GRAPEVINE

"WHEN I first went to Peking to sell our wines in 1989, you had to watch out not to get run over by a bicycle. Now the city has traffic jams to rival Paris or London." Jean-Pierre Grange is assistant manager of the huge, high-tech Plaimont wine co-operative in the rolling hills of Gascony. Last year, he supervised the planting of a 12-acre vineyard in China. "The ultimate aim," he says, "is to sell our own Plaimont wines in China. This vineyard puts us on the inside; it's meant to be a sort of shop window to make people familiar with our wines."

The project is a joint venture with the local government of Miyun, 80km north-east of Peking. "We chose Miyun," Grange says, "because it has the potential to be a fantastic tourist spot. It has everything: a section of the Great Wall, the tombs of the Ming Dynasty, China's largest artificial lake, and a backdrop of beautiful mountains, all connected by a four-lane super-highway to Peking."

It had human advantages, too. In contrast to other places in the running, the Plaimont prospectors struck up an immediate understanding with the people at Miyun so "discussions could go faster". All things are relative. "Notions of time and contract are different in China. We sometimes couldn't understand why what seemed to us a little problem blocked discussion for ages, and then suddenly would be resolved for no reason. The people are astute and friendly, they like to receive people and go out for meals, and to drink a lot of spirits. In the vineyard, we are dealing with small farmers, many of them used to growing table grapes. They understand very quickly what we want, though that doesn't always mean they do it - they can be quite stubborn, too!"

Climate-wise, north-east China is not ideal for Western wine grapes. Peking has hot, damp summers and bitterly cold, dry winters. Local vines (the names translate as "Dragon's Eye", "Cow's Teat", "White Feather" and "Cock's Heart") tend to be very frost-tolerant, but imported European vines are not. Like the less hardy of the Chinese vines, the Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon vines the French have planted have to be untied from their wires before the winter and completely buried, by hand, under the soil for protection from the frost.

The Plaimont co-op is tiptoeing in the footsteps of a few rather larger compatriots. Remy Martin was the pioneer in 1978. Its aims were exactly the same as Plaimont's. Cognac is the big celebratory tipple of those Chinese who can afford it, and the wine venture would help to sell Remy Cognac. Remy Martin now sell 13 million bottles a year of their Dynasty brand within China - half the Western-style wine drunk by the Chinese. Then there's the huge Pernod-Ricard company, with their big Dragon Seal wine brand. And a large Bordeaux merchant, William Pitters, has just geared up to make three million bottles a year of a wine called Asia.

It's not just the French who are entering the Chinese market. The international company Seagram (who own Martell Cognac) have their Summer Palace brand. And Allied Lyons help to make nearly two million bottles of Chardonnay and Riesling at the Huadong winery, 300 miles south of Peking. Allied have brought in Australian experts - there had to be some Aussies somewhere - and have trained Chinese wine makers at an Australian university. Their wine, they say, is more upmarket, and more expensive than the rest, which are unimpressive and mostly medium-dry Liebfraumilch style (appropriately for China's often sweetish cuisine).

But do the Chinese want Western-style wine? China has more than 400,000 acres of vineyard, nearly double the area of Bordeaux. Only a third of the grapes grown are turned into wines, mainly cheap plonk for mixing with alcohol and water at table. Beer is China's biggest alcoholic drink by far, followed by rice wine, vermouth-like herbal wine, local white spirits or, for the more affluent, Cognac.

It is in the cities, among the more affluent and sophisticated young - particularly women and southerners - that the Western-style wines of the joint ventures are becoming a fashionable alternative to beer. Real foreign wines are beyond the reach of all but the richest: import duty more than doubles their price, and though smuggling via Hong Kong is rife, most Chinese would still rather buy a bottle of Cognac to celebrate New Year than an expensive imported wine.

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