Although China now ranks as the world’s 7th biggest wine producer, and the second biggest holder of land under vine, its wines however failed to impress Eric Asimov, wine critic at The New York Times, calling the wines “derivative”.
Having tasted some Chinese wines brought back to New York by his colleagues in China a few years ago, the formidable wine critic commented after carefully measuring his words, “they are more or less what I expected them to be.”
What was expected was the obvious, but what wasn’t expected was the yawning gap stretched wide open when the state of its wine reality in the country fails to match its grand grape ambition.
With increased number of medals nabbed by Chinese wineries at international wine competitions and pronounced goal of parachuting China into a world-class wine production powerhouse, recognition of Chinese wine as a reputable source or profitability for Chinese wineries at large runs dangerously low.
The reason, as he explained when interviewed by Wang in New York before blind-tasting six 100% Sangiovese wines, is largely attributed to the fact that the wines are too generic and lack identity.
Most wines in China are made from Bordeaux varieties, namely Cabernet Suavignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc to emulate what most Chinese producers consider superior wines of “Bordeaux style”.
“They reminded me more of Californian wines in a sense that they were not clear expressions of the place…They were wines that had an idea of what a wine ought to taste like rather than a pure interpretation of what grapes from this place would taste like if that makes any sense,” he quibbled.
“Maybe it’s a little bit derivative…which you know if you were selling them in China [it’s okay] but if you are trying to sell them internationally, they wouldn’t be as attractive to buyers just for the novelty factor,” he explained.
Compared with other New World wine countries where a championing grape or an aspiring winery managed to knock down barriers in export market, China has yet to find an emblematic grape or a lead actor in wine production – the same way that Malbec did for Argentina or Penfolds for Australia.
There are talks that suggested Marselan or Cabernet Gernischt could be China’s flagship grape, but DNA testing has revealed that Cabernet Gernischt is in fact Carménère, while Marselan is not indigenous to China but a hybrid of Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache.
Price wise when comparing Chinese wines against generic French wines or Australian and Chilean wines, Chinese bottles are not necessarily cheaper either, which Asimov acknowledges that production costs in some parts of China contribute to the final bill.
Indeed in Xinjiang and Ningxia – two premier wine regions in China – vines can only survive the merciless cold winter by being buried underground when temperature can go as low as -20 degrees Celsius. In the following spring, vineyard workers then have to unearth the vines just in time before sprouting. It’s laborious and back-breaking work to simply keep the vines alive.
Speaking of another myth about the so-called Chinese palate, Asimov dismissed the concept of a unison taste before adding that, “just as there’s no such thing as an American palate.”