China's newfound obsession with wine.

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Aug. 8 2008 5:08 PM

Wineglasses Rising

China's newfound obsession with wine.

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It's for this reason that I and many other self-interested grape nuts are so eager to see China's wine industry flourish. China has been producing wine since at least the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-A.D. 907) and possibly as early as the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220), when the first vinifera grapes were known to have arrived there. In the late 1970s, after Mao's death and the opening of China to foreign investment, Rémy Martin, Allied Domecq, and a handful of other Western liquor companies teamed up with mainland partners to establish wineries in China. The facilities were more modern than any China had ever seen, and the wines they turned out were the first "Western style" ones to be produced there. (Chinese wines were traditionally syrupy and sweet; these were comparatively taut and dry.) Recent years have seen the rise of a small number of boutique estates that aim to produce upscale wines with international appeal and that are using foreign consultants to help them achieve that goal. 

The splashiest of these, Grace Vineyard in Shanxi province, was founded a decade ago by Hong Kong-based tycoon C.K. Chan. It includes a replica of a French château, and its signature wine, the chairman's reserve (presumably not named for Mao), is a Bordeaux blend that currently sells for about $60 a bottle. In all, there are about 450 known wineries in China, with vineyards stretching from Inner Mongolia to the Yellow Sea. Within this expansive zone is a dizzying array of topographies, soils, climates, and grapes. There is no reason to think that China can't make cellar-worthy wines; the question is where and with what varieties, and that sorting-out process is now well under way. Confidence is certainly high: There is now even a company specializing in tours of China's wine country.

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Two years ago, U.S.-based importer Bartholomew Broadbent acquired a 50 percent stake in Dragon's Hollow Vineyards, a winery in Ningxia Hui, an autonomous region 600 miles west of Beijing. Broadbent boasts an impressive wine pedigree (his father, Michael, is the legendary former head of Christie's wine department) and has experience working in unlikely places (he also represents Lebanon's fabled Château Musar). He says that the area in which Dragon's Hollow is located was identified years ago by Jess Jackson, of Kendall-Jackson fame, as an area rich in viticultural promise. But realizing that potential is no simple task, particularly in such a remote part of China, where Westerners are still a novelty and fine wine is an alien concept (in part because the region has a large Muslim population and alcoholic beverages are shunned by many residents). Dragon's Hollow owns 1,600 acres of vines, the first of which were planted in 1997. It employs a winemaker from New Zealand and also has a team of 10 locals working in the vineyard and the cellar. "The biggest challenge," says Broadbent, "is teaching them to make wines that suit the Western palate. They've never tasted Western food and there is no wine culture. They've absolutely got the land and the climate to make great wine; it is just a matter of training."

Dragon's Hollow is one of the few Chinese wineries marketing its wares in the United States. Broadbent sent me three of its wines to sample: the 2005 Dragon's Hollow cabernet sauvignon, the 2006 riesling, and the 2006 chardonnay, all of which have a suggested retail price of $12.99. The chardonnay had an attractive floral kick to the nose and a nice, lemony crispness on the palate. The riesling was subdued aromatically but also delivered a good thwack of refreshing citrus flavors. The cabernet, on the other hand, was lean and green (i.e., the grapes were not sufficiently ripe). None of the wines will be win a gold medal (or 90-point rating) anytime soon. But as Lao-tzu might have said, the journey to thousand-dollar wines begins with a single sip.