A specter is haunting Western wine geeks: the prospect of 1 billion Chinese people besotted with wine. As China becomes an economic colossus, its increasingly voracious appetite for scarce natural resources will inevitably extend to the world's most sought-after wines. If even a tiny fragment of China's population acquires the means and desire to regularly drink the likes of Haut-Brion and Romanée-Conti, the effect on (already high) prices and (already tight) supplies will be profound. And, in fact, the balance of wine-buying power is already shifting eastward: Chinese collectors have furiously sought out one first-growth Bordeaux, Château Lafite; and Hong Kong, which recently lifted all duties on wine, is now poised to rival London and New York as a hub of the global wine trade. Of course, there is always the possibility that China could eventually slake its own growing thirst for cabernets and merlots. China has a long viticultural heritage, and on the back of the country's economic gains, the local wine industry is booming: China is now the world's sixth-largest wine producer. But output is one thing, and quality is another. Might there soon be truly fine wines bearing the "Made in China" label?
I lived in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s, just before the British colony was returned to Chinese rule. Hong Kong was a sophisticated city with a number of major wine collectors, but the mainland was a vinous frontier, and the tales of mainland wine culture that filtered out were wild (and often carried a distinct whiff of condescension): Stories of Château Petrus being mixed with Coca-Cola and similar crimes being perpetrated against other prestigious wines were widely circulated.
More than a decade later, a vibrant and increasingly savvy wine culture has taken root in China. The country's wine consumption jumped more than 50 percent during the first half of this decade and is on course to increase another 70 percent during the second half. These numbers have caught the eye of all sorts of Western wine luminaries, who have begun to take China very seriously. Robert Parker just paid his maiden visit, a trip that included a $2,300-a-head black-tie dinner held on the Great Wall. Acclaimed British wine writer Jancis Robinson went to China in March and came back a believer; her popular Web site is now being translated into Chinese. And last summer, I saw Bernard de Laage, the marketing and communications director for Château Palmer, a Bordeaux third-growth, just before he headed off on a trip to China. I assumed his itinerary would be limited to the obvious destinations: Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong. But it turned out he was doing tastings in Wuhan, Taiyuan, and Qingdao. In an e-mail last week, de Laage told me that he is returning to China in September and will be visiting Dongguan, Xiamen, and Shenzhen. Evidently, the wine bug has spread far beyond the China's biggest and most international cities.
But it is not just the enthusiasm of Chinese wine buffs that is attracting all this attention; it is their rapidly growing purchasing power. Boris de Vroomen, the managing director of Moët Hennessy Diageo Hong Kong Limited and the chairman of the Hong Kong Wine and Spirits Industry Coalition, recently estimated that Hong Kong buyers account for as much as one-quarter of the wine sold at auction these days and that 40 percent of the fine wine sold by merchants in London goes to collectors in Hong Kong, mainland China, and Macau. In an effort to bring this business home, the Hong Kong government scrapped import duties on wine and beer in February. Three months later, New York's Acker Merrall & Condit, which has topped the U.S. wine auction market four of the last five years, held its first-ever sale in Hong Kong, and the response was so exuberant—the total take was $8.2 million and several record prices were set—that it immediately scheduled a sequel for November. Two other leading houses, Zachys and Christie's, are also holding auctions in Hong Kong this autumn.
But there is more than enough Chinese money to go around, a point underscored at the recent Auction Napa Valley, an annual charity benefit renowned for its high quotient of celebrities (Oprah attended this year's event, and Jay Leno emceed it) and the lavish sums paid for trophy wines. Back in the tech-bubble days, it was Silicon Valley moguls who caused the biggest stirs; this year, it was an Internet entrepreneur from Shanghai named David Li, who ponied up $500,000 for six magnums of 1992 Screaming Eagle, California's most sought-after cult cabernet sauvignon. "I love Screaming Eagle," Li gushed to the Wine Spectator. "Napa Valley wines are the best in the world."
I am delighted he thinks so, and as a Franco-centric wine drinker, I only wish Mr. Li could persuade other Chinese oenophiles to focus on Napa rather than Bordeaux or Burgundy (an even more alarming prospect, given the minuscule quantities of wine produced there). Alas, for most Chinese collectors, France is the touchstone, and Bordeaux especially—so much so they've even started to buy wineries there. Last January, a Chinese firm acquired an estate called Château Latour-Laguens, in the Entre-Deux-Mers section of Bordeaux (no relation to Château Latour). One first-growth, Lafite, has become a particular obsession for many Chinese wine fans. Acker Merrall President John Kapon confirms the intense Lafite interest among Chinese connoisseurs, adding half-jokingly that it is getting to the point that "there doesn't seem to be enough [Lafite] to go around!"