The BRICs: Two Faces of Chinese Wine

This is the fifth in a series of articles on wine in the BRICs Brazil, Russia, India and China. Today I discuss the cultural contradictions of wine in China. Coming soon: wine in the New BRICs.

Wine, Fake Wine and Chinese Wine

China’s rise in the the world of wine is having many surprising effects. One of the most unexpected is this: apparently the most valuable bottle is my tiny cellar is an empty one — this jeroboam (double magnum) of 1994 Chateau Pêtrus. It is a souvenir of a particularly decadent party thrown by friends to celebrate their son’s graduation from college. Somehow I ended up with custody of the empty bottle.

Bottles like this are in high demand in China, according to recent news reports. Chinese entrepreneurs will reportedly pay up to £300 for an empty trophy wine bottle (especially Lafite), to be refilled with a lesser vintage wine and sold to gullible consumers or collectors. Provenance is important and condition matters:

“The bottles need to be in the best condition possible,” said another dealer, called Mr Ye, at a Shanghai company. “It is very important. And I only want genuine bottles, no fakes,” he added.

No fakes! I love it.

This sort of wine fraud is noteworthy just now because of all the attention that is focused on wine in China, but it there’s really nothing exceptional about this kind of scam. The story of The Billionaire’s Vinegar and its after-shocks suggest that fake wines are as common as fake Dalí prints — more common, actually, if you take Gallo’s embarrassing accidental purchase of bogus Pinot Noir into consideration.


But the story gets worse. A few weeks ago Chinese authorities raided 30 wineries in the Hebei region near Beijing (sometimes called “China’s Bordeaux)) for making chemical-laced fake wines.

CCTV’s footage showed a local sales manager admitting that some wines made in the coastal city of Qinhuangdao contained only 20 percent of fermented grape juice, with the rest being composed of sugar water mixed with chemicals, including coloring agents and flavorings.

Huang Weidong, a leading expert on the wine industry from the China Alcoholic Drinks Industry Association, said that the additives could cause headaches and irregularities in the rhythm of the heart, as well as cancer.

Solving the Puzzle

I’ve written about wine in China more than any of the other BRIC nations (follow the links in the next few paragraphs to read the posts), but fraud has only come up once before, in my report on Canadian Ice Wine.  China is a major market for this glorious elixir and some reports suggest that as much as a third of the stuff sold in China is bogus.

My reports on wine in China have been quite varied, covering a number of different topics. For example, China is on the verge of becoming a dominant force in global auction market for wine. I noted the change when Hong Kong dropped their punitive tariffs in an attempt to attract the auction houses and again in my report on last year’s Bordeaux en primeur circus.

In terms of the domestic market, I examined the factors that seem to be holding Chinese wine back in terms of quality and found that the biggest problems are in the vineyards, where China’s fragmented agriculture presents a roadblock. The best wines, like Grace Vineyards, come from wineries that have found ways to solve this puzzle.

Everyone wants to break into the Chinese market, including the Australiansespecially given their current problems — the Portuguese and some of my American friends, but the French have a (perhaps unfair) advantage.  The image of the great first growths casts a long shadow at present, although I expect that Chinese wine consumers will get smart soon. They are so savvy in everything else that I think they will develop a more sophisticated idea of wine pretty fast.

I note, for what it is worth, that President Obama made a point to serve some really excellent American wines to Chinese President Hu at the recent White House state dinner in his honor.  The Quilceda Creek Cab can compete with fine French wines and I’ll bet the Poet’s Leap dessert wine was a hit, too.

The Two Faces of Chinese Wine

So what do I think about Chinese wine today? Well, I am still concerned about the quality of the grapes themselves and the  supply chain that delivers them to the wineries, which I believe are the biggest roadblocks to development, not the fraud that is the focus today. But, that aside, I find myself surprisingly optimistic.

China gets a whole chapter my forthcoming book on the Wine Wars (you can now pre-order it on Amazon.com!). It starts with my first rather revolting taste of Chinese wine and ends, many pages later, with another tasting, this time of one of China’s most notable wines.  Here’s an excerpt from the final draft:

Our Grace Vineyards Cabernet Franc was a solid effort, we thought, but nothing special– a bit light compared American wines of this type. Writing in The Wine Economist, I noted a distinctive “green” taste I associate with wine made from under-ripe 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.[i] 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?

That got me to thinking. Maybe we were judging Chinese wines by the wrong standards. What matters most? How I feel about the wines (and how they compare to international standards) or how the Chinese consumers look at them? Interesting question.  So I hit the books.

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.[ii] Why don’t Chinese wine drinkers appreciate that a crisp Pinot Gris pairs nicely with their cuisine? Well, Ms. Lee explains, many Asian cultures do not consume beverages (apart from savory soups) with their meals – they drink them before and after. White wines are generally chilled, of course, and most Asia drinks are warm or room temperature. And the sweetness of a Pinot Gris can seem unrefined to palates that are used to more complex sweet-sour flavor profiles.

Why such a 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, for example, 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.

Hmmm. So maybe it’s time to rethink Chinese wine.

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 evolved, 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!


[i] Thanks to Bob Calvert for this insight.

[ii] Jeannie Cho Lee, “Language of Taste,” Decanter (July 2009), pp. 78-79.

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5 responses

  1. The Chinese are brand and lable snobs. That is
    principally why they have a preoccupation with
    Bordeaux labels. Why would anyone buy an empty
    wine bottle unless they wanted the wine lable?
    Most of the “collectors” would not know a Bordeaux from a Rhone. I discussed this matter with Jeannie when I met with her some 3 months ago in Hong Kong.

  2. My wife is going to hate you for this. She has been “lobbying” me for several years to toss out that other empty jeraboam.

  3. Consumer protection is very lax in China. In 2008, 200,000 children were poisoned by milk tainted with melamine. Think what might (or might not, for that matter) be in fake wine, which continues to be a serious and ever-growing problem.

    A bottle claimed as the only known existing Impériale of Cheval Blanc 1947 was offered in Geneva on 16 November at an estimate of CHF150,000-250,000. But its price shot upwards like Lake Geneva’s Jet d’Eau and it sold for CHF298,500 (including premium).

    The Cheval Blanc Impériale and other wines apparently came from a private cellar and had been “reconditioned at the chateau in 2010 (with) new capsules, new labels and new original wooden cases from the château.”

    With reconditioned wines, one is reminded of Pope’s line, “Once a flock bed, but repaired with straw”. The record price shows that collectors are happy to pay a premium for well-stored wine, even if it has undergone palingenesis with a new cork and (probably) some younger wine added to it. But there are many neophyte collectors in Asia and elsewhere these days, who have little experience of what an old wine should look, smell and taste like. To drink reconditioned wine is, as T.S. Eliot put it, to have the experience but miss the meaning.

    Conditions are ripe for fraud. Wine producers’ outrage at fake wine is like Claude Rains’s shock at learning that there was gambling at Rick’s place in Casablanca. And yet they continue to accept wines to be reconditioned.

  4. Conditions are ripe for fraud. Wine producers’ outrage at fake wine is like Claude Rains’s shock at learning that there was gambling at Rick’s place in Casablanca. And yet they continue to accept wines to be reconditioned.

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