China Wine

Is China turning its back on imported wines?

A campaign that urges Chinese to drink Chinese wine is under way. With imported wines plunging and growing nationalist sentiment, is China turning its back on imported wines?

Last April during my press trip to Chinese wine region Ningxia with Hong Kong’s former chief executive and current Vice Chairman of national political advisory body CPPCC, Leung Chun-Ying, at a dinner one night Leung with one glass of wine in hand was musing on the thought that Chinese should drink Chinese wine.

The next day on our visit to a Ningxia wine school, at the rate of efficiency with Chinese characteristics, Leung’s seemingly off-hand comment was immortalized on a giant rock with bold characters painted in deep red as if to hint the urgency. It declares, “Chinese drink Chinese wine (国人喝国酒).

Today, a year later the subject is explored and discussed at length by Chinese wineries to promote local wine sales, at a time when imported wines suffered sharp declines compounded with growing nationalist sentiment.

One can’t help but wonder is China turning its back on imported wines now? If Chinese consumers prefer imported wines over domestically produced wines, what would it make them? Less Chinese by the logic?

“Beijing, China: Guard standing in Tiananmen square

On Wednesday night, a seminar organised by the country’s official drinks trade, China Alcoholic Drinks Association (CADA), is aptly themed none other than “Chinese terroir, world quality – Chinese drink Chinese wine”. The live panel discussion gathered the country’s biggest wine producers including Changyu Pioneer Wine Company, state-owned COFCO GreatWall, China’s biggest organic wine producer Weilong, and Citic Guo An Wine.

To achieve the goal, Liu Xing, deputy general manager of GreatWall, says wineries need to work on evoking three emotions in Chinese consumers, which are trust in Chinese wine, sense of belonging with Chinese wine and pride in Chinese wine.

All sounded great if these are achieved by quality improvement and care for terroir, not by skirting with nationalism and xenophobia.

Years of churning out plonk, wineries of various scales did little to help boost Chinese wine’s reputation at home or abroad.

As a result, 80% of all sales from domestically produced wines came from low-end wines priced under RMB 100 (US$14), according to a joint report by CADA and EXACT Data released in 2017, of which 38.8% are wines priced between RMB 25 (US$3.5) and RMB 50 (US$7).

Worst yet, a number of Chinese wines suddenly have a Bordeaux-esque sounding name and look, carrying labels that dubiously resemble other well-known chateaux in Paulliac or wineries in Australia.

Changyu AFIP No.1 sells for over US$4200 a bottle

On the other end of price scale, there’s no shortage of wines that are packaged in heavy bottles and elaborate cases not for drinking but gifting. One bottle of Changyu AFIP No.1 adorned with swarovski gems and 18-karat gold sells for a whopping price of RMB 29,800 (US$4,200), about four times of the price of first growth Chateau Lafite Rothschild 2008 vintage on WineSearcher. At that price tag, no one is really paying for the liquid inside the bottle.

What has changed in the past years is that consumers are seeking out artisan wines made by mostly family-owned Chinese wineries, shunning the lookalikes and heavy bottles that are as good as door stoppers.

Wineries from Ningxia, Xinjiang in northwestern China and southwestern Yunnan province such as Silver Heights, Legacy Peak, Tiansai Vineyards, Puchang Winery, and even a natural wine in Ningxia called Xiao Pu Wine are making some of the most exciting wines in China right now.

These wineries set themselves apart from plonk producers and opportunist marketers by making well-crafted wines that actually worth opening your wallet for, and are invariably led by a group of passionate people who entered wine world for the exact reason that binds many in France, Italy or Australia, which is to make a great wine regardless of national identity. A great wine is great because it is first and foremost a faithful translator of its terroir, a combination of climate and soil that makes a vineyard unique.

At the end of the day, a bad Chinese wine is as bad as a terrible French OEM wine, and no one should ever spend a dime on it.

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