China may be the land of baijiu, but it is also slowly cultivating a taste for wine. Today, there are many boutique wineries across the country, particularly in the north-central region of Ningxia.
China may be the land of baijiu, but it is also slowly cultivating a taste for grape wine. Before Covid-19 slowed business, the country imported 610 million liters of wine a year, and that number has been growing since the 1980s.
Claire Xu, an Asian brand ambassador of Australian wine producer Accolade Wines, credits this trend to globalization. “People who drink a lot of wine may have been influenced by Western culture. Or maybe they lived in a western country, or studied abroad,” Xu, who is based in Shanghai, says.
How China likes its wine
Chinese people have a preference for stronger flavors, say wine industry players. They like wines that taste fuller, more fruity, and flavorful. This also means they have a preference for red wine. According to Statista, 80% of grape wine consumed in China is red wine.
People in China also tend to see wine as a festive drink, Xu says. “In the West, wine is something people have in their fridge all the time. It’s just like how in Chinese homes, we always have tea in the house,” she says. “China’s wine culture is usually centered around celebrations or gifts.”
There are other unique reasons why Chinese people like to drink wine. In a survey of wine consumers across 10 major cities by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council published in 2020, 54% of the 1,440 respondents said they drank wine because they believed it was good for health. This was the top reason cited.
Making local wine
Apart from a growing taste for wine, China has also developed its wine production capabilities. After the country opened up in the 1980s, the government selected a few sites across the country they believed were suitable for winemaking and encouraged local producers to set up their own facilities in these areas.
Some notable wine-producing regions include Beijing, Zhangjiakou in the northern province of Hebei, Yibin in the southwestern province of Sichuan, Tonghua in the northeastern province of Jilin, and Ningxia, a region in north-central China.
Li Haowei, who is the head vintner at Xinheng Winery, a French-style boutique winery in Ningxia established in 2019, explains why the area is perfect for making wine.
“We are sheltered by the Helan Mountains, which block the cold currents coming from Siberia in the northwest and the eastern expansion of the Tengger Desert from the west. We have a really good climate to grow wine grapes,” he says.
Because of how much sunlight the area receives, thicker-skinned grape varieties like cabernet sauvignon, marselan, and cabernet gernischt thrive here. These wines have a strong body, high alcohol content, and a rich oak barrel flavor, Li says.
“That’s why we mostly produce wines like cabernet sauvignon, which has a strong body, high alcohol content, and a rich oak barrel flavor,” says Li.
Li wasn’t always a fan of wine. He says that before he left for France to study winemaking in 2012, he never drank a sip of wine. But after going to France, he discovered some wines that he really liked and he began to dig into the characteristics behind the different varieties.
Winemaking can be broken down into four main steps: Harvesting the grapes, sorting the grapes, fermenting them, and then letting the wine age. Xinheng winery uses both the traditional French method and modern fermentation method to produce their wines.
“We can’t say which one is better, so we choose to use both methods to improve the quality of our wines,” Li says. “Wines coming from Ningxia are starting to get noticed at big competitions. Now more people know that China can also produce really great grape wine.”
Can China-made wine win over wine enthusiasts?
Despite the local wineries’ efforts, it has been hard to get Chinese consumers to drink locally made wine. About half of grape wine consumed in China is imported, the Hong Kong Trade Development Council found.
Domestic wine output is also dominated by three of the country’s big winemakers — Dynasty Fine Wines, Changyu Pioneer Wine, and China Great Wall Wine — instead of being spread out across small producers.
This could be due to Chinese people’s fear of unknown labels. “The Chinese are a little bit wary [and] don't quite respect Chinese wine. A part of that problem is probably long years of terrible fakery in wine,” explains Jancis Robinson, a British wine critic who has been closely keeping tabs on China’s wine market for years.
“Ludicrous labels [like] Chateau Lafite spelled [as] l-a-f-e-e-t...and really bad fakes of Bordeaux Port...which of course doesn't exist.”
But Robinson hopes more people will support the local businesses. She visited Ningxia in 2012 and was encouraged by what she experienced.
“It just had a feeling of a pioneer culture, everybody moving in the same direction. It was a little bit like Napa Valley in the 1970s when everything was new and everybody wanted to make great wine,” she says, adding that she believes the future of Chinese wine lies in Ningxia. The region just needs more time to develop itself.
“One important factor is the age of the vines. The roots need to go deep, the vine needs to establish itself, and then it will start to produce a really complex kind of liquid,” she says. “It's a long term thing, wine production.”