China: Tomorrow's Viticultural Superpower (March 24, 2014)
I'm going to stick my neck out and make a bold prediction. Print this column, seal it in an envelope, put it in a safe place and don't open it until 2054.
I predict that within two generations China will produce wines that will rival the best that Bordeaux and Burgundy have to offer.
The first time I tasted Chinese wine was at a banquet in 1978 in Toronto's late lamented Sai Woo restaurant. I couldn't drink them. Ten years later I was in China to visit the first Sino-French Joint Venture Winery, a co-production between the Chinese government and Rémy Martin. The wines were marketed under the Dynasty label and they've appeared from time to time on liquor board shelves here. The Dynasty wines were an improvement but not something I would actually shell out money for.
So what do I base the declaration that China will be producing great wines by 2054? A twelve-day visit to Wuwei City located at the eastern end of the Hexi Corridor, part of the old Silk Road. The corridor in Gansu province is a string of oases that runs along the northern edge of Tibetan Plateau leading to the Gobi desert. In 2012 Wuwei City was named "The Wine City of China" by the China Food Industry Association as being the most important of the country's nine major wine-growing regions. Fifteen per cent of all China's grapes come from the Hexi Corridor. This arid region receives a meagre six and a half inches of rain a year, which means the grape farmers don't need to use fungicides and pesticides in their vineyards, making it the world's largest organic vineyard surface.
This desert and semi-desert wine-growing region along the Hexi Corridor is between latitudes 36° and 40°, a band that includes Bordeaux and the Napa Valley. The sandy soil here also supports the cultivation of melons, apricots, peaches, pears, cherries, wheat, potatoes, onions and, of course, corn. More corn than you can shake a cob at. Also you see endless fields of marigolds, the petals of which are used in the manufacture of shampoos and face creams and for eye health.
The main grape varieties planted here are the cherished European vinifera – Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Riesling. The Chinese consume one litre of wine per person per year – but we're talking about a population of 1.351 billion (a 2012 figure). All they need to do to empty the world's cellars is to up their consumption by another litre. (Canada's wine consumption per capita is currently 15 litres per annum.) At the 3rd Organic Wine Festival of China Hexi Corridor in August last year I witnessed how a generation of young Chinese have taken to wine. During a huge outdoor tasting the hundreds of participants hung on every word of the sommeliers and wine journalists who addressed them while they happily quaffed whatever was put down in front of them.
Wine production in China grew by 20 per cent between 2006 and 2011 and is projected to rise by 54 per cent by next year. Everything about the Chinese wine industry is monumentally big. The six enterprises based in the Hexi Corridor crushed 86,000 tons of grapes in 2012. The Gansu Grand Dragon Organic Wine Company, the largest in the region and China's first all-organic enterprise, with a staff of 4,000, is in the process of planting 66,667 hectares of vines. (All of Bordeaux measures just over 120,000 hectares; Napa has 17,637 hectares of vines). The company's massive chateau that looks like an Egyptian necropolis has a storage capacity of 100,000 tons.
The purpose of my visit to China was to consult, along with four other wine experts, on a new winery to be built in the city of Linze. The entrepreneur behind the venture is a Chinese businessman named Jason Tang who imports and bottles wines from California's Central Valley. Our group toured local vineyards to see how the local farmers grew their grapes. At a city named Bangiao we walked through a 134-acre vineyard farmed by 30 different farmers. Eighty per cent of the vineyard was planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot augmented by some table grape varieties. The varying levels of expertise and commitment by the collective were evident row by row. The agronomist who showed us around explained that along the Hexi Corridor they have to bury their vines for winter and uncover them in April – just as the growers in Quebec and Prince Edward County have to do.
During my stay I tasted as many locally made wines as I could and was impressed by their authenticity; they actually tasted of the variety that appeared on the label. They're not there yet, but with more care taken in the vineyard and a willingness to learn from the experience of established wine regions, I'm convinced that Chinese wines will be on the tables of the best restaurants around the world in the not-too-distant future. And at prices that we can all afford.