China puts its name on the world wine map

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The vines are weighed down with grapes and the local wines are sweetish but surprisingly tasty, and the dry desert soil around Turpan produces serviceable cabernet sauvignon and riesling grapes.

Tea, beer, rice wine and grain alcohol may have been the traditional tipples of choice in China, but grapes to make wine have been grown along this part of the Northern Silk Road for more than 2,000 years, and are making a comeback.

Domestic wineries are gearing up to put China's name on the map of wine culture, helped by experts from home and abroad. So get ready for a chardonnay from Huadong, a cabernet from Changyu or a dragon's seal from Beijing. Or how about a smooth cabernet sauvignon from Xinjiang?

Only a decade ago, China had some 240 wineries, but more than 100 new vineyards have been set up since then. Most of them are small or medium-sized, and they are trying to produce ever better wines to appeal to increasingly discerning tastes in China and abroad.

The region is famous for its fruit, and the government reintroduced vines in Xinjiang in 1950, primarily for raisins and grapes for eating, but rising incomes and growing snob value for wine have given the domestic industry a boost. The weather in Xinjiang ranges from over 30C in summer to minus 40C in winter, and the lack of rain in the desert means you need good irrigation systems, but wine experts are increasingly enthusiastic about Xinjiang's wine potential.

And it's not just the largely Muslim province of Xinjiang growing wine - how about a cheeky Shandong merlot? The Bodega Langes vineyard was set up in 1999 by Gernot Langes-Swarovski, of the Austrian crystal family of the same name. A 200-hectare vineyard in Changli, 150 miles east of Beijing near the coast in Shandong province, it includes a hotel, restaurant, wine school and China's first vino-therapy spa, which uses grape skins and the oil from pressed grapes to pamper the body. With more than 30 wineries in the area, Changli has been called the "Oriental Bordeaux".

"The wine business has grown 10-15 per cent annually in the last five years. And this development will be even quicker in coming years," said Bodega Langes' spokesman, Ren Jiang.

"There hasn't really been a clear rise in quality in recent years and most wine companies are primarily concerned with increasing their market share. But people are starting to think about quality," says Mr Ren.

Bodega's first vintage was in 2001 - a year earlier than expected because the grape quality was so good - and it now produces about 1.3 million bottles a year. It makes three reds (a cabernet sauvignon and blends of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc) and a rosé. It sells only on site and through a direct sales office in Beijing.

It's a far cry from the early days of wine production in China during the 1980s, when the central government decided to plant vines as part of an effort to reduce the use of cereals for alcohol production. There was not much thought given to what to do with the wine that was produced, and vines were considered a form of production just like any other, with the focus on maximum output. This led to overproduction.

In volume terms, China is already the leading consumer of wine in Asia - 3.9 million hectolitres, or over half a billion bottles in 2004. Almost 95 per cent of the wine drunk in China is domestically produced, but foreign exporters are working fast to make headway - Australian wine sales in 2004 grew nearly 90 per cent, while sales of Chilean rose 150 per cent.

The wine boom has also led to a château-building boom in China, not seen since the days of pre-Revolution France. The Lafitte Castle Hotel just outside Beijing is a replica of a 17th-century French chateau. It doesn't actually have a vineyard, but does have a sensational wine cellar. The state-owned Changyu - one of China's oldest wineries, set up by Jesuits in Yantai, Shandong province, more than 100 years ago - has a faux French chateau, the Chateau Changyu-Castel, on its grounds.