Bubble rap: Imported and local sparkling wines in China

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When it comes to China’s sparkling wine scene, Italy rules imports by volume and France by value, while the number of intriguing local labels rises.

Below, I cover key import stats plus a tasting that I organized last week of 11 China sparkling wines, from traditional-method to single-variety pet-nat tea-infused bubblies.

First, the big picture.

In 2023, sparkling wine imports totaled 5.9 million liters worth USD78.5 million. As with overall imports, the numbers were down versus 2022. Given volume (-28.1%) declined far more than value (-9.85%), the declared value per bottle rose.

For volume, Italy is the clear leader, with just over 3 million liters, which represents one-half of the market. France followed with one-quarter while Spain had ne-sixth. No one other nation had more than 2% share.

For value, France dominates with 76%, while Italy had just 17% despite its high volume, and Spain a mere 4% despite making excellent bubblies. Only those three nations reached USD1 million dollars, with just a few others breaching the USD200,000 mark.

The picture we have is of a market dominated by France / Champagne in terms of value, where it finds a place in nightclubs, wine bars and fine dining as well as among enthusiasts, and ruled by Italy in terms of volume, with broader market appeal. And not a lot of bubbly beyond that.

Can we expect this to grow? On one hand, I am surprised at the numbers, given that over 15 years ago I went to a popular imported goods shop in Beijing and found over 50 different sparkling wines from a dozen countries, including every continent save for Antarctica. Thus, if sparkling wine is going to be the “next big thing” in China’s wine scene, it has the longest warmup in history.

On the other hand, we see a growing niche of adventurous wine drinkers, driven by younger generations, that ought to translate into more sparkling wine sales, although this ray of hope currently vies with the huge shadow of the decline of status-based buying, mostly for red wines used for gifting and entertaining.

Anyway, let’s pop the cork / crown cap on last Thursday’s tasting.

Domestic production of quality sparkling wine is quite small, but whereas the rise of red wines often saw us tasting many efforts aimed at a singular style, these bubblies show an impressive range of personality.

In terms of traditional-method producers, the key three have been Grace Vineyard in Shanxi, Domaine Chandon in Ningxia, which tailors products to Chinese consumers, and SunGod in Hebei, part of GreatWall wines owner COFCO. The most notable newcomer is DEVO from the Jinshan / Gold Mountain region of Ningxia.

We have also seen a rising number of pet-nats, which makes sense given the new generations’ interest in exploring more styles. It also allows niche producers, including the freelancers sourcing fruit and renting equipment, to make cost-efficient bubbly they can get to market fast.

We now see pet-nats featuring a wide range of varieties, from Marselan and Muscat to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, plus novelty items like tea-infused bubblies.

Anyway, last Thursday, I gathered 11 wines for a tasting with guests from all walks of life. We had three flights. First, a trio of single-variety pet-nats, including Riesling, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Second, a trio of traditional-method wines, including a rose. Third, five tea-infused Chardonnay pet-nats.

We gathered at Peach restaurant, which offers dishes with roots in Mexico, Italy, the Middle East, the UK and China, thus allowing for plenty of pairing experiments, and which has ample ice buckets and glasses. Peach is also close to the Houhai lakes district and facilitated a pleasant post-dinner stroll along placid waters.

Let’s open some bottles!


Single-variety Pet-nat

Lingering Clouds Riesling 2023, Made by roving winemaker Jianjun ‘Johnny’ Liu, it offered an explosion of tropical citrus aromas and flavors, guests citing everything from mango and passion fruit to tangerine and grapefruit. Add a zippy acidity and this was a good start to the night.

Mountain Wave Pinot Noir 2023, made by Deng Zhongxiang, this one arguably had the most appeal as numerous people ranked it in their top two. Light, fresh and pure, with a hint of earth and generous berry flavors — cranberry, Bing cherry, raspberry and more — this one capture the essence of its grape variety. This is one of a handful of pet-nats by Mountain Wave, which features Pinot Noir. Marselan and Malbec in its vineyards.

DEVO Cabernet Sauvignon 2023 is an experimental batch, says Stanley Yip, and was the tasting’s most divisive wine. A sweet slightly syrupy note up front, plus pure red berry-driven fruit, plus what some called a “funky” edge. Then again, a staff member from one of Peach’s sibling restaurants arrived later, tried a half-dozen wines, declared this one the best and took the rest of the bottle back to his place!


Traditional Method

DEVO Rose, from a relative newcomer on the scene, is a traditional-method wine with less than 12 months on lees and the use of about 25 percent Merlot. This one is frisky from the first sip, with vibrant Bing cherry and hawthorn power, and a crispness that reminds me of fresh tart MacIntosh apples. The acidity has calmed since my first taste six months ago and this wine has a sweet-and-sour edge that makes it versatile with a good range of Chinese foods.

DEVO MV01 is equal parts Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and aged 18 months on lees. A smart non-vintage bubbly, it offers with honey, toast and citrus notes, and went well with the fish ‘n’ chips! DEVO has a MV02 version and will later this year release its MV03.

Grace Vineyard ‘Angelina’ Brut Reserve 2014. Our sole Shanxi rep, the third reserve sparkling from Grace, following 2009 and 2012. I contacted Grace a week ago re another matter, heard they had just disgorged this wine and asked if we could get a bottle, with the answer affirmative. So lucky!

Those seeking a classic Champagne style in China look no further. This had fine mousse, pleasing acidity and lemon notes alongside creamy nutty ones from eight-plus years on lees. It also had a unique slightly pure and austere note: was this due to the recent disgorgement, to the use of natural yeast and no sulfur, or both? Here’s to opening many future bottles to find out!


Tea-infused Pet-nat

We tried all five of the 2023 tea-infused Chardonnay pet-nats by Liu at Lingering Clouds, with the second vintage featuring these unique combinations.

Chardonnay is used as the canvas and the five different teas as paints. They include Oolong, Jasmine, Long Jing (Dragon Well), White Peony and Black Tea.

I enjoyed the freshness, enduring effervescence and individuality of these wines as each expressed a tea style, from the lush fruity foamy White Peony to the richer smoother elegant Oolong to the lean dry tannic Black Tea. Meanwhile, the Jasmine was easily picked out by its fragrance while the Long Jing evoked the mellowness and greenness of its namesake tea.

This vintage is a step up from 2022 and it is worth trying all five side by side: one guest jumped online and bought the site while we were tasting. Their uniqueness, and ties to China’s history of tea, also make them attractive for export.

And as noted before, given the Chinese character for tea is ‘cha’ or ‘茶’, it would be fun to call these wines 茶rdonnays.

Overall, these 11 wines exceeded my expectations in terms of their quality, uniqueness and ability to spark discussion at our table, and I am already planning another bubbly get-together

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