Chinese wine goes international

Will these two top reds be the heralds of a new vinous frontier?

Image: Chris Burke

If you tell people you’re going to a Chinese wine tasting the first thing they usually do is grimace. But then they want to know more. Because, despite the fact that China is the world’s sixth-biggest wine producer, only around one per cent of Chinese wine ever leaves the country. So most people have no idea what it actually tastes like. 

To rectify this, the International Wine & Spirit Competition recently organised the UK’s first large-scale tasting of Chinese wines for the trade. There were more than 50 medal-winning wines on show (although the majority were “bronze”, which isn’t much to shout about), ranging from old world-style Cabernet Sauvignons to Rieslings and even sweet ice wines. 

I found a lot of them a bit clumsy, particularly in their use of oak. But increasingly there are some top-class wines coming out of China, such as Château Changyu Moser XV (£59 from Berry Bros & Rudd), a Cabernet blend from the country’s oldest and biggest wine company.  

Founded in 1892, Changyu Pioneer Wine Company has eight châteaux in six different parts of China (as well as several interests overseas). The XV is made at its flagship winery in Ningxia, west of Beijing, which has a climate a bit like Mendoza in Argentina, according to Austrian winemaker Lenz Moser, who’s been a consultant for Changyu since 2005.    

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“It’s only since 2015 or ’16 that the Chinese have really got to grips with winemaking,” says Moser. “The investment, the hardware, was there already, but 2015 was all about the ‘software’ – the know-how and better winemaking practices. There was also a real change in mindset, a willingness to ‘go international’, coupled with the drive and passion to make it happen.” 

In 2016, Moët Hennessy – which counts Krug, Dom Pérignon and Cheval Blanc in its portfolio – released the first vintage of Ao Yun, a high-end bordeaux blend made in a remote corner of Yunnan Province, in the Himalayas. I tasted the second vintage, the 2014 (£280 from Clos19), last year and it was great – inky and generous, with a firm tannin and cassis-like acidity. (Whether it warrants the price tag is another question – you could buy a lot of good bordeaux for that.) 

‘‘It’s a dream for a winemaker to do a project like this,” says Ao Yun’s Bordelais winemaker Maxence Dulou. “The terroir here is so diverse – we are learning more every year.” Ao Yun 2015 will be released next year. 

European winemakers like Moser and Dulou have been instrumental in raising China’s game. But a new generation of (often female) talent is now coming through, says Moser, highlighting Zhang Jing, who makes the Jia Bei Lan wine at Helan Qingxue Vineyard. “We’re going to see a huge increase in quality.”

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