Category Archives: China

New York Wines hit Chinese Shores

Shanghai’s Pudong on a rainy day, viewed from the Park Hyatt

I can’t stop reading and thinking about China and wine.  Perhaps topical stories are catching my eye, since I am tuned into the subject due to my visit to China in June; nonetheless, I have discovered another new development.  It seems the looming tidal wave of Chinese wine consumption has finally reached local NY shores—or rather, we have gone to theirs, hoping to catch a ride in on the money wave: New York State Wine Outlet opens in Shanghai!  Unfortunately, my visit was a month before the opening of this exciting experiment, or else I would have liked to see how the Chinese represent NY wines to the local populace.  Currently, Chinese wine consumption is estimated at 1 measly bottle a head per year (I know some people who can put one back in a night—not good either though).  This figure may sound small, but there are 1.3 billion humans over there, and consumption and income are ballooning.

Lord Stow’s Egg Custard operation in Macau

It seems, rightfully so, that New York wants a slice of the egg custard (particularly if it is from Lord Stow’s in Macau. Me too!)  Empire State Cellars (the only all NY wine store), owned  by Peconic Bay Winery in the North Fork, was commissioned with creating an assortment of 30 wines representative of different regions and styles from NY State.  Wineries that comprised the initial shipment included: Anthony Road Wine CompanyBedell CellarsChanning Daughters WineryHudson-Chatham Winery, Jamesport VineyardsMedolla VineyardsPaumanok VineyardsPeconic Bay WineryShaw Vineyard and Shinn Estate Vineyards.

The Outlet itself is meant as a resource for trading, selling and showcasing NY wines plus the venue will host trade shows, promotional events and matchmaking (no, not like Elimidate) for distributors and buyers.  Why is this exciting beyond merely the opportunity for New York to stake a claim in unchartered China?  It was only a decade ago that NY State wines lacked the quality-price ratio (QPR) to compete nationally, let alone globally. I am sure many will pick a bone with that statement, but I stand by it having spent more than a decade tasting and mostly spitting the wines.   However, in the last 5-6 years the vino has improved tremendously across the board; call it better weather (global warming) or better technique, or both.  Either way, the price points look much more reasonable when the juice in the glass has balance, complexity and is delicious to drink.

So, what does the New York State Wine and Spints (yes, not Spirits) website look like? Kind of hilarious.  Having just come back from China, I am familiar with the theme of poor Chinese –English translation and spelling, coupled with jumbled site design.  They definitely have some work to do on the NYSWO website.  For instance, some of the NY wineries have their names misspelled: sparking ponte vineyards should be Sparkling Pointe and lieb family cellards is, well, obvious.  Also, content was lacking and functionality was off.  I was the 76th visitor; my husband, 15 minutes later, was the 72nd. Maybe they are counting down from a million and #1 will win a prize!  I applaud the efforts here, but wonder why winemakers stateside aren’t insisting on a few fixes, given there is a large population of English speaking expats in Shanghai.  Maybe the Chinese version of the site looks better-unfortunately, I can’t read it!

Lion guarding the gates at the Forbidden City, Beijing

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What I Drank – Changyu Dry Red Wine, Vintage Unknown

Changyu Dry Red Wine (non-vintage?)

I planned to write a simple tasting note on the single bottle of Chinese wine I drank in China, while providing background info on the producer.  While looking up the winery Changyu, however, I came across a few random pieces of info on the ‘nets that struck me as comment-worthy.

1. Changyu winery just celebrated 120 years of wine-making. What?  Maybe they were fermenting Snake Wine, but I highly doubt they have been producing Bordeaux-esque, barrel-aged wines for ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY YEARS.  Well, I looked it up and YES, technically the winery and cellar were built in 1892, but they had a hell of a time producing anything worthy of consumption. In 2002, the French Castel Group teamed up with Changyu to create the first professional Chateau in China.  I guess I should retract my affront and at least give them credit for being first in trying to establish a vineyard in a non-wine drinking country (at the time).  And if that didn’t blow your mind, how about this:  Changyu is now the 10thlargest wine producer in the world!  So many new (scary?), random facts learned today. Here come some more…

Napa Town?

