Just read a fascinating post on Chinese wine on, of all places, a blog called Polish Wine Guide. The post is entitled “Wine racism?” [link no longer exists] but it is about a lot more than just wine. It is about how China is now producing some great products and of how Western companies that ignore that do so at their own peril.

The article is about the wine world’s reaction to Decanter World‘s having awarded He Lan Qing Xue Winery’s Jiabeilan Cabernet the award for best Red Bordeaux Varietal over £10. To quote the post, this award caused a “veritable stir in the wine community”  and the following points were raised:

  1. few people seem ready to admit that the Chinese wine won the Trophy on its own merits because
  2. China has no history of producing high-quality wine,
  3. few if any Chinese wines have demonstrated to reach so high a level of quality, and it’s implied that
  4. the wine was likely made with imported fruit and
  5. it’s a curious coincidence the award would happen at a time when Decanter is strongly increasing its business in China, and

The blogger points out that China is now the world’s fifth largest producer of wine, making more “bottles than Argentina, Chile, Australia, Germany or Portugal. He then notes that nobody “would make a story of a German wine winning a Trophy.” He then comments on how it is now a “truism that good commercial wine can nowadays be made everywhere” and that a winery from Thailand has already won two silvers and bronzes at international competitions in the last few years – yet that didn’t create nearly so much outrage.”

This blogger then (rightfully I think) gets all political about the dissing of China’s wineries:

Yet apart from unfounded prejudice, there’s another political aspect to the whole story that I found even more worrying. It’s that almost paternalistic looking down on China that I actually find slightly racist. It’s not racism on a personal level, but it is an undercurrent of negative bias that is deeply encoded into the dominant narrative here. China just cannot make a world-class Cabernet because it has no ‘wine tradition’ or ‘wine culture’. China can buy our bonds and Bordeaux, it can produce 99% of the world’s toys and shoes but when it comes to a precious product like fine wine, imbued with heritage and prestige, well it’s just impossible.

This is exactly the sort of post-colonial paternalism that was once used to dismiss Californian red wine until the Judgment of Paris revolutionised the wine world. Today no-one would think of suggesting a New Zealand Sauvignon or Chilean Syrah cannot compete respectably with a wine from France. Yet in a transformed form, that paternalistic approach persists. A very good wine from Montenegro, Georgia or even Greece is usually met with disbelief, and now the assumption that fine wine is purely a Gallic & WASP speciality is being challenged by Asia, provoking an outrage. You’d assume the wine world to be a very open-minded place but stereotypes run deep.

Many years ago, a client in the U.S. wine distribution business had the brilliant idea of importing Chinese wines for sale in the United States. His thinking (and mine) was that with Chinese prices being what they are, a $5 bottle in China would be the rough equivalent of a $10 bottle in the United States and a $10 bottle there would be about the same as a $20 bottle. To test out this theory, I bought a $5 and a $10 bottle from a very good Shandong winery and I brought them back to the U.S. and served them to my younger brother, who is quite the wine expert.  I told him the wines were from China and asked his opinion of them, without revealing their price points. He said the $5 bottle tasted like a decent $5 bottle and the $10 bottle tasted like a decent $10 bottle. In other words, these wines met their level but did not surpass it. Now I know one tasting is not conclusive, but in conversations with others who actually know wines, I hear the same thing. Now I know there are plenty of barely potable China wines, but having lived in France as a student, I can vouch for there being plenty of barely potable French wines (sold in plastic bags, no less) too. For unrelated reasons, my client chose not to import Chinese wines.

So what’s the takeaway?

I do not know the wine world enough to be surprised (or not) by its unwillingness by those in the more establishment wine countries to accept China. But I can say that it is not uncommon to see American companies go into China just assuming that their product or way of doing things is superior to anything China has and that alone guarantees them China success. A lot of what China produces/provides is of poor quality, no doubt about it. But if your plans for success in China involve your existing product or service always being better than whatever China can do, you probably won’t last there. Just this past week, a client who makes highly technical industrial equipment told me that when his company first went into China about five years ago, they figured their product would be far superior to anything produced by a Chinese company for the next ten years, easy. Now he says that Chinese quality is 90% as good, but the price is 30% less and he fears China will be at 98% within the next couple of years.

China quality is slowly rising and it is not rising at all uniformly. China may still be decades away from competing with the West in some areas, but in others, China has already arrived. It is obviously very important that you know where China is with respect to your particular business before you go into China planning to take over.

Do you agree?

  • Wine racism has nothing to do with it. Good wines come from Europe, California, Australia, South Africa, South America, Lebanon …
    The weather and soils are the main obstacle to produce great wines in China. The grapes produced so far in Shandong for example cannot make high grade wine. Grace in Shanxi is trying very hard and get some time 75 out or 100 in the Robert Parker reviews. Jancis Robinson has been tasting wines in China lately and had apologized to her Chinese friends for not being able to review positively anything that came her way. Now China is producing massively for the Chinese market and it is a very big business. Chinese love wine made in China and the imported kind.
    Again it is not a lack of investment or technical knowledge; Nature is not favorable to wine grape growing in China.
    I have not come across any ideas on how to resolve that. Have you?

