Growing pains for Chinese wine industry

By Edward Ragg
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Grace Vineyard, China, Chenin Blanc

Grace Vineyard, China, Chenin Blanc [©Grace Vineyard]

Vineyard rows at Grace Vineyard in China
Barrel Room at Grace Vineyard in China
Grace Vineyard in China

Now that the Olympics and Paralympics are behind us, one might expect the typical post-Olympics fall-out to be plaguing Beijing and, perhaps, China with it. But most of the Olympics signs are still up, the Chinese continue to be in celebratory mood and the mass of building projects in Beijing and further a field seem untainted by the recent tremors in the world’s financial markets. 

 

Chinese wine, which continues to be bought by mainlanders for largely patriotic reasons, has not escaped international attention. A group of eminent UK Masters of Wine recently reported the optimistic hope that in fifty years China will emerge as a significant producer of fine wine, rather than being mainly noteworthy as a new destination for imports from Bordeaux to Barossa. The report, The Future of Wine, elicited a flurry of perplexed comments from the more China-focused readers of Decanter.com, one contributor even wondering if the authors were being tongue-in-cheek about gazing into the crystal ball.

Half-century forecasting of this type has the convenience of projecting sufficiently far into the future that no one will remember the prediction once its shelf-life has elapsed. Such projections also have a fleeting relationship with the contemporary situation. Although China is the sixth largest producer of wine globally, what evidence is there that indigenous fine wine is possible, even on a modest scale?

Climate

First off, there is the issue of climate. One of the major problems for viticulture in China is rain. Southern China is notoriously humid and even the drier parts of the north receive most of their precipitation in those critical summer months after flowering when vines are ideally starved of water so they can put all their energy into producing concentrated fruit rather than foliage.

As top oenologist Professor Ma Huiqin of China Agricultural University points out: "it can rain almost every week in certain Chinese grape-growing regions from July right through to September. Rain at harvest time is a common problem". Such precipitation results in dilute crops. Moreover, all that moisture, combined with daily temperatures frequently over 30 degrees Celsius, encourages rot – a lot of it. Rot is not the only problem. "Chinese vines are especially susceptible to downy and powdery mildew. Both of these diseases wreak havoc in the vineyards," he says. 

The critical grape-growing centres of Shandong, Yunnan, Hebei and Shanxi all suffer from these devastating problems and it’s not a pretty picture elsewhere either. Western provinces such as Xinjiang, although much drier, are hit by frost, both when vines bud and, sadly, during October time. That’s how early winter starts up there. This climatic double-whammy means that even if your vines get to flower and develop fruit, you often cannot ripen your crop properly because the grapes need to be harvested early enough to avoid the Autumn frosts.

Prof. Ma says about twice every decade these frosts actually destroy the roots of vines in Xinjiang and Gansu. Harsh winters also mean vines need to be manually buried and this requires masses of labour. From an international perspective Chinese labour may seem cheap, but the burying of vines alone contributes something like 25-30% to the cost of production.

Plot system

Second, there is the vastly complex system that is Chinese agriculture. Farmers are allotted small plots by their units and are pretty much forced to grow everything they can to survive. It is not uncommon in Chinese vineyards to see rows of beans, peas, gourds, onions and other vegetables, keeping the soil a little too lively for vines. If Chinese farmers do take the risk of growing grapes for wine production, they irrigate their crop like mad because water is essential to these farmers’ livelihoods. Quantity understandably rules over quality.

Heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers is also widespread and almost impossible to regulate. Moreover, because of the acute problems with rot and disease most farmers opt to pick as early as possible to avoid those rains. Green, unripe odours on Chinese wines are, therefore, a common problem, particularly among the reds.

"As the vines need to be buried each winter, the farmers cannot use standardized trellising systems. This means that uneven ripeness occurs all over the vineyard because their rows all have clusters at radically different heights. You cannot ripen grapes consistently in that way," says Professor Ma. As no one actually owns land, apart from the Chinese government, it would take someone with enormous personal power even to begin to initiate a quality wine revolution in such adverse conditions.

