China's new red army: The country's wine is starting to pique the interest of Western drinkers

The Chinese have been making wine for centuries - but how do their labels measure up?

Chinese wines do not exactly spring to mind when you consider top non-mainstream wines, but how about a spicy, aromatic and juicy red from the edge of the Gobi desert, in the west of China?

Waitrose has just started carrying Cabernet Gernischt, from Changyu, one of China's oldest wineries, and these days the hills of Shandong, Shanxi and Ningxia are home to vineyards growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Chardonnay grapes.

"We tried many different options from various countries but felt the Changyu Cabernet Gernischt was a strong proposition due to the style and quality of the wine," says Katie Mollet, Waitrose's buyer for Chinese wine, adding: "We feel it is important to champion wine-producing countries which are outside the mainstream."

China is now the world's fifth biggest wine producer, producing more wine than Chile, and has more land under vines. In the old days, vines were for producing grape juice in China and dodgy local tipples ruled. There is still a lot of poor wine out there, but hard work over the last few years is paying off.

In Beijing last year, Chinese reds, mostly Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvignon-based blends, took the top four places in a China versus Bordeaux blind-tasting competition.

China has quite a heritage in wine – archaeological digs have uncovered evidence that the Chinese were making wine in 212 BC. Among the country's top wines are the 2009 Chairman's Reserve from the Grace Vineyards in Ningxia province, Silver Heights' The Summit, also from Ningxia, a small, sparsely populated region in north-central China. In September last year, He Lan Qing Xue's 2009 Cabernet blend, again from Ningxia, won at the Decanter World Wine Awards.

Changyu was set up by Jesuits in Yantai, Shandong province, more than 100 years ago and is now state-owned. It has a French-style chateau, the Chateau Changyu-Castel.

Tan Shaoyun, head of Changyu's export division, is delighted by the Waitrose decision to sell its wine, as Britain is the most competitive wine market in Europe. "It is a breakthrough for Changyu's image and recognition to gain a listing with this highly reputable customer," she says. "Changyu is on a mission to bring its best wines to Europe and the world. The wine has character and is different from all other world red wines – it is unique."

The Chinese market looks set to develop like Australia did in decades before. Tan says: "Look where they are now. China with its massive domestic market will overshadow all the new world wine countries and establish itself as a leader of the global wine industry. If you extrapolate the growth of Chinese consumption in the next seven years, China will be the biggest consumer of wine in the world and also be a force on export."

The Cabernet Gernischt is grown under organic conditions in Ningxia, an ideal microclimate at 1,100 metres. "And it reflects the true Chinese spirit, with its focus on aromatics and spices. It is truly easy to drink," says Tan.

Gabriel Savage, deputy editor of the Drinks Business online magazine, says that for all the excitement about Western wines being sold in the East, the Waitrose listing shows China is also sending increasing quantities of its own products to the West. "It will be interesting to watch the rise of Chinese wine and spirits products flowing West and the implications of this for Europe and America's producers as they potentially face some serious competition."

Christian Pillsbury is managing director of Applied Wine, a Hong Kong start-up that manages complete wine programmes for restaurants in Hong Kong and China. He believes that Waitrose creating a category for Chinese wines in Britain will prove key to creating the possibility that Chinese wines are more than a novelty.

Just like selling Californian wine in the early 1960s, or selling wine under a screwcap in the 1990s, Chinese wine has to become a possibility before it can find enduring success in export markets.

Pillsbury's favourite Chinese wine is Grace Vineyard's Chairman's Reserve, while Grace's Merlot-based Deep Blue has the novelty and quality needed to convince sommeliers to present the wine with confidence.

"Grace Vineyard's higher level wines are well made and improving with every vintage," says Pillsbury, a 15-year veteran of the global wine industry and a former sommelier and retailer.

Initially, Chinese wine looks like following the path that Chile took, producing large volumes of inexpensive wines to introduce consumers to an unfamiliar appellation, followed by moving up the value chain to mid-priced varietals that are represented by larger, consumer-friendly brands.

"Ultimately, China's main market is, and will be, China. Consumption levels are rising incredibly quickly, and there is no export necessity. For example, Grace Vineyard could sell two bottles for every one they produce, due to raw demand. Whereas Chile needs to export for lack of enough domestic demand, China needs to import," says Pillsbury.

"I think that China will certainly become a global competitor with modest cost of production and growing quality. The challenge will be China's emerging water crisis, and consumer confidence in the integrity of Chinese agricultural produce," he adds.

Waitrose went for the Cabernet Gernischt after tasting a number of wines. "We thought the Changyu Cabernet Gernischt 2011 was a particularly interesting wine with good fruit concentration," Mollet says.

Whether China becomes a bigger player in the UK depends on customers' reactions to Chinese wine, how much the Chinese are prepared to invest in markets overseas and how flexible they can be in changing the style of their wines to suit the needs of export markets.

"The challenge," says Mollet, "will be routes to market for Chinese wine in the EU, unlike Chilean wine, which already has an established supply chain and considerable demand for their wines from UK consumers. Chinese wine producers would also have to work closely with UK retailers or importers to ensure that the style of their wines will work for our consumers. Neither of these things will change overnight but further into the future, who knows?"

UNEXPECTED TREATS: WINES TO TRY

China

Château Reifeng-Auzias,

Cabernet, Shandong,China 2010

Lovely fruit intensity to an attractive Cabernet Franc character. Violet-scented blue and black fruits lingering over a vibrant palate with supple freshness, herbal notes and a spicy finish. Wonderfully ripe and elegant. Not yet available here.

Uruguay

Bouza, Albariño, Montevideo 2010

Lovely purity. Tangy green apples under aromatic notes of intense peach, mandarin, rose petals and seashell minerality.

£14.35; Enotria Winecellars, London (enotria.co.uk)

Brazil

Seival Estate, Alisios, Pinot Grigio-Riesling, Campanha 2011

Lovely fresh lime citrus nose, elegantly floral, lively and crisp, with green apples and tropical fruit.

£7.99; Bibendum, London NW1 (bibendum-wine.co.uk)

Lebanon

Château Ka, Source Blanche, Bekaa Valley 2011

Fresh flowers and stone fruit, fragrant, very appealing nose. Tropical fruit, straightforward, rounded palate with crisp acidity. Long and structured.

£10.99; Alliance Wine, Ayrshire (alliancewine.co.uk), Waitrose Wine Direct (waitrosewine.com)

Armenia

Zorah, Karasi 2010

Earthy, smoky nose over cranberries, cassis and minerals.

£22.90; Liberty Wines, London SW8 (libertywine.co.uk)

Chosen by John Abbot, editor of Decanter.com

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