The People’s Daily recently published an article reporting both wine production and wine consumption in China have grown about 10 percent per year over the past decade. China is working hard to expand its importation of vintages from major wine-producing countries: Italy, France, Chile, the United States and Australia, to satisfy the evolving tastes of Chinese consumers. Wine connoisseurs are, of course, more interested in the development of China’s own wines, which are, for the most part, still in their infancy. The article asserts that:
The 500 or so Chinese wineries account for 80 percent of the domestic market, but they lag behind their foreign counterparts in terms of management, technique and quality.
Other sources report to the contrary. A Business Week article published this week, entitled, "Potations From Chairman Mao," reports the new Grace Vineyard in Shanxi province is making "surprisingly good wine:"
Grace’s $10-a-bottle Chardonnay has melon and baked apple flavors, and its $80 Chairman’s Reserve — a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc — is complex enough to rival many top-quality Bordeaux.
The reason for this may be that Shanxi is on the same latitude as the Bordeaux region of France. Its climate and soil are similar, "making it ideal for growing cabernet sauvignon, Chardonnay and merlot grapes."
In another part of China, forty miles northwest of Beijing, a French-Chinese joint-venture vineyard, the Sino-French Demonstration Vineyard, is attempting to build interest in wine and wine-making techniques. USA Today reports that local authorities hope to market tasting tours within the next year along the road connecting the Sino-French Vineyard with others in the area. The idea is to create a Chinese version of California’s Napa Valley.
China still has a long road to travel before it gains the reputation and respect of its foreign competitors. Many of the country’s current vintages are blends of Chinese grapes and imported bulk wines from Chile and Australia. China’s wine industry also lacks any formal system of control of origin like those in Italy and France. China has become the hot spot for counterfeiting historic wine labels, such as Sassicaia, Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Penfolds Grange, which slows down its climb to credibility overseas.
Chinese wine imports in the first seven months of this year were up 88.8 percent over the same period last year. Even though domestic wine production represents only one percent of China’s alcoholic drinks market, with 359,000 hectares and 3.34 million hectoliters in volume, China is currently the 6th largest wine producer in the world. The International Herald Tribune reported in an article last month that shares of Fen Wine and Changyu Pioneer, China’s largest wine producer, have doubled in value this year. The time may soon come when Chinese wine is as well-regarded as its premier Tsingdao beer. Wine, which used to be regarded as strictly a luxury good, is becoming increasingly popular as people’s incomes and living standards improve. This blog has six Chinese language blogs on its blogroll.
Last year I brought a nine dollar bottle of Changyu Carbernet to Thanksgiving dinner so my younger brother, a true oenophile, could try some. I solicited his opinion without telling him how much I had spent. He told me it tasted like a good ten dollar bottle of wine.
My firm has been contacted a number of times over the years by Washington State wineries interested in going into China. All of them were eventually deterred by what they saw as the high cost of going in. My own understanding of the Chinese import wine market is that Australian and French wines are taking the lead and once grabbed, it may be quite difficult for U.S. wineries to catch up. Due to the surplus of American wines (can you say Two Buck Chuck?) it seems American wineries are missing an opportunity.
I have also had social conversations with American wine distributors about their importing Chinese wines into the United States, both for retail and for sale at Chinese restaurants. They look at me as though I have two heads.