What are the major complaints I get from readers of this blog? One: they can’t find many of the Chinese wines that receive praiseÂ in contests and from critics. Two: thoseÂ they do tend to find are dishearteningly expensive.Â This goes for wine buyers in hotels, restaurants and bars, too, who tell me of their difficulty sourcingÂ good Chinese wines at good prices.
Look, we know China can produceÂ good wine. We knew it a century ago when Changyu wines from Shandong won international accolades. We knew it 25Â years ago when wines from fellow Shandong winery HuadongÂ did the same. And we know it nowÂ more than ever via the growing number of good wines made throughout the country, an outcome that makes sense given China’s diversity and the current state of wine-making technology.
What we need now is not just good wine but good-value wineÂ that is made in larger amounts and easier to find.
Given this, my focus over the past eighteen months has been on wines that fit what I call a “Triple-A” or “3A” formula — appetizing, affordable and available.
I focus on selectÂ labels from producers like Grace from Shanxi, Hansen from Inner Mongolia,Â Great River Hill from Shandong. andÂ 1421 from Xinjiang. The goal is to use wines that are enjoyed by consumersÂ (appetizing), have labels that sell for less than rmb150 or, ideally, less than rmb100 (affordable),Â and are available via retail chains or distributors with nationwide reach (accessible).
(I’m considering adding “authentic” and thus making the formula “Quadruple-A” or “4A” since a good deal of imported bulk wine has been used as a blend over the years.)
I used Triple-A wines in April’s China Wine TourÂ and December’s Grape Wall Challenge, and use them in tastings with fellow consumers and trade people. I alsoÂ use more expensive wines, such as those from Helan Qing Xue andÂ Silver Heights (both from Ningxia),Â but usually for hotel and restaurant buyers creating a China wine list thatÂ already has Triple-A options or for people yet to try Chinese wines and interested in what is available.
Does all this mean I wouldn’t appreciate yet another Cabernet blend that tastes good, costs over rmb1000, and has a small production run and noÂ distributor? Of course not. Drinking any wine — especially any good wine — is fun.
But consumers hereÂ also deserves good wines that areÂ inexpensive, that haveÂ larger production runsÂ and decent distribution,Â and — given the increasing knowledgeÂ of buyers and the often negative attitudes they haveÂ about local goodsÂ — that are backed with savvy marketing. The kind to compete with good cheap wines from Spain andÂ Australia and Argentina and Chile and elsewhere and that are increasingly popular here.
ItÂ won’t be easy. Few producers can make enough wine of any quality, let alone good quality, to cover a market with a billion-plus peopleÂ armed with growingÂ disposable income. And while there are dozens of producers making good wine, in many cases that means only a fewÂ thousand bottles per label. (I regularly describe them as representing a case or two out of the barrel of total production). Getting wine to consumers is also a major challengeÂ for many smaller players, although we do find success stories, and the rise of online sales is fortuitous.
The situation might sound a bit dire but this is a good time for China to make a quality leap. The government’s austerity program hasÂ severely slashed luxury goods spending by officials over the past two years, including on expensiveÂ wines, and it appears here to stay. That means producers need to appeal toÂ regular consumers,Â who are learning more about wine and increasingly looking for quality and value.
Given the current lull in overall demandÂ as the market recovers from slashed spending by officials, and a large number of vineyardsÂ now coming online dueÂ to past investments, we should see grape surplusesÂ over the next few years. That will hopefully mean both price and source stability for producers. And that lowered risk, combined with the growing skill of the country’s wine makers and theÂ need to appeal to generalÂ consumers, makes the time ripe for creating more triple-A wines.
Note: I’m a fan of the country’s boutique wineriesÂ but production of, say, 5,000 bottles translates to one bottle per ~200,000 consumers. If consumers really are increasingly buying wine based on taste rather simply for gift-giving or expressing status, China needs larger quantities of good wine, whether thatÂ come from the big brands boosting quality, current small operations expanding or new players entering the market.
By the way, here are some Chinese wines I tried atÂ the Yanqing Wine Expo earlier this week. I’ll have more on them and the wine fair soon.
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