French luxury brand LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) has invested millions of dollars in a state-of-the-art winery called Chandon. That wouldn’t normally be big news. Except the winery is located in the dry desert region of Ningxia, China. Yes, China.
The Chinese are banking on this “grape” venture in Ningxia to be a worldwide success. Quite a lot of money has been spent in the past 15 years or so to create what was recently referred to as “one of China’s premier wine producing regions” by the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV). The Director General of OIV, Jean-Marie Aurand, spoke at the opening ceremony of the June 2015 SITEVINITECH CHINA (an international tradeshow for wine production and fruit and vegetable farming) and stated Ningxia was one of the most dynamic wine-growing areas in China.
The country now ranks second in the world—after Spain—in wine-growing acres. There are about 80,000 acres of vineyards planted in Ningxia. By 2020 that number can go as high as 160,000 acres, which is three times the amount planted in Napa. One thing to note, however, is that the actual quantity of wine produced and exported is still led by France, followed by Italy, Spain and the United States.
According to wine expert and author Karen MacNeil (who wrote The Wine Bible), “We thought we knew all of the great wine regions in the world,” she said. “We know Tuscany, we know Bordeaux, we know Napa…The idea that somewhere in the Chinese desert might be the next great wine region in the world, it’s astounding.”
The Chinese are heavily influenced by Western media and culture, and have become one of the top consumers of wine in the world. The focus seems to be cultivating domestic wine aficionados by investing in the vines. There is an enormous amount of water that is brought in to irrigate the fields (it is the desert, after all). But there is also the manpower needed to bury the vines each fall to protect them from the winter winds and cold temperatures, then the need to manually un-bury the vines come spring. This could possibly drive up costs to the customers (potentially alienating budget-minded wine drinkers), but this is something they are willing to risk in order to protect the crops. And it must be a decent risk if LVMH co-funded Chandon Winery (along with a Chinese company).
A New New-world Wine
Wine importer Heng Rui stated (in a CBS news link below) that Chinese wine producers are serious about developing their own wine, with its own unique flavors and without copying others. But what is interesting is that when you think of wines created outside of Asia, wines with notes of passion fruit, black currant or blackberry is totally lost on Chinese wine drinkers. Many have never tasted those fruits before. And the language barrier takes it further: I had to chuckle when I came across a March 2013 Wall Street Journal piece, “Lost in Translation: The Lingo for Tasting Wine.” There is a quote from John Abbott, editor of Decanter magazine’s website. He said that when they launched the Chinese-language version of the site, he and the Chinese translators got into a two-hour argument over the term “savory.” The translators kept insisting that if something isn’t sweet, then it’s automatically salty. (Click the “Lost in Translation” link to read the difference between tasting notes for a bottle of wine…one in English, the other in Chinese.)
It will be interesting to see how the rest of the world reacts to the taste of these Chinese wines once their exports become more mainstream.
Speaking of exports, Moet Hennessy Estates & Wines (part of LVMH) will be launching a Chinese red wine called Ao Yun (made with Cabernet Sauvignon), which was grown in the Himalayan mountains in China’s Yunnan province—at altitudes between 2,200 and 2,600 metres above sea level. Estates & Wines president Jean-Guillaume told Decanter.com that the “long growing season and dry sunny autumns give thick-skinned, small berries with concentration and freshness.” …I am really interested in tasting this. Expected to be released in the U.S. around October 2015.
Forbes article and Infographic: World’s Biggest Wine Producers
“China Makes Big Bet on Turning Desert into Wine Region” CBS News article
“Ningxia A Fine Wine Region of the Future?” (TheDrinksBusiness.com)
Grape Wall of China blog