Maltese - Chinese Chamber of Commerce

China now has more space given over to vineyards than France. Will you soon be adding Chinese wine to your weekly shopping basket?

From Daily Telegraph.

China is now the country with the second largest amount of land given over to wine-growing and yet Chinese wine still feels like a new-fangled innovation. This is partly because we see very little of its annual 11 million hectolitre production here. It’s also because wine culture as we understand it is still so new in China you can almost smell the cellophane wrapping.

Archaeological evidence suggests grape wine might have been made and consumed in this vast Asian territory as long as 4,600 years ago, and grape wine was popular during the Tang dynasty (618-907). However, European grape varieties for making wine were not planted in China until the late nineteenth century and it is only within living memory that wine drinking culture has begun to be assimilated into society.

 

China’s wine-growing areas are both far-flung and diverse. Head deep into the continent, towards the Kazakhstan border in the north-west, and you reach Xinjiang province, home to the point on earth that is most distant (2,645km) from any ocean, as well as the bulk of China’s vineyards. In Ningxia, to the north and centre of the country, winters are icy, with temperatures dropping far below freezing so that the vines have to be buried in little piles of earth to keep them alive. They also make wine in Yunnan, towards Tibet, in the far south, as well as in the areas that surround Beijing which are blessed with a somewhat gentler, maritime climate.

With such variety of both climate and soil, generalisations ought to be impossible. But it remains the case that most Chinese wine is red. The colour obviously has deeply embedded resonances in the Chinese psyche. A fascination with Bordeaux has also been hugely influential: as a result there is an awful lot of cabernet sauvignon (and some merlot).

So what about taste? In terms of quality, regular visitors to China talk of a noticeable upturn in the last decade.

Four years ago a Chinese wine won a trophy for best Bordeaux-style blend at the Decanter wine awards, beating competition from Bordeaux itself to do so. The bottle of winning wine that I tasted didn’t live up to expectations – it tasted like a wine made in a country that hasn’t got the hang of making wine yet. It was also out of condition – a problem I’ve encountered often with Chinese wines and it’s not clear whether this is down to problems at the bottling line, or poor storage. Many taste badly baked, as if they have been exposed to heat and/or light.

Still, the event was nonetheless a line in the sand. The rate of improvement in the taste of Chinese wines is probably more telling than any general measure of quality.

Britain’s oldest wine merchant, Berry Bros & Rudd, bowed to the new power in wine when it gave Chinese bottles a permanent place in its St James’ shop two years ago. I was interested to taste the red, made by Chateau Changyu, China’s first modern winery, established in 1892, but to my surprise found that it was the sweet ice wines – made from grapes that are allowed to freeze on the vines - that were most impressive.

I re-tasted the two Chinese reds currently offered by Berry Bros & Rudd, both of them made with the assistance of Austrian winemaker Lenz Moser, today. The Ch Changyu Moser XV 2008 (£39) was not looking at all good, with astringent green notes and a smell of baked dead mouse. I’ve tasted this wine three or four times and this is definitely the worst it’s ever looked so possibly an out of condition bottle. But it’s not a wine that has ever made me jump for joy either. The Moser Family Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (£19.95) is much more promising. It reminds me of the sort of wine you used to find (and still do on occasion) in Chile or Argentina. There is a warmth and a plushness to the fruit. It is welcoming, yawning at you, like a wide open door in a warm climate. However, the oak is raw and strong and sits on top like a heavy overcoat. Because of its provenance, this is an interesting wine to try but it doesn’t taste as good as a £20 wine can so ticks the curiosity not the value box.

Bolt-on expertise courtesy of international winemakers, and money to spend on technology mean that China’s wines have been able to advance in remarkably rapid bounds. It’s the right terroir that is the pot of gold at the end of the wine rainbow. Without it, you can make decent wine but it will always be generic, just-another-wine, never special, always missing something. You have to be very lucky to alight on the right grape for the right place straight away. Or you have to have a lot of people in a lot of places toiling away very hard to identify it. No one would bet on China not to have a good go at finding it.