Chinese fine wine: 'Our time will come'
The phrase "Chinese fine wines" might seem like a contradiction in terms.
Fine wines being sold in China seems understandable -- as the Chinese population's affluence grows, so does their taste for luxuries like wine. Until recently, the good stuff has all been imported.
Fine Chinese wine was largely unthinkable until a mere decade ago, when Grace Vineyards (怡园酒庄), based in Shanxi Province, launched their first vintage.
Since then, Grace Vineyards' cup has been brimming with attention as practically the only fine wine producer using Chinese grapes. However now that the Chinese fine wine seed has been planted, will the industry grow?
The winemaker at the head of newcomer Silver Heights Vineyards (银色高地酒庄) in Ningxia Province, Emma Gao (高源), says that this already fruitful industry just needs a bit of refinement.
"For sure China will be a global player in fine wine production, our time will come soon," Gao confidently states.
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China produced 72 million cases of wine in 2009, an increase of 28 percent from 2008, according to a recent report by French wine exhibition organizers Vinexpo. But just because production is up, it doesn't mean Chinese wine can go head to head with Old World vineyards -- yet.
Gao is one the few Chinese graduates bearing an esteemed Diplome National d'Oenologue from Bordeaux, and has taken what she learned in western France and applied them to northwestern China.
"[My] French training is my bible," she says. "My intention is to make Bordeaux-style wines, in line with my training. The extreme climate conditions here in Ningxia will always make spicy wines, which I believe is the typical style of the Mount Helan area."
From concept to cup
My intention is to make Bordeaux-style wines, in line with my training. The extreme climate conditions here in Ningxia will always make spicy wines, which I believe is the typical style of the Mount Helan area.— Emma Gao, head winemaker of Silver Heights Vineyards
Gao may be offering a better glass of Chinese wine then consumers are used to (Silver Heights' The Summit 2007 was given 82 points by Lisa Perrotti-Brown on oenophile Robert Parker’s website), but will the Chinese wine industry at large drink it? It seems to be a slow process.
The managing director of Silver Heights' distributor Torres Wine China, Alberto Fernandez, laments the status quo of the wine industry in China.
"The Chinese farming industry is focused on quantity not quality yields, it’s an industrial business, not an agricultural lifestyle," he says.
"Chinese companies producing massive yields to keep up with ever-increasing demands and market competition for who can deliver first [thereby harvesting before grape maturity]," Fernandez adds.
But Gao believes that the Chinese consumer is developing a palate for wine, and the demand will be met with supply.
"Rising incomes have driven consumerism to be more apparent in the 1990s and 2000s," she says. "We see now an increased awareness of consumption as well as a better sense of value for money among Chinese consumers."
"We have had locals ordering 10 cases [of Silver Heights wine] in one order for private use because it's a very limited production and they don’t want to miss out," she adds.
A work in progress
Even though demand is rising, Gao has had her work cut out getting the wine in shape in a traditionally difficult region.
"It has taken 10 years for a real wine making industry in China to develop -- poor quality wines have resulted from vineyards being planted in the wrong area," she explains.
Chinese companies producing massive yields to keep up with ever-increasing demands and market competition for who can deliver first [thereby harvesting before grape maturity].— Alberto Fernandez, Torres Wine China
It's worth noting that Ningxia is reputed to have the poorest soil conditions for rice or other agricultural products, but as Gao explains, "grape vines are the most hardy of plants; able to adapt well to dry and stony soils, making it actually a good place for vineyards."
She appreciates the landscape, and that time is the one factor that cannot be instantly produced.
"One needs time and experience to fully understand the terroir here in China -- we need to have both French spirit and Chinese mentality, and special work is needed with the local farmers," says Gao.
But how does a small vendor spread the word that its product is toast-worthy?
"We are lucky to be with Torres China and their great portfolio," says Gao.
Fernandez couldn't agree more.
"Silver Heights is a passion project for us, we seek to challenge and delight our customers," he says. "As interest in China and Chinese wine grows [internationally] we want to be at the forefront, offering the best that there is. Silver Heights is small but will be great."
World-renowned wine critic and certified Master of Wine, Jancis Robinson, has also lent her nose to support Silver Heights.
"Silver Heights is another bright light to have emerged on the modern Chinese wine scene," noted Robinson in the The Financial Times.
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Gao spends a lot of time on the road, promoting her wine to the Chinese public and revels in the feedback that she gets.
"We do a lot of face-to-face promotion. Some of local wine lovers call us to share their tasting notes and emotions, and this is one of the best things in my life."
Wine, Gao says, is a core element of her soul.
"Wine is a romantic passion and an honest relationship that enhances my life and imagination. Drinking wine makes me remember my best memories. I drink wine for health too, but mostly for pleasure: to enjoy life."
With passion and expertise in bloom for Gao, and the backing to reach the world market, the table is set for all to see that China is not just about mass production but has the will and way to produce world-class fine wines.