  • LH

    Be quiet you idiots, the price will go up.
    -LH

  • Siemens made the same assumption about Chinese trains. Look where that got them.

  • Taste Master (qualified)

    Odd the review appeared on He Lang Qing Xue’s blog, don’t you think? Saying the worlds best Cab Sav over 10 quid in value is Chinese – by the producer! Dan, you try it instead of blogging as normal and give us your tasting notes. That’d be more educational.

  • PaulR

    Why so surprised? We all know that China has a many exceedingly smart, technically-minded people, who will throw themselves at a skill or craft with absolute focus to achieve “world-class” results in a very short period of time. Now that they also have what sometimes seems to be unlimited money and resources, it is no surprise that some are producing high-quality wines.
    On the other hand though, I believe Wine-making will show the typical Chinese dichotomy – a smaller, “world-class” strata dragged-down by the mass of copy-cats and pirates who see only short-term profits and leave consumers both in and out of China questioning the entire industry.
    What WOULD be a surprise is if the likes of He Lan Qing Xue Winery could change the ENTIRE Chinese wine-making industry!

  • Wojciech Bonkowski

    Thanks for the link & quotes (rare on the internet today to have an article quoted so accurately).
    Those interested can click on the link above and read the discussion under my post, with some interesting developments on wine colonialism and cultural prejudice.
    Can China produce really good wine? Perhapps not in quantity, and perhaps most of the vineyards areas developed so far are too humid and/or warm, but there seems to be some promise in north-eastern China, higher up, in drier, semi-desertic climates.
    My original post was not so much about the quality or lack thereof of Chinese wines, but the reluctance to accept a gold medal for a Chinese wine. Hey, if it went through four series of blind tastings by very expert tasters, it must be really good. Yet the very idea triggered some fierce resistance. Why?

  • Seems obvious that the wine industry, like many others, is trying to rise the value chain. I imagine that wine, like fashion and entertainment, is an area where China is felt to still be highly derivative. Maybe this is the first blow for Chinese wine. Would be glad to see the quality rising!

  • HI

    Most people’s idea of enjoying a glass of wine doesn’t involve testing for lead, cadmium and other good stuff before drinking.

  • Jancis Robinson

    Because the tasters were winos. And just how much does this bottle expect to retail for?

  • Mike

    I have tried various Chinese wines over the years, but I’ve pretty much given up on that. Most of it is, unfortunately, cat piss, sold for the purpose of being sold, drank if at all by red-faced combovers, mixed with Coke for ‘taste’.
    One exception was a Grand Dragon premium so and so, came in a wooden box for 268 RMB, was about as drinkable as a $15 Coonawarra. But that was just the one, a long time ago.
    Now that one can get a $15 Coonawarra for 100 RMB, why take a chance on the 200-300 RMB Chinese stuff?
    With wine from overseas, bought at an overseas owned and operated store, there is a good chance you get what you pay for.
    It is not so much that it is impossible there’s good Chinese wine, it is the reputation that “the Chinese” have so carefully cultivated that anything they touch is, well….
    If I see a medal-sticker on a wine from anywhere else, and no, not just from France, I’ll happily give it a try, but not China, because reputations being as they are, the sticker will most likely be Shanzai, or Hongbao-induced if not. And it is much easier to ruin a good reputation than it is to gain one.
    Is not wanting to buy shit from consistent shit-peddlers racism these days? Well, sorry, big sigh to that…!

  • Jaap

    Life is too short to be wasted on trying to find a good Chinese wine.

  • slim

    “Siemens made the same assumption about Chinese trains. Look where that got them.”
    Pilfering the IPR of wine (what with weather, soil etc) is not as straightforward as appropriating train tech and repackaging it as Chinese.

  • Vino Veritas

    Technically, China just has the wrong terrior (earth) for making anything but wines from basic grape varietals. You can dress it up, add more alcohol, and make it deep and layered, but it’s never going to be a premium product along France, Italy or new world wines such as the best Napa, Margeret River, Stollenbosch or Maipo wines. China is best at making cheap wines in bulk (note claims to be the fifth largest producer in volume). That said, Grace’s “Deep Blue” and the old Lou Lan Wines from Xinjiang were good.

  • I believe Wine-making will show the typical Chinese dichotomy – a smaller, “world-class” strata dragged-down by the mass of copy-cats and pirates who see only short-term profits and leave consumers both in and out of China questioning the entire industry.

  • RICHAUD

    The problem with this kind of comments , about wines or anything else is that you must be quite a pro in your field to be able to make a right comments.
    there is no racism , and what is well underlined is that the soil , climate are the problem to make a good wine here in China . Skill can be learnt , no doubt that our Chinese friends are smart !
    Also the profit here is the main motivation , and even by cheating , which distroy the reputation of the whole. Next , there is very little chinese red or white wine, most is imported cheap bulk ‘transformed’ in Chinese wine.