In Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers) Mike Veseth writes about globalization and its effects on the wine industry, citing the popularity of cheap, branded products (Two Buck Chuck, most notably) and the subsequent backlash from “terroirists”--those who believe that a wine should reflect its local soil, culture and climate.
In these excerpts he takes a look at China's emerging wine business (its output recently surpassed Australia's) and samples a few glasses from two of its vintners, one the country's oldest in existence, the other a relative newcomer.
The China Syndrome
My first taste of Chinese wine was exactly what I expected and quite a shock at the same time. Odd combination of reactions, but sometimes you know what you are in for but just can't believe that it could be true.
It was a 1999 Changyu Cabernet Sauvignon that a colleague brought back from his semester abroad in Beijing. Changyu is China's oldest winery (and one of the biggest); it was a good example of a midmarket Chinese red wine. I knew what to expect because I'd found a video review of this wine on the Internet that described the wine as being all about ashtray and coffee-ground flavors with aromas of urinal crust. Hard to imagine that wine could taste this way (or that a critic would be so familiar with urinal smells). Until you taste it, that is. The description was right on the money. We passed the bottle around so that everyone could get a little taste. A taste of what? The future? I hope not!
A Berry Bros. & Rudd report on the future of wine thinks that China might one day make wines to rival Bordeaux. Based on the Changyu, I'd say they have a long way to go, but I wouldn't completely rule it out. Fifty years ago I don't think that anyone would have predicted that New Zealand would make great wines or that the U.S. would become a leading wine market.
All the Wine in China
Wine has a long history in China, reaching back more than 2,000 years to the first wine imported from Ferghana in what is now Uzbekistan. It wasn't until the 19th century, however, that more than a trickle of wine was produced or consumed. Western missionaries brought grapes and wine to China along with their Bibles as they did in so many other countries. The real roots of today's industry were planted in the late 1800s, however, when Changyu and other wineries were founded, mainly to produce wines for the foreign communities in the commercial centers.
The Communist government expanded wine production after the 1949 revolution. Wine was promoted as a form of alcohol made from abundant fruit (grapes, both vitas vinifera and indigenous varieties, and other fruits) in order to reduce use of precious food grains for alcohol production. Wine was meant to replace beer or grain spirits in the diet. Wine was typically made from a combination of grapes and other fruits. I understand that it is still sometimes necessary to specify grape wine in China, since generic wine may be made out of any number of fruits.
China's vineyards are indeed vast, totaling 6% of the world total. There are 453,000 hectares of vineyards in China, which is roughly equal to the U.S. total (380,000 hectares) plus Germany (98,000 hectares) or just over half the vineyard area of France. But 80% of the grapes are grown as fruit for the table grape market. About 10% of the grapes are dried to make raisins. The remaining 10% are wine grapes. China's wine production is relatively small but growing--730 million liters in 2005 compared with 2,546 million liters for the U.S. and 898 million liters for Germany.
Comparative wine production statistics for China are a bit problematic because much of the wine produced is not pure grape wine but may be mixed-fruit wine, and the rules on what can be labeled Chinese wine are quite, er, flexible. Grape wine needs to be only 50% grape wine (the rest can be made from other fruits), and Chinese wine needs to be only 50% from Chinese-produced juice. This means that a great deal of the bad wine that tourists report being served is not really grape wine and may be a blend of a little Chinese grape wine and a lot of imported bulk wine of undetermined origin.
China had about 450 wine producers at last count, which is fewer than in Washington State. The industry is highly concentrated, with four wineries accounting for 60% of domestic production and sales. The big four are Great Wall, Dragon Seal, Changyu and Huadong. Foreign partnerships are common, giving Chinese winemakers access to international technology and expertise. The French multinational Pernod Ricard helped create Dragon Seal in 1987, for example, and Seagram's and Remy Martin have also been involved in joint ventures.
Wine is only as good as the grapes that go into it, or so growers tell me, and the grape-supply situation in China is difficult. Most of the wine grapes are grown by families that lease about an acre of land from their local agricultural commune. That acre is typically divided into four or five small plots that are planted with different crops so as to minimize risk. One or perhaps two of the plots may be wine grapes in the vineyard regions. So vineyard scale is impossibly small--smaller even than in the South of France.
