Secret revealed! The amazing China wine region no one could imagine

By Jim Boyce | Want to hear a secret? Seriously? There is an amazing wine region in China that no one could imagine.

No one.

Except writers like Jancis Robinson, Michel Bettane, Karen MacNeil, Andrew Jefford and Jeremy Oliver, trade publications like Wine Spectator, Corriere Vinicolo, La RVF, Sommelier India and Decanter, and media like CBS, AFP, EFE, CBC and ARD.

Except guests of the region’s trade fairs, conferences and festivals, the judges who gave its wines hundreds of medals in global and local contests, the consumers who tried those wines, and more.

Plus the OIV, Society of Wine Educators and Court of Master Sommeliers, the students of training programs at home and abroad, and the officials, investors, winemakers, viticulturalists, farmers, equipment sellers, marketers and others in the wine scene.

That region is Ningxia and no one, no one, could imagine it—except VinItaly, the Italian wine exhibition with global influence. At least that’s the seemingly backhanded compliment in a press release on VinItaly’s site and PR Web.

No one would imagine that 1000 km West of Beijing, right beside the Gobi desert of Central China, there is a vast amount of land lying there dedicated to grape cultivation and winemaking. With millions of dollars of investment pouring in, this is the heart of “the new world of the new world” wines: Ningxia wines.

Kind of sounds like VinItaly is saying years of tireless effort by Ningxia to promote the region were for nothing. The reality is that VinItaly hopes to boost the chronically weak position of Italian wine in China by leveraging Ningxia.

To be fair, one sentence does not a press release make, so let’s move on—to France. China’s wine scene has obsessed over France for decades, a situation the media has heavily covered and that inspired the documentary Red Obsession. Trade people know that, right? But if you’ve been locked in a wine cellar for 20 years, with no access to the Internet, wine publications or fellow humans, VinItaly has you covered:

“One thing I’ve realized is that most of the influences they have is from the French. They regard French wine as the best and are French wine lovers. What ran through my mind was “what if we were able to get them to come to Italy more often?”, [asks VinItaly’s Stevie Kim]. In order to sell more Italian wines in the Chinese market, we need to have more Italian wine lovers. That is why we initiated a wine exchange program with the local wine bureau which will allow us to deliver quality Italian wines to China and the wines will be promoted together with Ningxia wines”.

Explaining in 2017 that China is into French wine seems like pointing out that screw tops are popular in Australia, that Argentina has a thing for Malbec or that there is a famous writer named Robert Parker. As for the idea that bringing wine lovers to Italy will help them love Italian wine: that’s a better plan than taking them to Indonesia, Venezuela or Canada.

VinItaly has something to say about the Chinese, too:

“The Chinese are very good at localizing the wine culture. They do it by simplifying and adapting it to what they already have” continues Stevie Kim. For example, at one of the wine exhibition centers, there are rooms named after grape varieties translated completely into Chinese. They are very eager to understand the culture, and then integrate it into theirs.

As someone based in China, I’m not surprised the people who invented paper-making, the compass, gunpowder and movable type might have said, “Hey, see those wacky grape names in foreign languages? What if we translated them into our own superior one?”

“Okay, but let’s first invent wine exhibition centers so we have a place to put them.”

All sarcasm aside, that “localization” observation typifies the press release, one that reads like a gap-year college student visiting Thailand for the first time and posting as if discovering virgin territory rather than well-worn ground.

We learn that people in Ningxia have “passion” (who doesn’t?), aim for the “highest quality” (better than the lowest), are “ambitious” (they did translate those grape names!) and face “harsh” natural conditions (with passion). Also, women are heavily involved in the wine industry, as anyone who has seen the three billion interviews with Emma Gao of Silver Heights can attest. These observations are fine as a Facebook post or diary entry from an average visitor but worrisome coming from a trade group that should know its key markets.

I’ll admit this press release particularly irked me because I have seen Ningxia make huge strides over the past five years to put the region on the world wine map. Plus, I help with a single project, the Ningxia Winemakers Challenge, with 48 winemakers from 18 nations, and even that includes several Italian candidates.

It also seems odd to read things like “what we can’t miss now is that [China] has also become the 5th largest wine producing country or that it’s important to be up-to-date on both consumption and production in China.

Again, shouldn’t the Italian wine industry at large already know this stuff? If being up to date is important, here’s some info: In 2016, Italy sent one-eighth as much bottled wine to China as France, badly trails Australia, Chile and Spain, and has been mired in a distant fifth-place spot for years. This is despite Italy having a wealth of cultural advantages in China, despite the Italian and EU governments providing millions of Euros for marketing wine, and despite lots of high-profile announcements. Yes, it’s nice that VinItaly has finally discovered Ningxia, but it’s more important to get a grip on the market. A final excerpt:

When you look at the consumer’s side, the Chinese market is dominated by the perception that imported wine is better. The hype for French wines is still very strong. However, consumers are slowly recognising and starting to enjoy their own Chinese wine, and this is an important trend that we must keep an eye on. This is because it is only after consumers start to appreciate their local wines, that the doors will open for wines from other parts of the world.

You can’t have it both ways. Either consumers see imported wines as better or they will be interested in imported wines only after appreciating Chinese wines. The reality is the doors have opened: China is the top market for wine from Australia and, as of this year, Chile; a serious market for global players like Spain and South Africa; and increasingly important for sources like Georgia and Bulgaria. Is Italy doing better than even one of these countries?

I’ll write a separate post on why Italy is stuck in fifth place. But here’s one idea for VinItaly, or other Italian agencies, connecting to local producers: China’s vineyards are dominated by Cabernet, Merlot and other varieties associated with France. Those same varieties are being planted in most of the new vineyards, including in Ningxia. And that will only reinforce French grapes as the default in China and, arguably, help imports from nations that heavily use them, such as Australia, Chile and United States.

Why not facilitate getting grapes like Aglianico, Sangiovese and Nero d’Avola into those fields? Even in small amounts, a physical presence in the vineyards would increase interest in and discussion of Italian wines. It won’t solve all of Italy’s problems but it does open that door one crack further.

I’ll end by saying I do think VinItaly has good programs, whether in terms of wine education or involvement in activities such as the Shanghai Wine & Dine Festival. And I have met people in China interested in improving the situation for Italian wines, whether it’s Simone Incontro at VinItaly Shanghai, the people at wine bars such as Vesuvio and Buona Bocca, or visiting Italian winemakers. But a fifth-place position in this market, given Italy’s advantages, should be a concern. And so should the apparent need for VinItaly to tell clients that French wine is popular in China or to present, as an unknown wine region, one that has already put itself on the map.

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