By Belinda Goldsmith
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's oldest wine merchant is giving its official stamp of approval to Chinese wine by stocking four wines produced in China from European grapes, a production shift which could help China muscle into the world wine market.
Berry Bros. & Rudd, which dates back 314 years and is a supplier to the royal family, said it was the first major British retailer to put Chinese wines on sale alongside some of the world's finest wines.
The four wines on offer, a Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend and three ice wines priced from 19 pounds to 65 pounds, are from Chateau Changyu in eastern Shandong province which is China's oldest and largest winery.
Mark Pardoe, Berry Bros's master of wine, said they were different from most Chinese wines produced for domestic consumption as they were made from European grapes and to European standards.
"For the first time we have some Chinese wine that will not be embarrassed alongside some of the world's finest wines," Pardoe told Reuters. "This really is a snapshot of what China can do in the future."
China is the eighth largest producer of wine in the world and is forecast to be sixth largest by 2016.
Wine consumption in China has more than doubled in the last five years, according to Vinexpo, a wine industry expert, and China is expected to become the second largest wine consumer by value by 2016, up from third place today.
But to date most wine has been made for Chinese consumption and is not suitable for export and overseas tastes.
Pardoe said China's huge size and location, with a key climate band in the northern hemisphere, meant it was home to regions with climates capable of producing good wine as shown by its production of wine for the local market since the 1890s.
British supermarket chain Waitrose last year trialed a Chinese wine made from the local grape specialty Cabernet Gernischt but a spokeswoman said this was no longer on sale.
Pardoe said it was not until Austrian winemaker Lenz Moser, whose family has run wineries for 15 generations, teamed up with Chateau Changyu several years ago that the export potential started to emerge with the first good wines ready this year.
"He concentrated on using European grape varieties and imposed European style quality controls," said Pardoe. "The 2008 vintage we have bought, you really can't tell it is Chinese."
Pardoe said there was still only a small selection of wines suitable for export but this could be a sign of the future with Chateau Changyu showing that the combination of expertise from old and new world wines could lead to some top-class wine.
"There will be other winemakers hot on their heels and we expect to taste wines of greater quality from more Chinese producers," he said.
(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith)