China might seem an odd mention in a chapter on emerging wine regions, but China is worth noting for two main reasons: Chinese wine consumption is exploding on an unprecedented scale, and internationally recognized wine companies are beginning to invest millions to plant vineyards in areas only locals know about. These companies are banking that wine connoisseurs around the world will soon think of Napa and Penglai in the same thought.
No Stranger to Fermented Beverage
Archeologists have discovered texts dating back to approximately 1122 BC that state that the Chinese upper classes drank alcoholic beverages. Were any of these beverages made from actual grapes? Your guess is as good as mine. Almost two thousand years passed before scholars learned about Mare's Nipple.
In AD 694 Emperor Tai-Tsung received a grape variety from people living in what is now Turkey, which the Chinese called Mare's Nipple. This grape still has a home in China, and producers continue to ferment its juice. Most fermented beverages in ancient China, however, were made from rice and wheat.
By 1892 European white grape variety Welschriesling (not true Riesling) had found its way to China thanks to government officer Zhang Bishi, who also founded a winery called Chang Yu in Yantai, north of Shanghai.
One hundred years later, European companies such as Remy Martin and Pernod-Ricard had established brands in China. By the late 1990s wineries such as Grace Vineyards in Shanxi province, complete with a replica of a French chateau, had been established. Today China has no fewer than 500 wineries.
Perhaps the most internationally recognized Chinese wine today is Dragon Seal, which has won medals in France and England for its Chardonnays, Merlots, and Cabernet Sauvignons. The vineyards are located about ninety-five miles north of Beijing, and the winemaker, Jérôme Sabaté, is French!
Does China Have Any Napa Valleys?
Vineyards occupy approximately 1.1 million acres in China. Virtually all are located north of the Yangtze River, with the greatest concentration of wineries in the extreme northwest part of the country. The most significant wine regions here, which roughly lie on the same latitude as California, are Hebei, Shangdong, Henan and Tianjin. The major headache to winemakers in these regions is the threat of monsoons, which can quickly strip vines of grapes or rot any grapes left behind.
No wine region has yet achieved the glamour and prestige of California's Napa Valley, but a historic development in March 2009 bodes well for a peninsula 500 miles north of Shanghai called Penglai. The great Chateau Lafite agreed to develop approximately 60 acres of vines in an area already home to China's most prominent producers of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot.
Western wine companies are also taking an interest in China because of the population's increasing purchasing power. At the 2008 Napa Valley Wine Auction, Shanghai Internet entrepreneur David Li dropped $500,000 for six magnums of 1992 Screaming Eagle, one of California's most coveted Cabernet Sauvignons.
Wine Consumption in China
The Chinese are consuming wine at a rate that would cause any Western wine company to salivate. According to the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, mainland China and Hong Kong together drink 60 percent of all wine consumed in Asia. According to the International Wine and Spirit Record in London, the Chinese are expected to be drinking more than 1.1 billion bottles of wine a year by 2011, double the number in 2007.
As mainland producers refine their winemaking techniques and as Western producers hone their marketing outreach, the future of wine in China is nothing but bright.