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.
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.
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!