2.  Changyu winery announced plans at their 120th anniversary gala to build a wine theme park, twice the size of Monaco.  This “Winetropolis” would include such delights as a “wine-themed tourist town”, a vineyard, a shopping street, wine spas, bars and a chapel. Yikes. Having just returned from China and seeing the utter destruction done by the domestic tourism industry to both the natural environment and China’s ancient cities, this scares the crap out of me.  Seriously–the whole country is going full-Disney.  Why can’t domestic tourists embrace the natural beauty of their country?

Evening blight-show in center of Lijiang

Imagine putting up fluorescent, multi-colored high-beams all around El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, then holding a nightly song and dance show at the base of the mountain, set to David Guetta, using workers bused in from Appalachia, forced asked nicely to prance around in fake Native American garb, all while selling out of tickets to this disaster EVERY NIGHT; followed by a mass migration to the historic Ahwahnee Hotel, recently converted into a ginormous, disco-lit karaoke barn. This is the city of Lijiang, China.

3. A French Sommelier, while at the dubious 120th Anniversary tasting, apparently declared he was “glad to see that Changyu can produce great white wines, red wines, sweet wines and brandiesall different products but all at a very high level. They compete very well with the French wines.”  Seriously? Who is this Sommelier Pierre Barthe, and what on earth is he drinking in France?  Apparently an independent British wine consultant feels differently: “it (Changyu) has yet to improve quality in both its vineyards and winemaking.”

Oh, well. The world is officially insane. And with much ado about nothing, here are my tasting notes:

The wine draws a blank on the nose—very little aroma.  There is some perceptible, pleasant red fruit on the palate, but nothing I could pick out of a gang in a fruit line-up.  The wine has obviously had some oak treatment, reminiscent of a brown paper bag—possibly oak chips. The tannins are dry, a little scratchy but not totally offensive.  Amazingly, this is NOT the worst wine I have ever had.  For what it’s worth, we finished the bottle.  Of course, my standards may have been lowered inadvertently as a result of the sh!tty-Chinese-beer-fatigue-syndrome I was suffering from at the time.

Drinking some Changyu on the balcony in Lijiang

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From Snake Wine to Grapevine: Observations from the grape frontier of China

Shanghai’s Pudong by day

After spending the winter months at home in PJ’s, undergoing pre-China Pimsleur coursework, muttering out loud to my Doberman “wo bu ming bai” (“I have no idea what the heck you are saying to me”); followed by spring months honing my Putonghua with the dry-cleaner (who I later found out is Korean!), I have gone and returned from a 3 week jaunt across the mainland of China and Hong Kong; and since forgotten most of my Mandarin.  What I did grasp came in handy and generally broke the ice with locals—apparently it was hilarious that I, the blond-haired, blue-eyed wife of a partially Chinese husband, traveling with my partially Chinese father-in-law, was the only one who could bust out phrases in the native tongue.

Me and a bottle of Changyu on the terrace in Lijiang

As far as my goal of grasping the state of wine culture in the Motherland, that was a little more difficult.  The first half of the trip was dedicated to adventure travel: we traipsed through remote-ish places with limited exposure to modern wine culture (we still found weird, fermented “wines” such as made from snakes).

World Famous Ray’s Snake Wine. Not to be confused with Famous Original Ray’s snake wine, mind you.

