While grape varieties such as Dragon's Eye and Ju Feng Noir may be a mystery to British shoppers - and most experts - Chinese wine could soon be on the lips of drinkers across the world.
A leading forecaster has predicted China will make more wine than Australia by the middle of the decade, with annual production rising from 72million cases to 128million by 2014 - a leap of 77 per cent. Over the same period Australia, home to Jacob's Creek and Penfolds brands, will see a fall from 127million to 121million cases, according to the London-based International Wine and Spirits Research, which produced the figures for the Vinexpo fair.
The achievement would be extraordinary given that China did not even count among the top 10 wine makers in the world in 2006.
While its production is overwhelmingly drunk within the country and has a poor reputation among oenophiles, the country's vast landmass and varying topography and climate make it a potential viticultural superpower.
Three years ago Britain's oldest wine merchants Berry Bros predicted China would become the world's biggest wine producer by 2058, saying: "With the right soil, low labour costs and soaring domestic demand, China is set to take the world of wine by storm."
Increasing affluence within the People's Republic has stoked demand for home-grown production, while a new ultra-wealthy class has been bidding for the finest bottles. Hong Kong has become the world's third-largest auction centre after New York and London, and an auction of top-end French wine by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber at the weekend raised $5.6m, well above the estimate of $4.1m.
To cater for the growing number of domestic enthusiasts, the French publisher Marie Claire plans to launch a monthly Chinese-language edition of one of the world's top wine magazines, Revue du Vin de France, in the spring. Meanwhile Dynasty Fine Wines, one of the country's biggest producers which is part-owned by French liquor giant Remy Cointreau, is shopping for vineyards. "We have visited more than 20 wineries, and the ones in France and Australia are likely to be on our acquisition list," Bai Zhisheng, its chairman, told China Daily newspaper. "I want the best quality of the Old World vintages and the production scales of New World wines at the same time."
China has thousands of native grape species, such as Dragon's Eye, but foreign investors have introduced cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. The industry's development has not been without a hiccup: in December, a number of wineries were shut and six people were arrested for adding banned chemicals to wine in Hebei province, China's "Bordeaux".
Richard Ehrlich, wine editor of Good Housekeeping, said: "The home market is developing and the Chinese are developing a taste for wine. Among the rich Chinese in Hong Kong, there's a well-developed market. But for everyday drinking they seem to be supplying their own needs, which may be a good thing because if they started buying up all the Beaujolais with their vast market there wouldn't be any left for the rest of us – or the price would double."
Wine production was spreading across the world into states such as China, India and Thailand, he said: the question was whether they could produce good quality wine for the international market.
"China is so vast that it's inevitable that there are going to be some areas that are good for making good quality wines, but whether the potential is fully developed won't be apparent for 10 or 15 or 20 or even 50 years because it takes a long time for a country to discover what it's got," he said.
Grape wall of China
* Although China does not have an international reputation for producing wine, wine-making has a long tradition in the country. Archaeological digs have uncovered evidence the Chinese were making wine in 212 BC.
* Wine production in China is concentrated in the north, in Shanxi, Hebei and Shandong provinces in the north-east, in Xinjiang province in the north-west and Yunnan province in the south.
* There are around 400 wineries. The three big domestic producers are Great Wall, Dynasty and Changyu Winery.
* While most grape varieties are derived from wild species, foreign investors have planted many western red varietals. Of those, Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for 40 per cent and Merlot and Cabernet france for 10 per cent, according to the Oxford Companion to Wine.
* China's wine production stood at 960,000 tons in 2009, up 27 per cent on the previous year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.Reuse content