The Secretly Booming World of Chinese Wine
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because China’s wine industry is taking off, driven onto the world stage by passionate wine lovers like Zhang Jing.
Sampling wine varietals at a chateau may conjure images of Frenchmen and dusty cellars. But Chateau Helan Qingxue is far from the limestone-rich soils of Bordeaux — it’s one of a handful of vineyards in northwestern China’s Ningxia region that have made the country the world’s fifth-largest producer of wine.
For those who believe wine is bottled poetry, it’s worth noting that Ningxia’s famed Helan Mountain once inspired a Ming Dynasty controller to write a poem entitled “Helan Qingxue.” The winery, named after the poem, is co-owned by Zhang Jing, a diminutive young woman in spectacles who is proving to be a powerhouse in the world of wine. Jing has been winning international awards for her wines and her talents — and she’s the first Chinese winemaker to ever win the prestigious Decanter World Wine Award.
I fell in love with wine. … From that moment, I knew I found what I wanted to do my whole life.
– Zhang Jing
Her sweet tones make her sound like a teenager, but don’t be fooled: The 37-year-old mother is a well-educated, trained wine connoisseur who has dedicated her life to the fermented juice. Jing, the daughter of local government workers, was raised just an hour’s drive from the vineyard. She first tasted wine at Beijing Agricultural University under the tutelage of her professor — now consultant — Li Demei.
“I fell in love with wine,” Jing says. “From that moment, I knew I found what I wanted to do my whole life.”
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the Shanxi province, she went to France’s Rhone Valley for her wine training. She then worked briefly for a vineyard in Australia and has collaborated with a South African wine producer. Since 2005, the year Chateau Helan Qingxue opened, she has spent nearly a decade perfecting grape varieties and vintages and, despite the remote location, word is getting out.
Jing makes no excuses for her vineyard’s spartan appearance. “There are no grand buildings or luxurious decoration,” she says. Like many boutique wineries, Jing’s vineyard has a limited production, averaging about 50,000 bottles of wine a year. By contrast, Gallo, the world’s largest producer, has an annual distribution of nearly 900 million bottles.
Helan Qingxue, with 37 acres of vines, had 1.8 million RMB in revenue last year (roughly $300,000), a number Jing expects will rise with each passing year. But her focus is on quality, not quantity.
China’s winemakers, not surprisingly, excel at making reds, and the prevailing variety is cabernet. Jing’s vineyard cultivates chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and a local indigenous grape called Cabernet Gernischt, which is similar to the Carménère — a favorite in Chile.
In 2009, to congratulate Jing on the birth of her daughter, a friend gave her five French oak barrels. She had her daughter’s footprints imprinted on the barrels for luck and used them to store her vintage wines.
If you want to go into the wine industry, you must make a long-term plan, not be anxious for success.
– Zhang Jing
The result? Jia Bei Lan (“Little Feet”), a dry cabernet sauvignon, merlot and Cabernet Gernicht mix that won the Decanter World Wine award in 2011 for the best Bordeaux varietal in its price range — the first time a Chinese winemaker won the prestigious prize.
When asked what she does differently, Jing points to the wide rows of vines, which allow them to be turned and buried in winter for protection. Respecting the soil is key to success, she says, noting that her wines reflect the spirit of Ningxia’s “terroir” — the Jia Bei Lan, for example, delivers a “fresh fruity nose, mint, plum, fresh black currant aromas and a hint of vanilla and smoke.”
And, says Jing, every good vineyard must start with very good grapes, which requires patience. “If you want to go into the wine industry, you must make a long-term plan, not be anxious for success,” she advises.
Jing’s patience is paying off with more and more accolades. Last year she was named Winemaker of the Year in the RVF Chinese wine awards (annual awards from the Chinese edition of La Revue du Vin de France magazine) as well as Outstanding Winemaker of China in the Fine Wine Challenge. Esteemed Financial Times wine columnist Jancis Robinson has called Jing a gifted winemaker, and Chateau Helan Qingxue was one of six vineyards included in the latest edition of the so-called wine bible, the Map for World Wine Regions — a first for Ningxia’s Helan Mountain wineries.
In the past, Chinese wine was little more than fermented grape juice with added sugar. But that is changing — and with it, the Chinese palate is becoming far more sophisticated. Wine consumption in the country has increased 136 percent in five years, and France’s Center for Scientific Research predicts production in China will double over the next five years as residents demand more and higher quality wine. Consider this: France’s current number-one importer of Bordeaux reds is China.
Despite earning kudos and global headlines, Chinese wines are hard to come by outside of China, owing to limited production.
The surge in wine consumption in China has not been lost on foreign investors. Château Lafite recently built a vineyard in Shandong province, and Moët & Chandon opened a winery in Ningxia with an eye toward producing the country’s first bubbly. Pernod-Ricard has also signed on, buying a winery in the region.
But wine hasn’t started flowing in the other direction quite yet. Despite earning kudos and global headlines, Chinese wines are hard to come by outside of China, owing to limited production and export restrictions — not to mention low foreign expectations.
Jing’s winery cannot ship to the West because it has neither the necessary government export rights nor adequate production. “But we want to try exporting our wine to other countries within five years,” she says.
While acknowledging that China’s wine industry is still in its infancy, Jing remains optimistic — and ever patient.
In the meantime, she gets back to work so that Chateau Helan Qingxue can continue to grow — and hopefully place its award-winning wines on tables outside China by the time her daughter is old enough to taste her mother’s bottled poetry.