Blending

Third, it’s also worth asking what makes a Chinese wine? Many Chinese consumers will be unaware that most domestically produced wines are actually blended with bulk imports. So when Chile, Spain (or whichever country) happens to have a surplus, the excess is shipped to China, blended, and bottled at source. In many cases, therefore, a nominally ‘Chinese wine’ is simply one that has been bottled in China.          

This phenomenon was clear when Jancis Robinson MW last visited the country in March 2008. Robinson was presented with fifteen "Chinese" wines chosen from a batch of some sixty samples through which a Shanghai blind-tasting panel, spearheaded by Marcus Ford of M on the Bund fame, had painstakingly tasted its way. It was a trial to select even those fifteen. Within Robinson’s select flight, there were some wines with suspiciously fruity New World noses to them, although this was something of a relief given the unpleasant, unripe green aromas on other bottles – including some wines that had blatant wine-making faults. However, we should not expect the Chinese to start broadcasting the advantages of mixing Chinese wines with fruitier, fleshier and actually drinkable New World examples.

Budding industry

But it’s not all gloom and doom. There are a few wineries that make 100 percent Chinese wines (i.e. made from exclusively Chinese grapes), and are doing a good job, even if not much can be changed opposite climate and agricultural practice. Grace Vineyards of Shanxi Province, for example, run by Hong Konger Judy Leissner, makes some thoroughly drinkable wines from international grape varieties. Although last year’s harvest was particularly arduous in Shanxi, 2008 looks better and what Grace Vineyards has achieved for a number of years now is impressive, particularly with its Chardonnays, new Merlot-blend (called Deep Blue), the delicate Chairman’s Reserve and a Chenin Blanc designed for the Chinese banquet table that has only just become available. Grace may have the complexity of contracting to 400 different Shanxi growers, but if the weather is often adverse, at least they have the man-power. As Leissner quips: "I can get 3,000 people in 24 hours".

Beijing-based Dragon Seal winery also makes reliable, quaffable wines. French winemaker Jérome Sabaté produces early-drinking reds and whites from classic French varieties and, amazingly, a sparkling Chardonnay that undergoes the full Méthode Champenoise process used in Champagne. For 105RMB ($22 AUS), it’s a steal of a wine, at least in the Chinese market. The 2006 vintage in Hebei also gave Dragon Seal some particularly good reds. Perhaps quality will likewise improve at Chateau Bolongbao, Beijing’s first organic winery.

It has to be said, though, that routinely tasting Chinese wines is more of a duty than a pleasure. One wonders too about grape varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon is preferred by Chinese farmers because it is vigorous, but it is a relatively late ripener. Merlot, although grown, should be more encouraged, along with Gamay and, perhaps, Syrah. We recently tasted a reasonable Pinot Noir grown in Gansu, where at least it’s dry enough not to have to worry too much about Pinot’s susceptibility to rot. But finding reasonable places to grow vines will be a challenge before one can get excited by the specifics of soil types and what to plant where.

If in the next 50 years vitis vinifera vines were genetically engineered to withstand most of the myriad problems that face Chinese viticulture, then there might be more interesting wines to be found here. But it is something of a long-shot. Winemakers outside of China sometimes speak of ‘miracle vintages’, either where everything comes together after a perfect growing season or where an unpromising year is certainly boosted by an Indian summer. China is going to need nothing but impossibly miraculous changes in climate, agriculture and viticulture before it can come anywhere close to producing commercially acceptable, let alone fine, wines. But it would be nice if the crystal-ball gazers turned out to be right all along.

 Edward Ragg is co-founder of Dragon Phoenix Fine Wine Consulting, Beijing’s first independent wine consultancy (www.longfengwines.com) and authors of the Dragon Phoenix Wine Blog.

 

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November 05th, 2008
 
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