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Poor climatic conditions combined with low consumer standards mean China produces little quality wine.
“There aren’t many places in China where it is possible to have a long enough growing season to produce the types of grapes needed to make really high quality wine,” said Edward Ragg, head of China's only independent wine consultancy, the Beijing-based Dragon Phoenix Wine Consultants, the only independent wine consultancy in China, who is certified by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust.
Every region of China has distinct challenges. On the eastern coast, where most wine is produced, heavy summer rains force producers to choose between water-filled grapes that make poor quality diluted wine, or early picked unripe grapes, which result in an unpleasant bitter taste. In China’s drier western regions, winemakers face different problems. Early frosts, sometimes before the fall harvest, can ruin grapes and even kill the vines themselves. In addition, the cold winters mean farmers have to bury vine roots by hand, which adds about 25 percent to the cost of wines.
Finally, southern China’s humid climate makes it near impossible to grow grapes for wine, moving all production in the region to tiny, inaccessible mountainous areas.
So Chinese wine connoisseurs rely on imports despite the country’s large production volume.
“Chile has a much nicer climate for producing wine and has a much better growing season than China,” Ragg said. “There are very affordable Chilean wines that are available here in China that are way better than even the very good Chinese wines.”
Future technological advances and genetically engineered vines could help Chinese winemakers conquer their climate, but they won’t need to do that unless Chinese wine drinkers demand better wine. Chinese wineries sell out all the wine that they produce and even import excess wine from other countries to blend with their homegrown brew.
“They have a captive audience in millions of Chinese people drinking wine for the first time,” said Ragg. One of China’s largest wine companies, Great Wall, accounts for about 20 percent of the huge agricultural conglomerate COFCO’s profits, he added. “If they can sell the wine doing what they are doing, there is no real impetus for them to change.”
Despite the short-term challenges, China still has potential. Its young people are growing up with a much greater exposure to fine international wines and winemaking technology is quickly advancing.
“The trend will be Chinese wine drinkers demanding better domestically produced wine. The development of a more wealthy society will bring a greater attention to quality,” said Leissner. “Winemaking 20 years ago and today in a region like Bordeaux is extremely different. I think it will be like that in China as well.”
But for now, you might want to think twice before shelling out the big bucks for a Chinese vintage.
Read on to learn about importing wine in China.