“All our children will drink top quality Chinese wines. China is the most dynamic wine market and its wines are gradualy gaining in prestige,” said Baudouin Havaux, Chairman of the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles (CMB), on announcing that China would host the next CMB. “A country once famous for tea-drinking, China may soon become one of the world’s largest global wine consumers. And what consumers in the world’s second-largest economy want, is premium quality wine“, he added.
For two consecutive years, in 2016 and 2017, China entered the highest number of samples in the EUR 35 – 50 price range in the Concours Mondial, outnumbering entries by Spain (22), France (14) and Italy (12). In 2017, Chinese entries topped the list in the EUR 50 to 70 price category, together with Spain, and were the undisputed leaders with 11 entries in the 70 EUR plus category. Nearly one quarter of all samples in the higher price categories entered in the Concours Mondial in 2017 were from China. And nearly one third of them were awarded a medal by the judging panel.
The county fared well in all wine categories. In 2017, it ranked 6th for the number of medals, following traditional wine producing countries like Spain, France, Italy, Portugal and Chile, and ahead of South Africa and Greece. The number of Grand Gold Medals awarded to Chinese wines increased 3 times from 2016 to 2017. Last year, for the first time, a Chinese wine was included in the prestigious CMB list of Revelations.
How did China manage to pull this feat off? And what are the latest developments in Chinese wine production?
PRODUCTION OF WINE IN CHINA
China is a major player in the wine industry, and is poised to play a prominent role in the global wine market. Though some sources claim that the first Chinese winery was set up in Eastern Shandong province in 1892, it was not until the mid-1980s that the wine industry in China took off.
Large-scale commercial production began in the province of Shandong
According to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV), China’s vineyard area continues to increase (+17,000 ha between 2015 and 2016), making it “the main growth area of vineyards worldwide”. With 847,000 ha of vineyards, China boasts the second largest area under vine in the world (with Spain at the top, France – third, and Italy – fourth).
This does not mean that China is the second-largest producer of wine. Italy, the world’s leading producer country in 2016 (with 48.8 mhl), made over four times as much wine as China (11.5 mhl). Chinese wine production, however, is virtually on a par with Australia (11.9 mhl) and South Africa (11.2 mhl) – slightly over eleven million hectolitres each.These numbers place China in the top ten wine producing countires in the world by volume.
Although Chinese wine production decreased for some years (from 13.8 mhl in 2012 to 11.1 in 2013 and in 2014), mirroring the global fall in output, it then started to increase again (11.5 mhl in 2015 and in 2016). Chinese wines still dominate the market with a 70% share, according to the China Association for Liquor and Spirits. Despite continuous growth for imported wines, the Association believes that the share of imported wine will not be able to exceed 40% over the next 5 years.
China lacks the climate of Chile, California’s Napa Valley and Bordeaux – where the summers are dry and winters mild – to facilitate the production of wine. South China, for instance, has wet summers and North China harsh winters. To tackle climate issues, some Chinese wine makers have to bury their vines. This is true in Ningxia, Shandong and Hebei, for instance, where vines are unearthed at the beginning of spring.
Another obstacle that Chinese wine production has to overcome is “collectivism”. Vineyards in China are grown on collectively owned land. Wineries have to deal with farmers who may or may not want to cooperate. They have to establish trusts and provide incentives.
MAIN WINE REGIONS
Some experts claim there are 11 wine regions in China whilst others point to just 6. Noteworthy areas are Shandong Province, Hebei Province, Beijing, Tianjin, Shanxi Province, Shaanxi Province, Ningxia, and Jilin Province.
The most awarded wines at CMB in 2017 were from Ningxia (34 medals) in the inner part of China – the “stellar” region – and Xinjiang (22 medals), the area with the largest wine grape production. In 2017, CMB’s international panel also distinguished wines from Hebei, “the homeland” of the first Chinese dry white wine and the first Chinese red dry wine, Beijing, where winemaking can be traced back a hundred years, and Shandong, the region with the highest sales of wine in both volume and value.
GRAPE VARIETALS IN CHINA
Chinese winemakers in the 19th century primarily used Cabernet-Sauvignon grapes. This varietal is still key today and is widely used. Over 60% of 2017 CMB medals for Chinese wines were awarded to Cabernet-Sauvignon varietals. Dry and often tannic Cabernet Sauvignon-based reds still corner the market.
China’s best wine producers are experimenting with different varietals. Some have found that Chardonnay is well suited to Chinese regions and climates. Others focus on the production of Shiraz.
While red wine has long dominated the market, white wine is expected to secure higher market shares in the future. Experts from Wine Intelligence predict strong growth for fruit-driven, lower tannin red wines, and good potential for aromatic white wines. The flavour of wine is becoming increasingly important, with “consumers looking for wines that are suited to the Chinese palate”. Softer, delicate wines are growing in popularity especially amongst China’s “white-collar” women in metropolitan areas for whom white wines are becoming “the order of the day.”
Chinese native grape variatals are also likely to play a role in the future of the Chinese wine industry, mainly because they offer greater resistance to disease and are, logically, better suited to the local climate and soils.
China has several unique varieties of grapes grown for wine production. These include several hybrid grapes that are crosses between Chinese and European or American grapes first brought to China by Western missionaries. Approximately 39 wild grape strains also grow in China, some of which have been bred in other countries. Names such as Longyan or Dragon’s Eye, Shuanghong, Beihong, Beimei, Beibinghong and Gongzhubai, may not yet be familiar to wine drinkers around the world, but they may rise to prominence in the future. The country also grows the Kyoho grape, primarily for food but also sometimes used to make wine in China, whilst the Hutai grape is used to make ice wine in Shaanxi Province.