The second half was dedicated to the major cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, but we had my 80+ year old in-laws, in-tow, and they weren’t particularly interested in patronizing wine bars or the kind of restaurant that might have a wine list (we ate a lot of down and dirty—and delicious—food geared towards locals).  Yet, despite what I can hardly consider obstacles, I was still able to bring home a few observations about the state of the wine market for the mid-level consumer from both a retail and Café/Restaurant/Hotel standpoint.  If you read my piece on Where I am going: China, you will remember I offered some market analysis and speculation, largely based on my reading of 3rdparty resources.  Now that I have had two feet on their turf, I thought I would follow-up with a few impressions:

  • Wines are CRAZY expensive on the mainland.  China’s import tariff is staggeringly high at 50%; despite the abolishment of such tariffs in Hong Kong, Central is still sticking it to the ZhongGuoRen consumer and businesses. This is a short-sighted strategy given the huge, potential market and money to be made, particularly if the duty’s purpose is protectionism—a failing proposition as evidenced in history.
  • Bottles that cost $10/20/30 in the United States sold closer to $30/60/90 in groceries or department stores.  Yellowtail priced at $7 bucks in the United States, cost over $22 in a Shanghai shop.

    $22 Yellowtail. Yikes!

  • Wine by the glass at bars and restaurants is limited or non-existent. Most wine is sold by the bottle at such incredible mark-ups, even The Donald would blush.  This was always the case at bars geared towards the Chinese.  Bars and restos with broader  international appeal, such as found in the Sanlitun district of Beijing or at wine bars operated by non-chinese (such as H.O.W. aka House of Wine in Shanghai, owned by a Frenchman), tended to have more interesting bottle selections with by the glass programs that were, relatively speaking, affordable.

    H.O.W. House of Wine in Shanghai

  • Horrible storage conditions.  Apparently importers don’t include leaflets on ideal storage temps when they drop off their shipments.  We saw countless bottles of wine—some high-priced Bordeaux(!)—standing upright, baking in sunny windows, and covered with dust.
  • There were entire wine shops dedicated to high-end Bordeaux and Barolo. Nothing else.  All luxury, no middle ground, all over-priced.
  • Wine shops with a broader selection, still tended to carry 60-70% French wine. They are obsessed with it. Second place goes to Italy, but only Barolo and wines from Tuscany. I keep reading the American wine companies have made the biggest dent in the market, but from the ground, it all looked French and Italian to me.
  • The “high-end” or better Chinese wines, mentioned in my previous article, were very difficult to find.  Grace Vineyards, for instance, never graced a shelf I surveyed. Granted, I didn’t have time for major recon of every city’s best shops, so take that with a few salty granules.
  • Mid-range and low-end wines from the most prolific Chinese producers such as Great Wall and Changyu, were available in a few spots, but again, not as common as I expected.  We managed to find a shop in Lijiang that sold some mid-range stuff ($25), so we bought a bottle of Changyu red for tasting.  See my post on that bottle.

    Bottle of Changyu “Red” Wine

All in all, China has massive market potential and those getting an early foot in the door should make some bucks—whether through importing or working with local wineries, such as international partnerships with Chinese vineyards.  For those of us more interested in unique, small-produced wines from less trendy regions, Hong Kong has a population more open to learning and experimenting without any of the tariffs.

Nightime on the Bund in Shanghai

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Where I am going- China

Hong Kong Harbor

I feel like I haven’t been on a lengthy trip in ages, although such restlessness (and irrationality by most people’s travel standards) is common in those with wanderlust fever.  It is completely incurable, but treatable through frequent exposure to new places and wines.  So, for my annual, extended therapy session, I am headed to China.  We depart late May and return mid-June.   The itinerary consists of 3 weeks and the following stops:  Hong Kong, Guilin/Yangshuo, Shangri-La (near Tibet), Lijiang, Beijing, Shanghai and back to Hong Kong and Macau.  This trip is not immediately recognizable as being related to wine, because it is not.  Primarily, we are going to escort my 83-year-old father-in-law around the country on his final overseas voyage.  He grew up in Hong Kong and Macau, but has not stepped foot in the region in nearly 40 years. I have a feeling Macau as a gambling mecca and Hong Kong, a shopper’s paradise, will be fairly unrecognizable.

