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China wines slowly resolve quality issues and the best is yet to come
By John H. Isacs

ARCHEOLOGY and new advanced technologies, such as gas and liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry, infrared spectrometry and stable isotope analysis, are rewriting the ancient history of wine.

New archeological finds analyzed by the aforementioned, articulation-challenging sciences have pushed back the history of wines.

When I first started studying wines, I was taught that wine was about 4,000 years old, then about a decade ago, new discoveries in the Near East dated the earliest wine production to 5,000 BC. Guess what? Wine is actually significantly older and may have originated right here in China. 

Renowned University of Pennsylvania archeochemist Dr Patrick E. McGovern found wine residue on 9,000-year-old pottery jars found in the Neolithic village of Jiahu in Henan Province. His advanced tests revealed that some of the wines were made from wild grapes, while other wines were made from bees wax and hawthorn fruit.

Though seldom a mainstream beverage, wine production and consumption in China was documented in the Han (206 BC-AD 220), Tang (AD 618-907) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties. Production of grape-based wines was particularly prevalent during the Yuan Dynasty.

Some date the modern wine era of China back to 1892 when the Changyu Winery was established. But to tell the truth, wine production and consumption in China has been more miss than hit over the past century.

It wasn’t really until the late 1980s when a combination of economic development and new foreign investment in wine technology and expertise put Chinese wine production on a more solid foundation.

Question of quality

The status of China as a wine-producing and consuming country is no longer questioned. China is a top 10 wine-producing country and Chinese consumers drink over 1.7 billion bottles of wine annually. The real challenges facing Chinese-produced wines are transparency, genuineness and quality.

Unlike other wine-producing nations, there are precious few laws that govern the cultivation and sourcing of grapes. Regulations that oversee production methods are also quite lax. The grapes that make Chinese wines can come from practically anywhere, so geographic origin rules — so essential to the quality of most wines in the world ­— are lacking here in China.

The label of a Chinese wine can pretty much say whatever the producer wants it to say, whether it’s true or not. I’ve run into several wine labels with vintage statements that actually don’t come from that vintage.

But every emerging wine-producing country has gone through similar problems and I believe these challenges will be resolved. My winemaking friends in China assure me that many of these issues are already being addressed. This is good news.

But to be truthful, the majority of domestically produced or labeled wines are still not very good by international standards. They are made at an industrial scale and are best served cold to hide their various flaws. However, progress is being made and the increasingly discerning consumers of China are demanding better wines.

Big and small

The production of wine in China can be divided into the very big and relatively small. The big three brands comprising Changyu, Great Wall and Dynasty account for the vast majority of wine production. The remaining 400-plus wineries in China still have limited production capabilities but they are making some increasingly good wines.

Even the big three have started working with some of the world’s most acclaimed wine consultants like Michel Rolland and Stephane Derencourt to make increasingly good premium wines.

Most important, a new cadre of Chinese winemakers have studied and worked in many of the world’s greatest wine regions and they are bringing their skills back to China.

Regions and recommendations

There are nine major wine-growing regions in China, with more new regions emerging every year. The Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region is arguably the most recognized, but Xinjiang Uygur and Inner Mongolia autonomous regions and Yunnan Province are making some increasingly interesting wines. The northeast of China, along with Hebei Province and Bohai Bay all have well-established wine industries.

Based on recent tastings, it’s fair to say that there’s an across-the-board increase in the quality of the better producers in China. The entry-level Helen Mountain varietal wines are eminently drinkable, while the reserve-level wines are quite good and still fairly priced.

Award-winning Grace Vineyard in Shanxi Province has several good wines with the Tasya’s Reserve Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc wines standing out.

Surprisingly, I found their higher priced Deep Blue Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon blend disappointing.

The Symphony series’ dry Muscat white wine, which is a joint venture between Grace Vineyard and Spanish giant Torres, is one of China’s best white wines.

Other Chinese wines that deserve mention are the pricy Great Wall Cabernet 1998 and Chateau Changyu Moser XV. The sweet Chanyu Valley Ice Wine is also a commendable effort.

The best is yet to come

I’m excited about the future of wine production in China and believe that great wines worthy of collection will be made in China in the coming decades.

The enormous variety of terriors, new investment, more mature vines and increasingly demanding and cultivated consumers portend well for the future of Chinese wine.  

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