Elite European producers push for fine wines in China

Wine-loving China, the world's fifth-biggest consumer, is not known for making top-quality wine but its potential is drawing elite vintners like Spain's Torres and France's Lafite.

"We are looking to make the best wine possible, but not necessarily the best wine in the world," said Gerard Colin, managing director of Lafite's wine estate in China.

Colin spoke on a hilltop on the Penglai peninsula in eastern China's Shandong province as a bulldozer flattened ochre earth into neatly terraced vineyard plots.

Nearby, peasant farmers cleared stones from a future vineyard, masons sculpted the hillside with dry-stone retaining walls and created catchments for natural springs in case of drought.

Orchards, peanut bushes and vineyards stretch across the surrounding valleys. A 560-hectare (1,384 acre) no-build zone surrounds the 25-hectare estate.

According to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV), China is not only wine-thirsty but is now the world's sixth biggest wine producer, edging out Australia.

Driving his beat-up four-wheel-drive along a perilously rutted road, Colin nods a greeting to the village shaman resting in a field and pulls up next to the site of the future four-storey, gravity-led winery.

"It's not a huge project, but it's a long-term sustainable project, and truly the creation of a terroir and a cru, and we're taking the time necessary," said Colin.

For now, the location of the ideal Chinese terroir - that combination of soil, climate and human expertise that creates the legendary wines of places like Bordeaux and Burgundy - remains a mystery, and the obstacles to finding it are great.

"Chile is the El Dorado for easy winemaking," Denis Dubourdieu, professor, researcher and winemaker, told AFP in Bordeaux. "China is not that."

"The north is too cold, the south too hot, and monsoons during July and August threaten to yield unripe or rotten crops.

"These are complications," said Dubourdieu. "They are not insurmountable, but the best zones for viticulture in China are not obvious."

Quality-control problems also are an issue.

"The big five wineries occupy 90 percent of the market and drive it by quantity rather than quality," said Alberto Fernandez, the Shanghai-based managing partner of Torres China, one of the three largest distributors operating in China.

"The domestic fine wine side is less than one percent of the total wine produced."

At the moment, the best hope for quality wine in China comes from a handful of family-owned vineyards, two of which collaborate with Torres China, Grace Vineyards and Silver Heights.

But the vast majority of Chinese domestic production appears to be following the Australian model of industrialised production of brand wines.

Brand wines succeed with a combination of savvy marketing, easily deciphered labels and consistent quality.

Chinese brand wines, however, are notoriously inconsistent in quality, and some producers pay little heed to Western notions of truth in labelling.

From one year to the next, domestic Chinese wine with the same label is a varying blend of wine produced in the local region, wine shipped in from other Chinese regions, low-grade imported bulk wine, and any available vintage.

None of this appears to diminish China's enthusiasm for wine.

In 2009, China drank 1.2 billion bottles of wine, and only 8.5 percent of that was imported bottled wine, according to Torres China. The surface area of domestic vineyards increased by 6.1 percent from 2006 to 2009, and grape production increased by 10.7 percent, according to the OIV.

"We know China is growing very fast and producing a lot of wine even if the quality is so-so," said internationally renowned winemaker Michel Rolland.

"But I think every country in the world, if we go back a long time, made so-so wine at one time.

"China is just beginning and the Chinese are not stupid. They will be able to produce very good wine in the near future."

But it won't happen overnight.

Christophe Salin, the Lafite group's managing director, told AFP that they have spent 15 years looking for the right opportunity in China, five years studying the chosen site, and do not expect to release any wine before 2015.

Until then, no one knows if they've invested in the right spot.

Despite the risks, the undiscovered potential of China's terroirs lures the West.

"If I find a very exclusive project where somebody is really focusing on the search for where we can go in terms of quality in China, I would like to do that," said Rolland.

"I don't want to make a huge project with a large number of tanks where we taste like crazy for two days to make the blend. I have done that my whole life and I don't need that anymore. But if I can find that exclusive project, maybe I'm going to China."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own