The immense size and cultural idiosyncrasies of the Asian giant make it difficult to provide a precise, reliable and in-depth assessment of the state of winegrowing and winemaking in China.
What is an undeniable reality, however, is that the vertiginous rise of per-capita wine consumption is a metaphor for the country opening up to the west and a sign of its economic liberalization.
A quick look at the data reveals figures that clearly demonstrate China’s transformation with regard to its wine production model (Source: OIV):
- More than 13 million hectoliters
- Country with the world’s 2nd largest vineyard area (over 800,000 ha)
- World’s 6th largest wine producer since the beginning of the century
What is curious is that China, despite the astounding magnitude of these figures, has not yet found its place in the wine lover’s imagination and is seen exclusively as an importing country, which it is. This, however, might change very soon, given the constant evolution of wine culture, largely due to the investment and experience of the most prestigious European wineries.
The evolution of wine consumption
Cultural idiosyncrasies and economic liberalization shape certain consumption patterns, which coincide with cultural factors shared by countries that have recently opened up to the world. Otherwise it would be impossible to explain why, despite the aforementioned figures, locally produced red wines make up 75% of consumption.
According to data obtained by an ICEX study in 2016, China is the world’s fifth biggest wine consumer although per-capita consumption is nowhere near European levels at this point.
It is paradoxical that a country with such vast areas under vine would be the leading importer of the wine world. One explanation could be the enormous wealth inequality in China and how the new middle class, which drives consumption, perceives European wine as a status symbol.
The disproportionate demand for Bordeaux wines at the end of the last century saw Chinese companies making huge investments in the region. This led to an inflation that affected wine prices around the world.
This is why Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère dominated vineyard plantings by the early 21st century, but the resulting wines lacked maturity and were excessively oaky. It wasn’t until 2010 that the first wines of notable quality arrived on the scene.
Even though interest and enthusiasm for wine is gradually spreading from the main cities to the interior and across China, winegrowing is conditioned by the country’s vast geography and its challenging and extreme climate. Let’s take a closer look.
The geography of wine in China
China’s enormous size offers up an astounding number of different soil types and latitudes. The hopes of Chinese viticulture, however, are pinned on three regions that represent its past, present and future in the wine world.
The climate poses a significant challenge: the country’s interior experiences severe continental conditions, with freezing cold winters being the biggest hurdle. Along the coast, especially in central and southern China, regular monsoons eliminate any chance at a harvest. So, what is left?
Shandong: the past and present of Chinese wine
The Shandong peninsula on China’s eastern coast has been seen as the most suitable region for cultivating European varieties since the late 19th century. Sheltered by a maritime climate, the vines do not require frost protection in the winter and grow on well-drained, south-facing slopes.
Shandong was home to the first wineries and vineyards of the modern era, and one-fourth of all Chinese wineries produce here today. Changyu was the region’s first winemaker and remains one of its most recognized.
Ningxia: a promising future
The hillsides between the Helan Mountains and the Yellow River, in northern Ningxia, are home to vineyards that are leaving their mark on quality wine production.
So much so that regional authorities are actively seeking out investments by foreign and Chinese wineries in Ningxia with the goal of making the region the face of China’s new prestigious wines.
The wine world was taken by surprise when, in 2011, a Jiabeilan 2009 from Ningxia took home an important trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards.
Hunan: wines from the roof of the world
Hunan province, in the deep south near Tibet, represents what one could call the wine world’s new frontier.
Here vineyards grow at over 3,000 meters, and the Shangri-la winery produces a first-class Cabernet, the legacy of Australian skill and experience.
The wineries in these isolated regions face a problem, namely the enormous distances that separate the vineyards from populated areas. As a result, finding people to work in the vineyards and bring in the harvest is not easy.
Openness to the outside world and economic liberalization are shaking up China, which in turn is speeding up the difficult process of regulating the country’s wine sector.
The government and foreign investors might be taking home the biggest slice of the pie, but a growing number of new independent winemakers are trying to make their way in remote corners of the country, willing to give it their all, and who will, sooner or later, reap their reward: superb wines with local character. And we will be here to see it.