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Chinese wine: now without the lemonade

Wineries in Xinjiang improve quality for a nation used to beer
/ Source: Reuters

A slice of onion or lemon, some ice-cubes or a mixer of lemonade are some of the tricks Chinese wine drinkers use to help a glass of red slip down.

The traditionally spirit- and beer-drinking nation only began turning grapes into alcohol on a large scale in the last few decades and is still getting used to drinking the results.

But as the industry matures, and the thirst of China’s newly affluent middle classes for wine grows, ambitious Chinese vineyards are trying to educate their countrymen’s palates so as to win their cash.

Among the contenders to banish the garnishes that make sommeliers’ hair stand on end is Suntime Winery in remote western Xinjiang province. It used two billion yuan of investment to import European technology and employs a French winemaker.

“China is a new country to wine-making, particularly out west. Quality is a problem because the industry is young and the vines are young, but there is some good wine,” said Suntime deputy manager Robert Wu as he leaned over to smell the Cabernet Sauvignon fermenting in an oak barrel.

Currently massive established firms that invest heavily in publicity, or even promotions including free lemonade, dominate the Chinese market. Though unknown abroad, brands like Great Wall, Dynasty and Changyu are household names in China.

Pucker up!Many domestically made bottles, protected from foreign competition by sky-high import taxes, can be tart and unbalanced enough to make lemonade a welcome sweetener.

But Suntime is convinced that with vineyards on a similar latitude to Bordeaux, top equipment and drinkers’ growing sophistication, it can turn a profit by focusing on quality.

The number of bottles downed is expected to rise by around a third this year, Wu says, helped by luxury associations and a relatively healthy image.

The big names’ market grip means that around three-quarters of Suntime’s output sells under their labels at present, but its wines are winning recognition in elite circles.

They scooped prizes in recent Brazilian and Chinese competitions and have received the ultimate government accolade.

China’s nine top officials -- members of the politburo standing committee -- were quaffing one of its top wines, which retails for 500 yuan a bottle, between batches of political infighting at their latest meeting, says director Su Bin.

But as quality improves, even the top Chinese winemakers look largely for domestic sales, because despite cheap land and labour they are far more expensive than foreign competitors.

Bottom-end bottles sell for around 20 yuan, and while import taxes mean few foreign wines retail for less than 50-60 yuan in China, cheap Spanish wine can sell abroad for the equivalent of 10 to 15 yuan a bottle, distributors say.

This is likely because many investors see wine-making simply as a booming market rather than an art, and after shelling out for top-of-the-range imported equipment -- a feature of most serious Chinese vineyards -- they want their money back fast.

“It is difficult to understand even working inside the industry, but I think the explanation must be that people want to realise a profit very quickly. It could be cheaper,” says Suntime winemaker Fred Nauleau, who has worked in France’s Loire Valley.

In just one of Suntime’s four vineyard centres, 88 vast stainless steel fermenters fill an industrial hangar. Each can take 120 tonnes of grapes and altogether this one site has capacity to churn out 100,000 kilolitres of wine a year.

There are some imported oak caskets for the finer wines, but these are dwarfed by the hi-tech equipment.

Hot summers, and a lawsuitAnd that is one of the main problems of Chinese wine, says Stefan Fleischer, managing director of importer Palette Wines.

“They have big, efficient wine factories but little personality,” says the German, who grew up in a vineyard.

“Their biggest problem is vineyard management, they often buy grapes from farmers who lease their land, so there is little control of growing and pruning techniques,” he adds.

Suntime say their grapes are mostly bought from farmers who lease their land, but a full-time manager supervises them.

Climate conditions are ideal in Xinjiang, with dry air and hot summers limiting mildew, grape rot and other diseases.

But they face other, novel challenges. They have to bury vines to keep them alive through the bitter winters, and this year production was cut by thieving rivals.

“We have competition from other wineries who stole our grapes,” said Wu, with the shrug of a man who knows his wines are helping wean a generation of drinkers off lemonade mixers.

“We are suing them, but they have already used the grapes.”