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By Jim Boyce
Home of the much-talked-about winery Chateau Junding, “Nava Valley“, and the Yantai International Wine Festival, Shandong is the hot spot when it comes to mainland China’s wine scene. So, what can a visitor expect of its wineries? Bob Wise visited three of them – Huadong, Chateau Changyu-Castel, and Chateau Junding – and wrote this piece for that’s Shanghai / Urbanatomy, reprinted here with permission. For one man’s taste of Shandong’s wines, read on…
By Bob Wise, that’s Shanghai / Urbanatomy
“In Shandong, we drink three toasts to our guests!” shouts a ruby-faced wine salesman, holding aloft a glass of Chinese Chardonnay. It’s noontime in a five-star hotel in rural Shandong, and I’m spilling wine down my throat with little time to taste it. The ritual continues as we moved on to the reds: “Thank you for coming to Shandong, we hope you enjoy it here – ganbei!”
The jovial salesman, the chief winemaker of Chateau Junding, myself and another journalist begin to chatter, our initial awkwardness supplanted by the warming ease brought about by drinking six glasses of wine in roughly 15 minutes. But this drinking session is different – well, the wine is anyway. This Santa Grace Red costs more than RMB 2,000 per bottle, and it’s made just outside our private dining room in Shandong’s newly-branded ‘Nava Valley’.
These toasts are usually performed with one of China’s big-name brands, or, much to the horror of enthusiasts, one of the few but formidable Bordeaux wines that are popular here. But COFCO, China’s hulking food conglomerate that produces everything from the much-maligned Great Wall wines to ethanol products have decided that they can compete with France’s great producers – at least in the domestic market. And Chateau Junding is the embodiment of this pursuit – a place where business people and government officials can gleefully toast with expensive wine, and even fit in a round of golf afterwards. After swallowing several glasses of Junding with my guests, I decide that they are on to something.
The market for wine here grows at double digit rates per annum, and it’s clear that China has the potential to make good wines. But Chinese wine is widely criticized because it is rarely good. This has more to do with winemaking than the combination of climate, soils, location and culture – the cosmic equation the French call terroir – that shapes a wine’s specific personality. After all, New World producers such as the United States, Australia and South Africa were producing mostly substandard, bulk wines just a few decades ago.
China is what my new friends at Chateau Junding call the Third World of winemaking. And it’s a realm where, to them, anything seems possible, even selling an upstart Chinese wine for the same price as some of the better bottles on Earth.
Chateau Huadong Parry
The first stop on my wine tour of Shandong is just outside Qingdao, home of another, more popular alcoholic beverage. But I’m not here to drink lager. I’ve come to visit a winery that a Shanghai supplier told me makes respectable whites – Chateau Huadong Parry.
Huadong lies just on the city’s outskirts, and it’s a curious place. The ‘chateau’ has the flowery feel of fictional Europe – all frilly curtains, white marble, gold sconces and garish oil reproductions. First, I watch a series of Huadong advertisements which mention their “lovers wine from Canada” (an ice wine bottled here, made from Canadian juice) and is peppered with language that sounds more like propaganda than promotion: “Continue winning honor for China and writing a more splendid legend in the China wine industry,” boasts the narrator.
But I just want to taste, and finally we get around to that. (Though, if you want to try anything besides their basic stuff, they might make you buy the entire bottle.) I find that the higher the price and expectations, the less enjoyable the wines become. Huadong’s RMB 30 Riesling is a perfectly pleasant drink: clean and simple, with good acidity and a nice, floral nose with melons and other fruit. But Huadong Parry’s RMB 470 Chardonnay is a clumsy, poorly-made thing – smoky oak bullying the thin, watery Chardonnay of the area. Their less expensive Chardonnay (RMB 118) is also good. In short, if you stumble across a bottle of Huadong whites, they are worth trying; their Cabernet Sauvignon is not.
This underlines one of the problems with winemaking in Shandong, home to some of China’s biggest vineyards. Many companies are toying with a large variety of grapes that don’t necessarily grow well in the climate and opting to plant a little bit of everything. The chateaux are also places that toe the line between crass showmanship and actual craftsmanship. This was certainly the case at Chateau Changyu-Castel, a tourist attraction cum winery that lies in a dusty industrial zone just outside of Yantai, a port city three hours north of Qingdao.
Chateau Changyu-Castel looms large behind a sweeping front yard of trellises – and brides posing for wedding photos in front of the 180 varietals, grown mostly for show. Inside lies an impressive cellar, where 2,000 French and Spanish barrels sit stacked beside photos of celebrities that have visited Changyu-Castel. Chang Bi Shi founded Changyu in 1892, making this the oldest wine producer in China (the chateau itself was built 100 years later). And Castel, the partner in this joint venture, is a bulk winemaker in France. Their union results in simplistic but again fairly expensive wines.
My tasting here starts badly, with a glass of oxidized Chardonnay that they admit was opened the day before. Asked for something fresher, they pour a 2004. This RMB 388 wine has lots of acidity and plenty of oak, but no discernable fruitiness – which seems to be a pattern in the wines I’m trying. The red (which also sells for RMB 388) is a stony, bone dry drop that looks to France for inspiration but doesn’t quite realize its vision. I begin to wonder if that cheap Qingdao Riesling will be the best thing that passes my lips on this trip.
Thankfully, it’s not. The final stop on my wine tour is COFCO’s labyrinthine Junding, a Disneyfied monument to winemaking paired neatly with a slice of lifestyle. Here guests can stay in a 92-room hotel, play a round of golf on their beautifully manicured course and wander through cellars and production facilities with the best equipment money can buy. Wang Baoting, the slick salesman mentioned above, explains the theory behind the project. “First, we want to establish a brand. Then, we want to make people recognize the lifestyle associated with this brand. And finally, we want to make wine they enjoy.”
And enjoy the wines we did. Junding is making better wines than anything I’ve tried in China, with the possible exception of Grace Vineyard in Shaanxi (though I suspect Junding’s richer style would fare well in a tasting against Grace’s thinner, more tannic reds). Their Chardonnay (RMB 988) has fruit and acidity in equal measure, and the Cabernet/Merlot and Cabernet Syrah blends boast length and a good deal of complexity. Winemaker Shao Xuedong says the Cabernet fruit comes from one of Great Wall’s older plots, allowing them to produce a better wine than they could from the young vines sprouting on their impressive property.
With the economic might of COFCO behind them, Chateau Junding should continue to make good wines well into the future. Indeed, they will soon open a store in Shanghai. “China has no lack of rich people,” Wang explains, “but these people don’t know how to spend their money. Here, we are showing them how.”