Which Chinese Wines Will We Be Drinking in 10 Years?

October 2015
by Roger C. Bohmrich

The timely piece that Dong Li wrote for the July 2015 issue of Wines & Vines asked a question that could be of significant commercial relevance for California vintners: Which wines will China be drinking in 10 years?

While China may not have a wine culture we westerners recognize, how many Americans are aware that this Asian powerhouse is already the globe’s largest market for red wines and second only to Spain in vineyard surface area with nearly 2 million acres?

China seems very familiar to U.S. consumers, but that is largely because “Product of China” appears on innumerable items. In truth, we outsiders—especially in the West—are woefully ignorant of this ancient land. This is understandable given the historical isolation of the Middle Kingdom, and considering the political barriers that have made access quite difficult. By some calculations, China is already—or soon will be—the largest economy in the world. We depend upon China’s manufacturing prowess for cell phones, refrigerators, computers, air conditioners and so much else. Now consider a possibility that seems far-fetched at the moment: In 10 years, wine drinkers in the United States just might be consuming Chinese wines as well.

Reports written just a few years ago by credible journalists were generally critical of Chinese wines, but they could not have anticipated the progress that would be made in a blink of the eye—and this progress is far from over.

This year, I am presenting a groundbreaking seminar called “Chinese Wine Today” to the Society of Wine Educators in partnership with Wine in China, a media entity based in Beijing. I served as a judge for two competitions connected with the 2014 Beijing Wine Expo, and I also had the opportunity to tour China’s wine-producing regions.

Change is coming so fast to China that what we say today was not true 10 years ago, and it will not tell the story 10 years from now. It is only a small exaggeration to claim that Chinese fine wine exists despite rather than because of natural conditions. Then again, China is years away from discovering all of its most promising terroir. Most of the current wine districts see variants of a continental monsoon climate, with widely varying extremes from sub-tropical to near-desert conditions, and very hot and wet to extremely dry and cold. A California winemaker would be flabbergasted to learn that, in China’s fast-expanding northern vineyards (including Ningxia, the front-runner in the fine wine sweepstakes) vines have to be buried for the winter to withstand normal lows of 6° F and, in some years, even colder temperatures. One out of 10 vines die, and the overall cost of vineyard maintenance is substantially increased. Along the east coast in Shandong, where there are significant plantings, the wettest and hottest periods coincide (unlike Napa or Bordeaux), making fungal diseases a real threat.

Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the consciousness of Chinese winemakers, owing to the potent allure of Bordeaux and the early influence of French companies that were prescient in seeing China’s potential. The list of French firms to have set up wineries is long: Pernod Ricard, Moët Hennessy, Rémy Martin, Castel and Domaines Barons de Rothschild, to name just a few. Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in nearly all regions except the truly frigid far northeast. Merlot and Cabernet Franc are frequently present, as is Chardonnay. Various other Vitis vinifera varieties figure in current plantings. Carmenère is found under the name of Cabernet Gernischt. Some have said its usefulness is limited by its herbaceous streak, yet a 2012 Xixia King won one of the few gold medals from our panel of six Masters of Wine, proving it is far too early to make pronouncements about Chinese wines.

Would U.S. consumers embrace yet more Cabernet, this time from China? First, the Chinese themselves need to decide that developing exports is a priority rather than focusing solely on a burgeoning domestic market. There would have to be a concerted effort to find importers and cultivate U.S. journalists. It seems almost inevitable that elite brands will eventually want a presence in key foreign markets, particularly since so many trading channels already exist for Chinese products.

The way China is garnering medals at U.K. wine competitions is a bellwether for future export trends. Are Chinese Cabs and Meritage-style blends destined for U.S. collectors in a decade? It would be wise not to scoff at the idea. Think as well of the potential of hundreds of wine-friendly Chinese restaurants across the United States.

Other varieties could join Cabernet among the successes of the future. Marselan, a cross of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, is a dark horse that could entice American drinkers with bountiful fruit qualities not unlike Argentine Malbec. All we can say right now about Chinese wine is expect the unexpected.

Roger C. Bohmrich MW has enjoyed a long career in the wine trade, and he is currently an educator, speaker and consultant. Most recently, he set up and managed a retail entity affiliated with a Bordeaux-based merchant. Previously, he was a senior executive of a well-known importer. Bohmrich is one of the first Americans to become a Master of Wine.

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