Why You Should Be Drinking Chinese Wine
If you’re looking for a full-bodied cabernet sauvignon to mark the Lunar New Year, it pays to head east .
When you imagine uncorking a bottle of vintage red from a particular geographic origin, China is probably not the first place that comes to mind. But the country’s status as a world-leading wine producer is growing at pace, with homegrown varieties, particularly full-bodied bordeaux-esque reds, praised by industry experts. Although Chinese winemaking stretches back to the days of the Silk Road – around 130 BCE, and in fact there is evidence to suggest much earlier – it’s historically been associated with mellow rice wines or fiery grain-based spirits. But that’s changing: the country’s grape wine market is now worth $18bn per year, and it produces more than a billion litres annually. Despite this, Chinese wine remains relatively unknown in the West.
Ms Janet Z Wang
British-Chinese author Ms Janet Z Wang is set to spread the word with her new book, The Chinese Wine Renaissance: A Wine Lover’s Companion. It tells a story of Chinese wine that’s interwoven with the country’s complex history. “China’s wine has always shared its fate with the Chinese social, economic and political health,” writes Ms Wang. “During periods of prosperity, wine culture flourished. Now, as the second-largest world economy, a new lease of life has emerged, embracing globalisation while asserting its own characteristics.”
Most of China’s vineyards lie just north of the Yangtze river. Around 80 per cent of China’s wine growers overall are dedicated to bordeaux-style red wines, and cabernet sauvignon is the predominant grape (China has the largest planting area of cabernet sauvignon vines in the world). You’ll also find pinot noir, muscat hamburg, and grape crossbreeds – made when growers deliberately cross two grape species – such as marselan, a blend of cabernet sauvignon and grenache.
Despite cold winters, which create difficult growing conditions, wine quality in China has dramatically improved thanks to tenacious growers willing to experiment with intervention methods. Many growers, particularly in the colder regions, bury their vines underground throughout winter to protect them from the cold. These measures are necessary since the vineyards span diverse terrains, “from the foothills of the Tibetan Plateau to the Yellow River valley, from altitudes of 3,000m to winter temperatures of -25ºC,” writes Ms Wang. The resulting wines, “combine the best qualities of their parents: Chinese cold hardiness with European sweetness”.
Skyline of Gobi vineyard, Xinjiang province, China. Photograph courtesy of Ebury
These characterful wines are impressing tasters. China’s first official appellation, Ningxia’s Helan Mountain, is an area known for its excellent bordeaux-style reds. Helan Qingxue winery’s richly fruited Jia Bei Lan 2009 won the Decanter World Wine Award’s coveted international trophy in 2011, cementing its reputation as one of China’s flagship wine producers.
Pairing wine with Chinese food is becoming more common, but it can be a tricky business, says Ms Wang, given that most meals usually involve several dishes eaten at once. She suggests considering the region of the food you’re eating: milder Cantonese cuisine pairs with fresh, acidic whites, while spicy Sichuan food works alongside off-dry or sweet aromatic whites. Soy sauce and garlic-laden Shandong dishes from the north, meanwhile, should be matched with fuller-bodied reds.
Chinese wines are now more readily available for curious drinkers in the UK. In London, historic merchant Berry Bros & Rudd stocks a selection from the Changyu house. Look out for the fruity and full-bodied Noble Dragon Red, and the classic bordeaux-style Chateau Changyu Moser XV cabernet sauvignon. Rarer bottles can be sought out at specialist wine sellers such as Liberty Wines and Panda Fine Wine. Top-end restaurants, too, such as London’s Hutong at the Shard and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, are stocking fine Chinese wines. Get ahead of the curve and stock up now: these interesting and characterful wines look set to soar in value.