These small growers insist on calling the shots, which is natural since they are so dependent upon the success of their tiny farms. The wine producers have little or no control over what these thousands of microvineyards produce, how they are cropped and when the grapes are picked. Researchers suggest that the grapes are chosen and grown to maximize quantity, not quality, and that the grapes are picked as soon as possible to minimize risk of poor weather that could destroy the crop. So small crops of flavorful, fully ripe grapes--the winemaker's dream--this is not going to happen in a typical Chinese vineyard.
There is not much incentive for individual growers to sacrifice quantity for quality because their grapes are sold by weight to agents who lump together fruit from dozens or hundreds of individual growers. Good fruit would quickly get mixed with inferior fruit, so why pay more?
Lost in Translation
Recently a group of us tasted the hopeful future of Chinese fine wine, a bottle of 2003 Grace Vineyards Tasya's Reserve Cabernet Franc. Grace Vineyards is often cited as the most promising winemaker in China, and the contrast between this bottle and the Changyu was night and day. The attention to detail in the winemaking was evident, and the use of estate grapes (rather than the unreliable supply chain cited above) was apparent, too. The contrast between the two wines was stunning, mainly because the Changyu was so very bad, but that didn't stop me from finding out more about Grace Vineyards--I wanted to understand how they could make good wine in such unfavorable circumstances.
Here, briefly, is what I learned. Hong Kong businessman C.K. Chan invested $7 million to build a French-style chateau in Shanxi Province. Most people who see pictures of the winery are fascinated by the chateau building and the paradox of such an ornate structure in the middle of China. I'm more interested in the vineyards, which look just great. Grace also draws upon international connections. A Bordeaux flying winemaker got the project started, and an Australian makes the wine today. Torres, the Spanish giant, handles distribution within China.
Grace Vineyards is expanding its production to 40,000 cases and gets lots of attention from the international press. Just as Mondavi was the benchmark when French wine enthusiasts thought about California wine back in the 1970s, Grace is the Chinese standard today.
How does it taste? Our Grace Vineyards Cabernet Franc was a solid effort, we thought, but nothing special--a bit light compared with American wines of this type. Writing in The Wine Economist, I noted a distinctive “green” taste I associate with wine made from underripe Cab Franc grapes. A problem in the vineyard, I speculated. Maybe the climate's just too contrary to fully ripen these grapes.
A day later one of my readers lobbed in a counterargument. Maybe, he said, that green flavor is intentional. He had heard that this particular flavor is familiar to Chinese consumers and that some Chinese wineries harvest grapes a bit earlier in order to achieve it. It wasn't a flaw in the wine, he suggested, but a feature. Something that makes it Chinese wine, not a Chinese imitation of someone else's wine. It's the Chinese market terroir, if you will. Maybe the thinness that the critics note is another reflection of local taste?
A little research turned up more evidence that the judgments of Western critics might be unfair to Chinese wines. Jeannie Cho Lee, Korea's first Master of Wine, argues that Asian food and wine traditions prime consumers to think about wine differently and to appreciate different qualities in it.
Why the Chinese fascination with Bordeaux? It could be the tannins, Ms. Lee argues, which are appealing to wine drinkers from cultures with a tradition of consuming very tannic teas. Even the basic flavor reference points are different, she explains. Westerners think of Pinot Noir in terms of raspberries and strawberries, but the Asian descriptors would be yangmei (bayberries), dried wolfberries and dried bonito flakes! An Asian description of Sauvignon Blanc would start with pandan leaves and longan and move on to mangosteen--not a familiar flavor or aroma vocabulary for me. But I can relate a bit better to her description of Riesling: Thai white blossoms, lemongrass and green mangoes.
Wouldn't it be great if the most important qualities of Chinese wines--the ones that Westerners reject--turn out to have been lost in translation and that a true indigenous Chinese wine culture evolves, one that reflects China's history, cuisine and palate? I hope so, because it would support my theory of the future of wine. Suffering just now from the excesses of globalization and Two Buck Chuck, China needs to unlock its inner terroirist soul!
Published with permission of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (rowmanlittlefield.com). Mike Veseth is the Robert G. Albertson Professor of International Political Economy at the University of Puget Sound in Washington State and author of The Wine Economist blog.