Depending on whose statistics you find, China is either the fifth or sixth largest wine producer in the world. It’s nothing to sneeze at either way, but it doesn’t mean you’re likely to see any on your retailer’s shelf any time soon.
At least, that’s according to Dr. Baudouin Neirynck, author of The Grapes of Wine, who proved very informative about this prolific region and their elusive wines.
Given that Dr. Neirynck is in Hong Kong and I am in New York, email made vastly more sense for communicating. Here, an edited version of his As to my Qs.
FWC: Can you paint a picture of the Chinese wine industry today and how it has evolved over recent years?
Dr. Neirynck: In 2013, the [People’s Republic] of China wine production has improved tremendously with the emergence of qualified winemakers and viticulturists trained in the west.
Today, some wineries that have achieved prominence on the world wine scene (Silver Heights, Grace Vineyard, He Lan Qin Xue, Helan Mountain) are benefiting from experience and expertise gained in France, USA and Australia. Those are the Chinese wines of the future but they represent a tiny minority in 2013.
Next to those is the sea of inferior… wines sold in bars, restaurants and supermarkets. Quite a big chunk of wines supposedly made in China are in fact a blend of imported bulk wine and some actually originating in Chinese vineyards.
How big is the industry?
[The market] is still growing at 12-13% every year in terms of demand, down from 16-17% three years ago. [From a production side,] 128 million cases or its equivalent was [made] in China in 2012.
[For perspective, in 2010, the three largest US wine producers made a combined 178 million cases. – FWC]
In addition, the Chinese wine consumer has increased its consumption dramatically in the ten-year period from 2000 to 2010 from about 0.23 to 0.75 liter per year per capita, a three-fold increase.
[Another comparison: France’s 2010 consumption was 45.7 liters/year/per capita; Aruba’s consumption was 12.85 liters/year/per capita; and Morocco had a per capital consumption of .99 liters in 2010. – FWC]
How much production stays in China and how much is exported? Where are the major export markets?
About 96% of the production stays in China to be drunk, only 4% is exported but one may expect this figure to rise slightly as interest for Chinese wines around the world is growing.
According to a joint study between Vinexpo and IWSR, by 2013, an expected 1.26 billion of wine bottles (an increase of 32 percent when compared with 2009) are forecasted to be sold in China.
Can you describe the major wine regions? What grapes are grown?
Although 26 provinces produce wine in China, only 12 share the bulk (95.87%) of the production. Those provinces are Gansu, Hebei, Henan, Inner Mongolia, Jilin, Liaoning, Ningxia, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Shandong, Xinjiang and Yunnan as well as within the special administrative regions of Beijing and Tianjin – also called municipalities.
[The] main grape varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon (about 45% of the vineyards), Merlot, Cabernet Gernischt*, Chardonnay, Muscat and Riesling. Some Pinot Noir also [is grown] but in very small quantities.
* A red grape, probably of European origin, that is most likely an ancestor of Cabernet Franc. If it’s not the same grape as Carmenere. Clearly, its history is a little murky. – FWC
What differentiates Chinese wines from others & what gives them their unique character?
Chinese wines very much follow the French model with lighter alcohol, medium body and light tannins. Fruit character is not overwhelming but there are exceptions.
Ice wines made along the Canadian model are proving very popular and have achieved very high standards in the provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Gansu where temperatures drop to minus 25 degrees Celsius for a good part of the winter.
Given China’s sketchy quality issues (such as with the tainted milk scandal), are there any concerns about the quality of the country’s wine?
Technically speaking, Chinese wines compare very favorably with the rest of the world. This industry in China is only about 30-40 years old and befits from the latest equipment and technology.
However, there is a tendency to over-filter wines to remove impurities and in the process eliminate flavors and aromas. Wine labeling laws [were] strengthened in 2008 but there is still a lot of room for improvement in the area of authenticity.
Does this sort of negative publicity hurt the chances for Chinese wine in the US market?
No. In my opinion, Chinese winemakers will come up with a tailor-made wine for the US market in a similar way as Yellow Tail did a few years ago.
The Chinese diaspora remains quite patriotic and supportive of products made in China and quality assurance will become more widespread.
What do you see happening with Chinese wines over the next 5-10 years? Is Chinese wine the next big thing?
I don’t think so for the reason put forward above (lack of available suitable land and extreme weather conditions in [several provinces] where vines have to be buried in winter and unearthed in spring. This is very labor intensive).
[In addition,] as long as the domestic demand growth remains above 10%, there is very little incentive for Chinese wines to actively seek international expansion. [T]he growth of the middle class is enough to ensure linear expansion of the domestic demand. Quality will improve along the consumers’ demand for products that can compare with imported ones.
So for anyone determined to find some top quality Chinese wine, what should
the look for?
The collector’s items [include]:
- The Summit and Emma’s Reserve produced by Emma Gao at Silver Heights winery in Yinchuan, Ningxia Province;
- Chairman’s Reserve and Deep Blue produced by Grace Vineyard in Taigu, Shanxi Province; and
- Jia Bei Lan produced by Helan Qing Xue winery in Yinchuan, Ningxia Province
[The last wine is] a Bordeaux [style] blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Gernischt. [The 2009 vintage] was judged the best Red Bordeaux Varietal with a value of over 10 British Pound Sterling at the 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards.
This wine is produced by the He Lan Qing Xue winery in Ningxia by the winemaker Li Demei who was educated in wine in Bordeaux and did an internship at Château Palmer, the famous Margaux wine estate.