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. It might have been May in France, except for the punishing July humidity, and the fact that the hillsides were set against a backdrop of peri-urban sprawl and bisected by a boardwalk whose white stone pillars were engraved with Chinese poetry. [Source: Mike Ives, Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2012]
The Huadong winery — which is the same age as its winemaker — produces 7 million bottles each year and targets Chinese drinkers. "This is a very old society, but more and more Chinese people have been overseas, and our country is opening to foreigners," Zheng said. "[Chinese] people are starting to change their lifestyles, and they're starting to realize the benefit of drinking wine, if you drink it moderately and responsibly." Zheng added that he organizes wine-drinking demos at local universities. Most students can't afford to buy fine wine on a regular basis, he said, but when they grow up and earn big salaries, "They'll think of us."
He led me to a cool, dark fermentation room, where the casks were labeled in French, and into the chateau, where in Victorian-style dining rooms I marveled at glittering chandeliers, sparkling wine glasses and spotless white tablecloths. In an ornate drawing room, bottles of Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon were sitting on a coffee table near a candy red piano. In spite of my jeans and sandals, I felt like a country gentleman out of a Flaubert novel.
Zheng handed me a glass of the Cab."Smell the aromas," he said. "It's important." "Cherries?" I said. "Dark fruit, earthy, like leather," said Zheng, who studied viticulture in New Zealand. "It's smooth, and that's what our customers like." "It's nice," I said, swishing the Cab around my mouth. My layman's impression was that this $12 bottle of Chinese wine was reasonably good.
Quality Chinese Wines in Ningxia?
scorpion wine According to AFP: “Stretches of land in China's Northern province of Ningxia have been transformed into vineyards which have become internationally recognised. French multinational luxury goods conglomerate LVMH set up a joint venture there in 2012, helping to produce China's first sparkling wine under the prestigious "Chandon" label. 'Improving...some of them' [Source: AFP, June 1, 2014 ]
In September 2011, a Bordeaux-style wine from northwestern China's He Lan Qing Xue winery won top honors at an international competition, the Decanter World Wine Awards. With Chinese businesses dominating industries once monopolized by Americans and Europeans, is Chinese wine on track to overtake the West's” [Source: Mike Ives, Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2012]
Mike Ives wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Hardly, said Walker, founder and co-director of Beijing-based Dragon Phoenix Fine Wine Consulting and one of China's foremost wine experts. I met Walker and Ragg, her husband and business partner, on a torpid July afternoon at their downtown Beijing office. Brochures advertising Chinese vineyards were sprinkled across their conference table, but she said that the quality of most Chinese wines is "depressing."
Walker said China's nascent wine industry is constrained by both physical and bureaucratic climates: Wine-growing areas are either too cold or receive too much rain, and because the Chinese government owns agricultural land, winemakers don't have much incentive to invest in infrastructure.
Fewer than 10 Chinese vineyards produce wine that Walker would consider "really good," and only two stand out: Grace Vineyard, in central China's Shanxi Province, and Silver Heights, in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Neither is sold outside the country, she said, but they are available at such fine dining landmarks as the Peninsula Shanghai and the Beijing restaurant Maison Boulud.
Fine wines don't square with my shoestring budget, so in hopes of scoring a free tasting, I took a cab from Walker's office to Pudao Wines, a store in the shadow of Rem Koolhaas' CCTV building. But none were on tap at a pressurized tasting machine, and bottles of Silver Heights were retailing for nearly $65.
Sampling Xinjiang Wines
Mike Ives wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “A four-hour flight brought me to Urumqi, capital of northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, which Walker and Ragg say is more climatically "promising" for wine-grape growing than other parts of the country.Despite emails and phone calls, I couldn't arrange tours at any Xinjiang vineyard, so at a downtown Urumqi bodega I purchased three nondescript bottles of Xinjiang wine. The labels were mostly in Chinese, and the bill came to less than $10. At the hostel where I was staying, I uncorked the bottles for a festive posse of Chinese and American tourists, and we drank over shouts of ganbei — “bottoms up!" in Chinese — and platters of spicy chicken. [Source: Mike Ives, Los Angeles Times, January 15, 2012]
Xinjiang is famous for its grapes, but these inexpensive wines did not impress; the general consensus was that they were palatable only when chased by beer or baijiu. "They taste like $4 or $5 American wines: cheap, with a bit of an alcoholic burn," said Kalif Mathieu, 24, a Peace Corps volunteer from Illinois based in Gansu Province. "And this one” It's wine, but not — know what I mean?"
I did: The wine in question had a nose of expired grape juice, and its Chinese label listed such ingredients as honey, lemons and roses. Chai Zi Li, a tourist from the eastern city of Nanjing, remarked that it tasted more like a wine cooler. Chai, who owns the Nanjing bar Simple Chai, said the Chinese drinkers he knows typically buy wines from France, Chile, Australia and South Africa. But he added that some Chinese wine is "so-so."
