China ferments its wine industry: Grape intentions rise in the East

shanghai_skylineSeveral years back, I attended an international wine event in New York and stumbled across a lonely expo crammed with Chinese wine. I’d never heard of China growing vines, assuming a country of 1 billion couldn’t make room for superfluous agriculture. But there I stared — all alone on my side of the table, mind you — at a gang of passionate pourers, eager to sell me on undiscovered Chinese wines. I remember concluding they weren’t very good, lacking in fruit and finesse. But I soldiered on, tasting traditional varietals like merlot and chardonnay, and thinking how deliciously ironic it is that European grapes landed in a country historically hell-bent on hating Western culture.

But that was then. All the while, the forward-thinking Chinese were planting seeds of wine culture that have sprouted.

With Beijing hosting this year’s Olympics, I’ve wondered if athletes can drink the wines being poured at the Games. Great Wall Wine, the Olympics’ official wine sponsor, produces 100 different Chinese wines ranging from sweet to dry, and is exported to 20 countries but not the U.S. Frankly, I’m not sure how we’d react. They almost killed Fido and Fifi with their pet food — would we trust them with our wine? Also, we barely touch wines from reliable regions like South Africa or Austria (much less North Carolina or New York) so I can’t imagine the funky characters on a Chinese label would draw us in as much as furry animals do.

But wine headlines flash now in the Panda capital, featuring their greatly improved product and the public’s growing infatuation. China recently became the sixth largest wine producing country in the world, and their domestic consumption jumped 50 percent in the first half of this decade. Marketers predict 70 percent more by 2010. Hong Kong and Shanghai heavies are snatching up wineries in France, cleaning out wine auctions around the globe (to the tune of $500k for six magnums of ’92 Screaming Eagle at the 2008 Napa Valley Auction), gleefully wallowing in their increased buying power. Need I mention China boasts 310,000 U.S. dollar millionaires at present? Cha-ching.

A minute pique of interest in a country of their size could change the face of global wine. Think small supply and huge demand, or consider the current fuel or steel crisis. Last week, on the eve of the Olympics, China’s Consul General, Gao Zhansheng, took a trip to Lodi Valley in California, learning about wine production and looking to create a trade agreement. Pat Patrick, president and CEO of the Lodi Chamber of Commerce, declared, “We’ve got the biggest wine-producing region, and they have the future’s biggest wine-drinking region. We need to get together.” Indeed. Let’s just hope that $10 zinfandel doesn’t rise to $50 in the meantime.

Meanwhile, the middle-class Chinese happily sip their lower-priced local juice. Professionals agree that with the vast and varying land and climates in China, grapes will find comfortable ground. The 500-plus wineries are just beginning to sort out which varieties grow best where, with Shandong winning thus far. But unexpected problems arise, like finding winery staff who “get it,” especially in Muslim regions where religion trumps alcohol. With all this in flux, much of this endeavor’s success will rely on heavy training, importing talent from established wine regions and perhaps even religious profiling. Stay tuned.

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