While I was in Shanghai for the China Wine Challenge last month, I was amazed to discover a shimmering array of bronze wine drinking vessels from over 2,000 years BC and older on display at the Shanghai Museum. I had never really thought of China as a wine culture before, but the evidence of my own eyes clearly showed that the Chinese, albeit at the highest social levels and most likely for ceremonial purposes, had indeed been drinking wine long before the first Anglo-Saxon downed his first goblet of Roman-inspired plonk.
Organised by Ronald Brown, a Tokyo wine merchant, the China Wine Challenge is a wine competition that took place in Shanghai for the first time last year. Brown had been running the Japan Wine Challenge since 1998, but while Japan is a mature, steady wine market, China is precisely the opposite. Its rapidly expanding middle classes are getting a real taste for wine, so it's not surprising that producers around the world see China as the new promised land.
Joining the Challenge as a judge this year, I discovered that the Chinese have yet to get their heads round the idea of value. Château Lafite or an expensive French cru classé is a safe bet because it's a known luxury brand. The cheap home-grown product is equally risk-free because there's little to lose. The battleground is the middle market, the sort of affordable wines of quality in the £6-£15 range that we take for granted in the UK but that the Chinese don't yet take home to drink with their dinner. The ability to relate price to value is the real China wine challenge.
In the wheeler-dealer bustle of Shanghai, another Chinese paradox is evident: an apparent free market within a Communist framework. Nine in 10 bottles of wine consumed by the Chinese are made at China's 600-odd wineries. Chinese wine is made in vast quantities and allowed to include foreign wine in the blend. While relatively cheap, most of it, with honourable exceptions such as Grace Winery, Helan Mountain and Silver Heights, is of mediocre quality.
A flat rate tax at 48 per cent doesn't help, and with land in the hands of the state, overseas investment in the Chinese wine industry is potentially hazardous. Nonetheless, the prize of a fast-growing market is encouraging the likes of Austria's Lenz Moser, Spain's Torres, the Swarovskis of Norton fame, Château Lafite, and Moët Hennessy, to suck it and see. No Chinese wine was awarded more than a bronze medal at last month's China Wine Challenge but bronzes, as the Shanghai Museum attests, are an encouraging sign for China's fast-growing industry.
The country's sheer size and its varied mix of consumers, ranging between conservative Beijing, sophisticated Shanghai and hubs such as Guangzhou, is mind-boggling. To a limited extent, China's thirst for wine knowledge is being met by the likes of the China Wine Challenge, by events held by importers, by wine education of sommeliers and the trade, and a limited wine press. According to Ron Brown, who started doing business with China in 1984: "My guess is that there are some three to five million Chinese drinking wine today. With growing confidence and the right opportunities, there's no reason why that shouldn't grow to 50 million within five to 10 years". If his crystal ball is accurate, China is indeed set to become the new promised land of wine.Reuse content