Chinese winemaker Legacy Peak, which began producing grapes more or less accidentally in 1997, marks the rapid growth of an industry that now wins acclaim in global markets, but once came close to giving up.
Its second-generation owner, Liu Hai, recalled the early struggles of cultivating the barren plot he received from the local government in payment for construction work, saying, “We wanted to pull out all the vines and leave it.”
His family knew nothing about farming when they found land in the arid north-central region of Ningxia on the condition that it be devoted only to grapes, but they started making wine a decade ago, after which The winery using their fruit has won several awards.
Since then, Liu says the winery has won awards and found export markets in France, Germany, and Southeast Asia, despite an annual production of less than 100,000 bottles.
From the rolling hills of coastal Shandong province to the desert highlands of Ningxia and the deep valleys of southwestern Yunnan, Chinese vineyards and wineries are gaining recognition.
“China is a fine wine producer, and its best wines can compete globally,” said wine educator Edward Rag, a reviewer for the influential Robert Parker Wine Advocate.
Winery’s products, such as Chateau Nine Peaks in Shandong, Silver Heights and Grace Vineyards in Ningxia, and Ao Yun in Yunnan, have been rated by Parker’s newspaper as “an outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character”.
Some, such as Nine Peaks and Legacy Peak, are finding export markets in Asia and Europe.
China’s wine market is the sixth largest in the world, with organizer Vinexpo saying it consumed $14.8 billion in wine in 2018, and forecast sales of $18 billion by 2023.
But home wineries will have to deal with an image problem, as home consumers can be suspicious of their quality and are often turned away by high prices.
“It was always easier to sell to foreigners because they are more open-minded, but it has been a tough sell with Chinese customers,” Liu said.
Other problems are high production costs and uncertain weather that can hinder efficiency and quality, while a slowing economy and the COVID-19 pandemic have hit China’s wine consumption since 2018.
Modern winemaking in China dates back to the 1980s, when French firms, such as the forerunner of Rémy Cointreau, began investing after then-leader Deng Xiaoping opened the door to foreign businesses.
While French influences persisted in a market dominated by red and abounding in Bordeaux imitations, the quality began to improve in the early 2000s.
This was a time when vineyards focused on growing healthy grapes, such that incomes rose sharply, and more people were traveling abroad and drinking more wine.
Now domestic wineries can allay the doubts of some consumers, such as Yang Lu, who owns a restaurant in the Chinese capital.
“I was amazed at how the aroma was full of nice fruits and flowers,” said Yang, describing his experience last year of the first sample of the Mountain Wave label produced in Ningxia.
“It was a nice color and was smooth with a long finish.
“Until then, Yang, who is in his 30s, educated abroad and traveled widely, had almost always ignored domestic wines, only unheard of imports made from New Zealand wines such as Pinot Noir .
Some winemakers, such as 33-year-old Ian Dai, who is behind the Ningxia brand Xiaopu, which ranges in price from 168 yuan ($26) to 300 yuan ($47), are turning away from industrial methods in search of a Chinese signature variety.
Dai said he was looking for more natural methods, such as fermenting without commercial yeast or dropping the acidity and tannin levels inappropriately to “let the grapes express themselves”.
With an independent vineyard or own winemaking equipment, Dai is in her fifth year of winemaking in Sydney after dropping out of college and spending a decade in wine sales.
Dai hopes to find grape varieties for the wine representing China.
“As a winemaker I should have the arrogance of making the best wine with grapes in this climate,” said Dai, who expected it to take two decades to produce this kind of wine in China.
Chinese wineries are also experimenting with alternative grape varieties, such as Marcellan, Aglianico and Saperavi.
Marcellan, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, adopted years ago by Legacy Peak and others, provides high yields and much-needed fruit for Chinese reds, experts say.
“Marcellan could one day become China’s signature wine grape, as Malbec has for Argentina,” said Rag, holder of the Master of Wine qualification.
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