The China Wine Syndrome

I’ve never tasted Chinese wine, but that’s going to change quite soon. I have two bottles, both hand-carried from China by my former student Brian West. One is a 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon from China’s oldest winery, Changyu (founded in 1892). The other is a 2003 Tasya’s Reserve Cabernet Franc from what many people say is China’s best winery, Grace Vineyard (or Shanxi Grace Vineyard to differentiate it from a Japanese winery with the same name — Shanxi is the region of China where Grace Vineyard is located).

I have heard a lot of stories about Chinese wine — about how bad it is, how prestige-seeking Shanghai yuppies mix expensive first growth Bordeaux with Coca Cola and of vast vineyards in China that threaten to flood world markets with cheap wine (as Chinese exports have flooded some other markets already). The prospect of drinking Chinese wine for the first time gave me an incentive to see what I could find out about the Chinese wine industry and market. Here is a brief account of what I have learned.

Wine has a long history in China, reaching back more than 2000 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 California, Argentina and Chile). 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 sources (grapes, both vitis and indigenous Asian 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. It is probably not surprising that Chinese who were brought up on these mixed-fruit wines might today mix dry grape wine with fruit juice or Coke to get a more familiar flavor.

China’s vineyards are indeed vast, totaling six percent of the world total. There are 453,000 hectares of vineyards in China, which is roughly equal to the U.S. (380,000 hectares) plus Germany (98,000 hectares) or just over the half the vineyard area of France, the world leader. But 80 percent of the grapes are grown as fruit for the table grape market. About 10 percent of the grapes are dried to make raisins. The remaining 10 percent are wine grapes. China’s wine production is relatively small — 730 million liters compared to 2,546 million liters for the U.S. and 898 million liters for Germany. China produces about as much wine as Moldova and Romania combined — a lot of wine, but still just 2.6 percent of the global total.

Comparative wine production statistics for China are a bit problematic because (1) much of the wine produced is not pure grape wine but may be mixed fruit wine and (2) the rules on what can be labeled Chinese wine are quite lax. Grape wine needs to be only 50% grape and Chinese wine needs to be only 50% from Chinese-produced juice, according to one report I found. This means that a great deal of the bad wine that tourist 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. Rules get bent and outright fraud is not uncommon, I understand.

China has about 450 wine producers, which is approximately the number here in Washington State. The industry is highly concentrated with four wineries accounting for 60 percent 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 Seagrams and Remy Martin have also been involved in joint ventures.

If the quality of the large scale wineries is disappointing, as many tourists report, the reason can be found in the supply chain. 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 tyically 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 no control over what these hundreds of thousands of micro-vineyards 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 than could destroy the crop. So small crops of flavorful fully ripe grapes — the winemaker’s dream — that’s not going to happen in a typical Chinese vineyard. One study I found suggested that the grapes sell for as little as $80 a ton.

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? The local agents often then resell the fruit to regional agents who sell again to the large winemakers. You can just imagine the condition of the fruit by the time it finally gets to the winemaking facility having passed through so many hands. This system is worse than the European cooperatives I have read about (and I didn’t think anything could be worse than that).

Wine is sold in all sorts of ways. The Changyu website offers to let me buy wine by the barrel, which is perhaps what I would do if I owned a restaurant or a village drinks shop where I could decant the wine into bottles, jugs, or any other available container. Economists who study the Chinese wine market are increasingly focusing on supermarkets as a growing distribution vector. Partly I think this is because grocery store sales of wine are increasing, but also I think because these economists are interested in the potential for foreign wine imports. I don’t think relatively expensive French or California wines have much chance of penetrating the traditional bulk distribution system where a lot of Chinese wine goes, so supermarkets are their best bet. Supermarkets may also eventually play an important role in educating Chinese consumers about wine in general and foreign wine in particular.

A small number of boutique winemakers have appeared, often financed by Hong Kong Chinese families and using international “flying winemaker” expertise. This is the basic story of my Grace Vineyard Cabernet Franc. Hong Kong businessman C.K. Chan invested USD 7 million to build a French-style Chateau. He hired Bordeaux winemaker Gerard Colin to supervise production full time. Output is now more than 40,000 cases. My bottle of reserve wine says that it is estate bottled from grapes grown on the estate and this may suggest why Grace Vineyard wines are often rated the best in China: control of the supply chain. If Grace controls the quality of the grapes then they can better control the quality of the wine. People say that Grace Vineyards is the best French wine made in China. I’m looking forward to trying it.

The bottom line is that the future of wine in China is difficult to predict. Surely wine consumption will grow as China gets richer and Chinese adopt more western consumption habits. Wine production will grow, too, and quality will rise as better technology is adopted. But it will be interesting to how quickly Chinese consumers accept dry western grape wines after their long experience with mixed fruit wines. And it will be interesting to see how quickly the quality of grapes can be raised.

It seems to me that the biggest barriers to quality wine are not in the stores or even in the habit of mixing red wine and Coke. The biggest problem remains the sorry state of rural Chinese agriculture — a good reminder that wine is fundamentally a product of the soil.

Note: Special thanks to Brian West for bringing wine back from China where he was teaching with a University of Montana law school program. Thanks as well to Judy Leissner, who runs Grace Vineyard, for her assistance in locating Grace Vineyard products. Click here to view an interview with Judy about running a family wine business in China.

Special Note (added 1/13/2008). Click here to read an interview with Judy Leissner on the a blog called The Grape Wall of China, which is a good resource on the changing Chinese wine industry. Thanks to Jim Boyce (a.k.a. Beijing Boyce) for this link.

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2 responses

  1. Thanks Michael for a good overview of the Chinese wine industry. I think you’ll enjoy the wine from Grace, just be sure to give it plenty of time to breathe! I don’t mean to sound like an advertisement, but when you have a chance take a look at the video on our site, http://www.chinawinetours.com. Click on “Gallery”. There’s a good look at Grace Vineyard in it.

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to share your post on our blog with a link back to you.

  2. Dear Marc
    Thanks for the tip on the Grace Vineyard wine. I will check out the video on your site. In the meantime, please feel free to link as you suggest.
    Mike

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