Although not an obvious wine destination, I am dedicated to uncovering what, if any, wine culture does exist there, and where it might be headed.  My WSET studies introduced me to the nascent and looking-to-be-tapped-by-exporters wine market lurking beneath the surface of the growing upper and middle classes of the mainland.  Plus, there are 6 or so notable wineries already on the mainland, winning a few Asian regional awards, producing wine of dubious quality at varying price points.  However, one wine that actually won an international trophy from Decanter—under the shadow of bribery accusations—is Jia Bei Lan of Helan Qing Xue winery in Ningxia Province.  Word on the street is the wine was released in Beijing this spring. Perhaps I will look out for it, but if the $120 per bottle price tag is correct, it will probably remain a stranger to my lips.

Rice terraces in Bali- similar to the Longsheng terraces in China

For a longer look at China’s current wine economy, keep reading…

The most obvious place to begin an assessment of Chinese wine culture and economy is Hong Kong.  Given the island’s great wealth and exposure to Western culture, it seemed only a matter of time that Hong Kongers’ taste for luxury goods would extend to wine.  The tariff on wine imports was completely abolished in 2008—it had previously been as high as 80 percent, later dropped to 40—setting in motion Hong Kong as a major player in the auction market.  No longer beholden to extraordinarily high taxes, label wh*res lovers went crazy bidding up trophy Bordeaux and Champagne bottles to stratospheric levels.  This isn’t a particularly mature attitude towards wine, since the behavior of buying the most expensive, iconic brands for adult show-off-and-tell is the complete antithesis of my perspective. Despite this inauspicious beginning (in my opinion-probably not shared by Château Lafite), there are clear signs a more thoughtful and approachable market is developing.

When I was last in Hong Kong in December 2009, there were a handful of new wines bars, including one of the first enomatic tasting machines, in the trendy Lan Kwai Fong district.  And as aforementioned, exporters have had their sights on the ever-growing middle class of China—the U.S. export market jumped 400% between 2006 and 2010.  Hong Kong even has its first urban winery the 8th Estate Winery (although they source their grapes globally, not from China).  Clearly Hong Kong has laid the foundation for importing wine, but what about actual winemaking in China, from Chinese grapes?  It exists.

Now, if you really want to get academic…

For a stellar and easy read on the “globalization of wine”, I recommend Wine Wars by Mike Veseth, AKA the Wine Economist.  I devoured this book a few weeks ago.  Mr. Veseth devotes a section on the variables and hurdles that Chinese winemakers have to contend with, and there are a lot of them, predominantly in the supply chain.  For instance, regulations don’t encourage quality grape growing and farmers are paid for quantity; growers function independently in teeny, tiny little vineyard plots, a holdover from communist era land programs—natch—which discourages best practices oversight by the winery, such as optimal pick-time.  It sounds like the key to high quality wine would be an estate vineyard, a practice which well-received newcomer Grace Winery supposedly employed in their first vineyard in Shanxi province (they now own 3 other vineyards in other regions).  More good news is that foreign partnerships are growing, giving the Chinese access to better technology and expertise.  With such a potentially huge domestic market, I would imagine, and hope, that wines would continue to evolve in quality.

Tourist Junk Boat in Hong Kong

Finally, some hurdles in developing the Chinese wine palate lie in existing cultural habits. For example, some postulate the Chinese prefer red wine because they are used to drinking warm drinks at a meal and because of the auspiciousness of the color red, though white wines might be better suited to certain fiery dishes. Also, tea is tannic, as is red wine, so they are used to tannins in their beverages.  Or perhaps the Chinese palate is not meant to be like the Western palate at all- they grew up eating different foods and may expect and appreciate different tastes and qualities in their wines. None of this should be viewed as a scientific analysis; rather speculation by wine industry folk.  Perhaps I can gain a greater insight when there on the ground, meeting fellow or future wine drinkers of China.

For those that are interested in a list of Chinese wineries—I imagine not too many of you, yet—the larger and notable names I have come across so far are the following: Great Wall, Dragon Seal, Changyu, Huadong, Domain Helan Mountain, Grace Vineyards, Helan Qing Xue.  If anyone has any other suggestions of local wines I should seek out while there, please let me know!

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