Chinese Wines Go High-End; But Will They Sell?

China’s Wine Producers Have Their Work Cut Out For Them If They’re To Compete At Home And Abroad

Chinese wineries like Great Wall have made great strides in the last few decades, but when will they produce a truly world-class bottle?

Chinese wineries like Great Wall have made great strides in the last few decades, but when will they produce a truly world-class bottle?

Much has been made of the surge in wine consumption among China’s growing middle class (previously on Jing Daily) and the wealthy mainland wine collectors who have developed a reputation for wiping out wine auctions in Hong Kong and elsewhere. But what about wines that are “Made in China”? As has been noted extensively elsewhere, despite the massive output of China’s “big three” wineries — Changyu, Great Wall, and Dynasty — the vast majority of domestic Chinese wines are considered by experts to range from sub-par to undrinkable.

However, like everything in China, this is changing. But domestic wineries are going to have their work cut out for them if they’re to produce premium wines that convince French Bordeaux-mad Chinese and foreign connoisseurs alike.

As Jing Daily wrote earlier this year, there are signs that the high-end Chinese wine market has made significant strides in recent years. As several experts have pointed out, the country now has anywhere from 400-500 vineyards (mostly concentrated in Shandong and Jilin), and with increased overseas investment and the discovery of new quality regions (and climate change?) some — but not all, by any means — wine professionals believe that some of these vineyards could produce world-class vintages within the next few decades.

Today, the Wall Street Journal looks at China’s burgeoning premium wine market, and looks into the possibility that China could, over time, become not only the world’s top producer of wine by volume (a distinction it will likely achieve in a few short years) but one of the world’s top producers of high-end, high quality wines. As the article points out, it won’t be easy:

The many boutique Chinese vineyards are proving a tourist draw; a California tour packager called China Wine Tours offers trips that include visits to five or six wineries. “The first question someone asks when they see our name is, ‘There’s wine in China?’ ” says Marc Curtis, the agency’s president. “Wine has a 4,500-year history there.”

Several expensive Western restaurants and hotels in Shanghai feature a single Chinese-made wine, by Grace Vineyard. With their wet and humid summers, most areas of China aren’t suitable for grape growing, says Judy Leissner, Grace’s president and a Hong Kong Chinese married to a German investment banker. Grace’s four vineyards are in provinces to the west of Beijing, where the company has found conditions ideal for high-quality vineyards.

The article goes on to note that consumer sophistication is a major hurdle that must be overcome before the Chinese wine market can truly mature. However, in recent years a number of services and companies have entered the Chinese market focusing on sommelier and wine taster training as well as wine education.

As tastes mature and more domestic experts are called upon to help develop the premium wine industry in China, we could see standards rise rapidly and transform high-end Chinese wine from what it is now — often the same sub-par product, but presented in elaborate packaging — into a world-class product on par with Chilean, Australian or American wine. It is important to point out that wines from these areas, too, faced consumer prejudice in the past and have gained global respect in just a few short decades.

Though opinions are mixed on the future prospects of Chinese wine — whether it’s doomed to remain mediocre, constrained by poor environmental conditions or grape quality, or whether it’ll someday join the ranks of world-class wines — that isn’t stopping enterprising boutique producers in China from eyeing overseas markets already. From the WSJ article:

It’s unlikely that any of these [premium Chinese] bottles will pop up in an American wine store. But David Henderson, who ran a wine importing business in China before returning to the U.S., has a vineyard and winery in China that produces a wine called Dragon’s Hollow solely for sale in the U.S. “Nobody walks into a [U.S.] wine shop and asks, ‘Where is the Chinese section?’ ” he says. “But there are 44,000 licensed Chinese restaurants in America. The potential is huge.”

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Food, Wine, & Spirits