Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Having some free time in Shanghai recently, I decided to check out the local wine scene and see what changes had occured in the past few years. In particular, I was interested to taste a Chinese wine (made from grapes, not rice) and see if there had been any improvements. I still recall the first time I tried a "Made in China" wine in 2006. It was a Dynasty Cabernet Sauvignon, costing around RMB40, or SGD8. Drinkable, but it lacked ripeness and had some distinctly un-winey notes. The palate reminded me of soya sauce and dried watermelon seeds.

Admittedly, Dynasty is on the lower end of the quality scale. Along with Great Wall and Changyu and Tonghua, these four producers are the giants of China's wine industry, accounting for 60% of market share. The wines are priced from  RMB30 to RMB50, although Changyu does sell a Selected Cabernet Dry Red for RMB73. In comparison, a Yellow Tail Cabernet Sauvignon, Australia's mass market wine, retails for RMB125.

There are some Chinese producers who have achieved fame outside of China. Grace Vineyards (from Shanxi) and Silver Heights (from Ningxia) were favourably reviewed by Lisa Perrotti-Brown, MW in September 2010 for Robert Parker's wine website. It is difficult to get these wines from the local supermarket though, so I headed to Ferguson Lane, a small cluster of shops converted from goverment buildings in the former French Concession.

There are two wine specialists here, Globus wine and Pudao Wines (formerly named Wine Way). The latter is equipped with an Enomatic machine which allows tasting of wines by the glass. Normally, one would need to purchase a membership card (RMB300 with RMB200 credit), but you can also ask for the "store card" which will allow you to pay for just the wines you taste. There are 8 whites and 8 reds available for tasting and the selection is changed every week. They also have a "wine of the week" which retails at just RMB1 for a tasting portion. The day I was there this was the 2006 d'Arenberg Stump Jump White blended from Riesling, Marsanne and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. They stock two labels from Silver Heights, the Family Reserve and The Summit. Both are Bordeaux blends with a small proportion of Cabernet Gernischt, a varietal with murky origins unique to China. Unfortunately, both the wines had sold out due to extremely limited quantities, and so I went over to Globus wine.

Compared to Pudao Wines, Globus is more of a wine bar, with seating space and a food menu. The store manager, Leo, proved to be extremely knowledgable about wines and the wine industry in China. He explained to me that wine consumption in China is being encouraged by the government, because "the move towards drinking alcohol made from grapes rather than rice puts less pressure on rice crops, which are an important staple in China." While this has spurred production of wine locally (China is now the world's 6th largest producer of wine), much of this is poor quality and lacking in flavour. Imported wines attract a tariff of 14% on top of 17% value-added tax and 10% consumption tax. Says Leo, "The high taxes on foreign wines create little incentive for local wine producers to improve quality since they have a pricing advantage."

I asked Leo if he had any Chinese wine in his portfolio, and he recommended to me Sunshine Valley from Gansu province in northwest China. They make two red wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Pinot Noir. This was the first time that I had heard of Pinot Noir being planted in China, as it is a notoriously fickle grape, requiring careful handling in the vineyard and the winery. Most of China's wine production is red, and dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon. In addition to being an auspicious colour (white is associated with death in Chinese custom), red wines have a premium image and are able to command higher prices. "In China's market," says Leo, "you must have a Cabernet wine."

I thanked Leo for his time and paid for the Sunshine Valley Pinot Noir. Back at the hotel, I tried it with some roast duck, which turned out to be quite a pleasant match. The wine still lacked ripeness (in fact Leo had mentioned the herbaceous note) but managed to display some varietal character. At RMB200, there are better value wines to be found elsewhere.

There is tremendous potential for the wine industry in China, but development is uneven. Made in China wines still struggle with poor quality grapes and lack of winemaking expertise. Wine consumption in China is also at a fledgling stage. While many Chinese have the money and access to high-end wines, few understand how to appreciate it, instead mixing it with ice or soft drinks. I am heartened though by the expertise of trade people such as Leo, who have formal qualifications in addition to tasting experience. As most people find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings when entering a wine shop, it is helpful to have someone who knows the wines intimately and can make helpful suggestions. 


Pudao Wines
House 102, Ferguson Lane
376 Wukang Road
Xuhui District, Shanghai 200031
Tel: +86 21 6090 7075

Globus Wine
376 Wukang Road

Xuhui District, Shanghai 200031
Tel: +86 21 6466 8969

No comments:

Post a Comment