CHINA: The next wine superpower?
by Tony Aspler
It was, of course, inevitable. China, thanks to its population of 1.4 billion, is on its way to becoming the world’s wine superpower. Last year, China drank 1,865 billion bottles, surpassing France and Italy as the world’s largest consumer of red wine. What is more significant is that 80% of this wine was home-grown.
The average Chinese person consumes one litre of wine a year—that’s basically one 4-oz glass every two weeks. Imagine what would happen if they could be persuaded to drink a glass of wineevery week. By comparison, Canada’s annual wine consumption per capita is 15 litres. Projections suggest that consumption of wine in China is likely to rise 54% by next year.
My first taste of Chinese wine was in Toronto in 1978 during a Chinese New Year banquet at a restaurant called Sai Woo. The bottles were extremely ornate with garish red and gold labels festooned with red ribbons. The wines tasted like alcoholic prune juice. My next encounter with Chinese wine was ten years later when I visited the first Sino-French Joint Venture Winery, a co-production between the Chinese government and the French cognac company, Rémy Martin. The wines were marketed under the Dynasty label and they have appeared from time to time on liquor board shelves in Canada. The Dynasty wines were an improvement, but not something for which I would actually shell out money.
Last August, I was invited to consult on the construction of a new winery to be built in the city of Linze in the Hexi Corridor between the Gobi Desert and Quilian Mountains. The entrepreneur behind the venture was Jason Tang, a Chinese businessman who imports and bottles wines from California’s Central Valley. Mr. Tang was also the power behind Gansu 2013, The Third Organic Wine Festival of China Hexi Corridor and The First Wine Festival in China Wine City. (In October last year the city of Wuwei, on the Silk Road in Hexi Corridor, was awarded the title of “China Wine City.”)
At the wine festival, our group toured the table-top booths tasting Zixuan Merlot 2010, Mogao Pinot Noir, Qilian Icewine 2011 (made from Riesling Italico), Huangtai Fazenda Merlot (NV), Mogaoku Late Harvest 2009 (85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Pinot Noir), and Guofeng Cabernet Sauvignon 2006.
Then we were all invited to go up on stage to critique the following wines: Mo Gao Pinot Noir 2010, Zixuan Organic Merlot 2010,Huangtai Vineyard Meite Collection Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot (NV), Grand Dragon Organic Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Goufeng Organic Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Mo Gau Late Harvest Berry Selection 2009 (85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Pinot Noir),Fortified Wine (Tawny Port style) and Qilian Legendary Icewine 2011.
The huge Chinese audience, perched on stools around cabaret tables, were mostly young people who hung on our translated comments, obviously eager to learn everything they could about wine. It is these young Chinese who are driving the consumption statistics upwards.
Fifteen per cent of China’s grapes—for wine and for the table—come from the Hexi Corridor, which also supports the cultivation of melons, apricots, peaches, pears, cherries, wheat, potatoes, onions and, of course, corn, endless fields of corn. There are also vast fields of marigolds that are used in the preparation of face creams and eye health products.
The wine-growing region of the Hexi Corridor is located between 36° and 40° latitudes that embrace Napa and Bordeaux. The soil here is very sandy and, with minimal rainfall, the farmers can grow their grapes organically.This arid region receives a meagre 6 ½ inches of rain a year, which means the grape farmers don’t need to use fungicides and pesticides in their vineyards, making it the world’s largest organic vineyard surface.
Everything about the Chinese wine industry is monumentally big. The six enterprises based along the Hexi Corridor crushed 86,000 tons of grapes in 2012. The Gansu Grand Dragon Organic Wine Company, the largest in the region and China’s first all-organic enterprise with a staff of 4,000, is in the process of planting 66,667 hectares of vines. By comparison, all of Bordeaux measures just over 120,000 hectares; Napa has 17,637 hectares of vines. The company’s massive chateau that looks like an Egyptian necropolis has a storage capacity of 100,000 tons.
Our group also toured local vineyards to see how the farmers grew their grapes. At a city named Bangiao, we walked through a 134-acre vineyard farmed by 30 different farmers. Eighty per cent of the vineyard was planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot augmented by some table grape varieties. The varying levels of expertise and commitment by the collective were evident row by row. The agronomist who showed us around explained that along the Hexi Corridor they have to bury their vines for winter and uncover them in April—just as the growers in Quebec and Prince Edward County have to do.
During my two-week stay, I tasted as many locally made wines as I could and was impressed by their authenticity; they actually tasted of the variety that appeared on the label. They’re not there yet, but with more care taken in the vineyard and a willingness to learn from the experience of established wine regions, I am convinced that Chinese wines will be on the tables of the best restaurants around the world in the not-too-distant future… and at prices that we can all afford.