Chinese Wines Struggle to Find a Market Overseas
In 2014, AFP reported: “China's makers of merlot and chardonnay have found success at home, but have struggled to convince drinkers overseas that their wines can compete with offerings from more established wine nations. Booths for Chinese wine producers displaying bottles of red, white and sparkling wines drew curious crowds at last week's Vinexpo Asia Pacific in Hong Kong. But traders at the fair, the largest wine and spirits event of its kind in Asia, say the domestic popularity of the wines does not translate to success in overseas markets. [Source: AFP, June 1, 2014 ]
"The appetite for 'made in China' wines outside China is very limited. If you think about wine, China would not be the place that comes to mind," Judy Chan, one of a handful of China-based wineries exhibiting at the three-day trade show, told AFP."We really only sell domestically," said Chan, who works for Grace Vineyard that operates an estate of some 300 hectares of wine production facilities in the northern inland provinces of Shanxi and Ningxia.
Like other exhibitors at the event, Chan believes that a spate of Chinese food safety scandals discourage international buyers from purchasing the country's wines. "We have all these problems with our food," she said. "We don't spend too much effort on the overseas market. Their market is mature, we are at an embryonic stage," said Lu Wen, production director for China's Dynasty Fine Wines Group."There may be demand from the overseas Chinese population, we just can't really reach the masses abroad," he said,
Rothschild Begins Building First Lafite Asian Winery in China’s Shandong
In March 2012, Bloomber reported: “Domaines Barons de Rothschild Lafite began construction of a winery with a local partner in China, its first in Asia, as appetite for premium wine increases in the world’s second-largest economy. The 1.73 hectare (4.3 acre) winery in Penglai in eastern China’s Shandong province, one of China’s largest wine-producing areas, will be Rothschild’s third Lafite production base after Argentina and Chile, according to a government statement. The first phase will cost 100 million yuan ($15.8 million), it said. [Source: Bloomberg, March 12, 2012]
Chateau Lafite Rothschild teamed up with CITIC East China (Group) Co. to build the production base which will include a vineyard, winery and related facilities, according to the government statement. It didn’t give a date for completion of the project. “The world’s top luxury brands are all very interested in the Chinese market, Rothschild is no exception,” said Zhang Lu, a Shanghai-based analyst at Capital Securities Corp. (6005) “The winery underscores its confidence in demand for high-end wine in China.”
Wine production in Penglai, a coastal city located in Bohai-Rim in eastern China, has doubled to 140,000 tons in 2011 from 2005 and the number of wine makers increased to 70 from 39 in the same period, according to the statement.
Chateau Changyu in China
Chinese Buying Up Bordeaux Vineyards
Chinese businessmen and investors are snapping up struggling chateaux in the Bordeaux winemaking region. Alexandra Topping wrote in The Guardian , “Three properties have been sold this year, three others — including Château Richelieu, former home to the infamous cardinal's favorite mistress — are already in Chinese hands. Land agents report a surge in the number of Chinese investors looking to buy, said Alexander Hall, director of Vineyard Intelligence, a Bordeaux-based consultancy. "The number of sales is small but over the last year agents have seen a huge number of enquiries. The real boom could be in two years' time." [Source: Alexandra Topping, The Guardian, March 23, 2011]
“Yet there is little sign of the often fiercely patriotic French erecting barricades against the invaders. Hit hard by the economic crisis, the region has seen consumption and exports fall — by 23 percent and 25 percent to the US and UK respectively in 2009, a drop which was only partially recovered last year.” Paul-Henry de Bournazel, who family has been making wine here for more than 400 years told The Guardian many families struggled to make ends meet. "Nobody sells for pleasure, but you would struggle to find a chateau that wouldn't sell for the right price. It's sad, but I'd rather see families sell to the Chinese than tear themselves apart trying to keep a property."
Rather than being viewed as conquerors, Chinese wine buyers are seen as saviours of the region. Bernard Farges, president of the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB), the body representing its wine growers and buyers, said Chinese investors buying vineyards would boost exports further. "These are businessmen who believe in their investment, who are opening doors to a new market and ploughing money into properties to make great wine," he said.
Xavier de Pontac of the Château Myrat, said Bordeaux told The Guardian his family has never been squeamish about foreign investment. "First it was our regional neighbours, then European — now its our neighbours around the world," he said. "They come for a taste of Bordeaux, and then either leave because it is too hard, or fall in love with what they produce and become Bordelais." Recent Chinese buyers had invested in equipment and buildings and kept on experienced staff, he added. "Perhaps I would prefer if the people I grew up with still owned all the land around here, but new Chinese owners will make our wines known around the world."
Not everyone is supportive of this new breed of Bordelais. Patrick Etineau recently sold Château de la Salle to a Chinese investor amid a storm of acrimony. "I found them very condescending," he told The Guardian. "They have the money and they think we are in penury." He says since the chateau was sold in January the vines have been left largely untended. "I was happy to sell, because I couldn't maintain the property, but now I have the impression that they don't care at all. We used to make beautiful wine, but this year I fear it will only be fit for the pigs."
Image Sources: University of Washington, Wiki Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2021