Rules and exceptions in China: From *if* there are any good wines to *which* are the best

2013 la revue du vin de france rvf china wine tasting in beijing-001

By Jim Boyce

I wrote an article about the state of local wines for the Chinese edition of La Revue du Vin de France that was published in the June issue with the results of a tasting of more than 100 Chinese wines. My English draft is below, with a few changes and updates.

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I recently tried a handful of wines from Penglai in Shandong province as part of a tourism campaign. One of the wines was shockingly bad. A magazine editor near me said: “It smells like a hospital”. Even the best wines, priced at more than rmb500, were simple and, in turn, poor value. I felt that asking consumers to visit Penglai to drink some of these wines was like asking people to go on a ski trip to a mountain with almost no snow. And I joked the best thing for Penglai tourism was to use wine from the upcoming region of Ningxia one thousand kilometers due west.

That joke might sound mean but it is also revealing. Five years ago, I might have written, “use French wine” or “use Australian wine”. But now China has reached the point where there are quite a few operations and regions making fairly good wine. We have stopped talking about if there is good wine in China. Now we talk about which ones are the best.

I was reminded of this recently when the manager of one of Beijing’s top restaurants called me and said that six tables of diners were drinking Chinese wine at that very moment. Not long ago, he might have meant wines from big producers like Great Wall or Changyu being consumed ganbei-style [bottoms up]. Or perhaps wines from Grace Vineyard, which was for quite some time about the only reliable producer in China.

Now he means wines from the increasing number of operations that offer better quality and better prices. In other words, better value. These include family-owned Silver Heights and foreign-invested Domaine Helan Mountain in Ningxia; Chateau Hansen in Inner Mongolia, which also uses grapes from Gansu and Ningxia; 1421, which is based in Shandong and bottles wine from Xinjiang; and Great River Hill in Shandong. These are some of the better operations [based on value], found across the country, and more are on the way.

But making decent wine is one thing and getting that wine to consumers is another. The most common question I get as a blogger is: “Where can I find good Chinese wines?” Fortunately, we are also seeing major changes in the distribution of these wines.

First, more distributors are adding Chinese wines to the portfolio. Torres is the veteran, distributing for Grace and Silver Heights. But the past year or so has seen The Wine Republic add Ningxia-based Helan Qing Xue and China Wines & Spirits work with Chateau Hansen. Great River Hill is talking to several distributors and will hopefully have a deal soon. [And Pernod Ricard is handling its own brand, Helan Mountain.]

Second, top restaurants, bars and hotels are listing more Chinese wines because of demand. Here in Beijing, Temple has stocked more than a dozen Chinese labels since it opened, including Grace, Silver Heights, Helan Qing Xue, Sunshine Valley and 1421. Maison Boulud, in Chi’enmen 23, and Grill 79 in China World Summit Wing, the highest building in Beijing, both have more than ten options. The Grand Hyatt recently revised its China wine list to include sixteen wines and sell Chateau Hansen by the glass.

These are not token wines. These are wines added due to greater consumer interest. There are dozens more places stocking Chinese wines, including pizza chain Gung Ho, which has Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from Grace available for delivery! [Alas, Gung Ho is no longer carrying the wines.]

Third, more retail outlets are carrying good Chinese wines. In Beijing, Jenny Lou’s and Jenny Wang’s have carried Grace and Helan Mountain wines in the past. There are also outlets that range from Everwines, which carries the Torres portfolio, to Mali Wine Shop in Guomao, which includes 1421 among its more than 100 options. Metro stores around China also carry 1421. On top of this, wineries also have their own dedicated shops.

Finally, these better Chinese wines are increasingly available via the Internet, whether by the distributors’ own websites or by online wine retailers. And Grace Vineyard is taking this one step farther. This year, it will sell almost all of its 2010 Sonata — a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Marselan – online. Consumers can sign up to buy either six bottles or twelve bottles for rmb399 each, first come, first served. This is an attempt to give smaller wineries, and especially those that are making good wine, a chance to reach consumers in a market that is dominated by a few major producers.

This is not to say that all, or even a majority, of the wine made in China is good. The reality is that producers who consistently make good wine have been the exception, not the rule. Much of the wine made in China is still done with an eye more to marketing than to quality, there is a good deal of blending of imported bulk wine with Chinese wine, and prices — with some bottles costing thousands of renminbi – often bear no relation to wine quality. But the number of exceptions is growing, and so is the number of places where consumers can get them, and this is what makes the China wine scene so exciting.

* I have done a few one-off projects with Ningxia, including a recent speech in Hong Kong and helping to bring seven foreign wine-makers to visit the region last fall.

1 Comment on Rules and exceptions in China: From *if* there are any good wines to *which* are the best

  1. I was honored to be part of the historic 1996 US Congressional Wine Delegation to China. All I could see then was potential, and now at last you report that it is being realized.

    The intervening decade and a half illustrates the axiom that wine is about time. Not just time in oak, not just time in a bottle. It take years for vineyards to mature, it takes decades for winemakers to establish best practices and then it may take that many decades and more before the word gets out.

    A look at my impressions from 1996, and the Congressional Record report: http://wineeducation.com/China.html

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