As the number of Chinese wineries continues to increase, the Far East is rapidly becoming a serious contender on the international stage. For oenophiles, this promise of undiscovered bounty is too much to resist

Acres of vineyards in China

On a recent visit to the restaurant at Chateau Lynch-Bages in Bordeaux, I noticed that the majority of the visitors were Chinese. These weren’t nouveau riche showing off—they were clearly educated enthusiasts.

As a matter of fact, there are now as many people studying WSET courses (Wine and Spirits Education Trust) in China and Hong Kong as there are in Britain. Fongyee Walker MW (Master of Wine) who runs a wine consulting business in China describes how “consumers are incredibly engaged and very, very eager to try all sorts of wine and to discuss it.” At the 2016 Decanter Shanghai Fine Wine Encounter held just across the river from the Waldorf Astoria on the Bund, Christelle Guibert from Decanter told me— “the clientele were very young, much younger than you would get in Britain.”

In 2014, Vinexpo reported that China was now the world’s largest consumer of red wine. This was a misunderstanding caused by the Chinese characters for red wine also being used generically for wine. Still, the Chinese drink a lot of wine and the amount is increasing every year. Much of it will be home produced, but it’s hard to know exactly how much. Even though the International Organisation of Vine and Wine places China as the country with the second-biggest vineyard area in the world, much of these vines are table grapes. What is safe to say is that with its expanding middle class, China has just the target demographic needed to sustain a quality wine industry.

The capital of China’s wine production is Ningxia, a semi-arid region 745 miles inland from Beijing where the local government has done much to encourage viticulture. I tried some impressive wines recently from Changyu-Moser: a collaboration between Changyu, one of the country’s largest producers, and Lenz Moser from Austria. According to Moser—“Ningxia has ideal conditions for winemaking.” The major challenge is the freezing winters where vines have to be buried in the soil to protect them —an expensive and laborious operation.

Wine tasting

Just back from a trip to Ningxia, Christelle Guibert recommended wines from Kanaan winery. Other critics have tipped Silver Heights with its young winemaker Emma Bau. The majority of these wines are Cabernet blends made in the image of Bordeaux, though Chandon produce a Champagne-style sparkling wine, and Grace Vineyards make a highly regarded Aglianico, a grape from Southern Italy.

Tourism is a big thing: most wineries having dramatic buildings in either French château, traditional Chinese or modern style. China’s other main wine region, Shandong, is handier for Western tourists being only 300 miles from Beijing. Here, château Lafite has an estate, though the wines aren’t yet for sale, and the local government is building a wine city to attract visitors—at an estimated cost of CN¥ 6bn). The climate in Shandong is less extreme than Ningxia, but the damp weather can cause fungal problems.

Increasingly, Chinese wines have been making waves outside China. Back in 2011, the Jia Bei Lan 09 from Ningxia won a trophy at the Decanter Awards. Berry Bros & Rudd, the British wine merchant, is backing Chinese wine with a selection from Changyu-Moser.

China New Wine Frontier

Buyer Mark Pardoe MW says— ‘China is already the eighth largest producer of wine in the world, so it was only a matter of time before it entered the international market.” As well as reds, it will also be stocking some ice wines—intensely sweet wines made from frozen grapes grown in Liaoning near the border with North Korea.

These are all expensive products—but not compared with a new wine from Moët Hennessy. Made in Yunnan province, the wine will retail for around US$280 a bottle for the inaugural 2013 vintage. It’s called Ao Yun, which means “flying above the clouds”. The winemaker Maxence Dulou, formerly of Cheval Blanc, says—“We were searching for the terroir to make world-class wine in China. We needed a microclimate that was sheltered from the monsoon by mountains, but not too cold.”

The place they found was ridiculously remote—over 6,500 feet up in mountains on the border with Tibet and Laos, a five-hour drive from the nearest town. Cabernet Sauvignon vines were planted in the 2000s by the far-sighted local government looking to diversify farming. Ao Yun is made from over 300 plots of land at various altitudes. It’s a stunning wine with the most gorgeously pure fruit and, once you realize how much effort goes into it, the price tag does not seem unreasonable. Even so, Dulou told me that they don’t make any money on it.

It’s very much a wine to be appreciated by wealthy connoisseurs rather than displayed, and as such epitomizes how Chinese attitudes to wine have changed. It’s still early days for quality wine production in China, but the success of this first vintage of Ao You demonstrates that the nation has the potential to create truly outstanding wine. To look at China now is—in the words of Lenz Moser—“to think of Chile 25 years ago or Napa 30 years ago.”

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