The great wine wall of China

Are the Chinese, as a race, more intelligent than the rest of us? It is largely a matter of opinion but we know by now that these clever people are not only hardworking, but love to show the 'square-eyes' that they can beat us hands down. But when it comes to wine, what do they know? Since the word does not even feature in the Chinese vocabulary (they use the word for 'red'), we may think they start at a disadvantage. Surely there can be no wine culture if the stuff is unheard of. International experts (well, mainly French ones to be honest) have been telling us for years that it will only be a matter of time before the Chinese develop a taste for wine and became Europeanised in their drinking habits. Things certainly were going that way and last year Spain was number five on the country import list. A total of 200 foreign winemakers fight for a crumb of the Chinese tart, and not surprisingly all wine producers in the market dream of becoming brand leaders.

When French oenologist Denis Dubourdieu declared a few years ago that Chile is the El Dorado of winemaking and China is a basket case, many experts agreed with him, including the legendary Michel Rolland. No one argued with the assumption that the north of the country was too cold for vines and the south too tropical, so clearly China would always be an importer but never a producer. Right? Wrong! The boss of China's biggest group, Changyu Pioneers, with wineries in seven regions, agrees there will always be a place for imported premium wines, but his group's range is generally of better quality than the veritable flood of 'rubbish' (his term) entering the country via the 6,000 distributors handling foreign imports. He insists his group's wines are superior, and anyone believing Chinese consumers will prefer foreign qualities can dream on. A convincing argument is that 75% of wines made by one of the Group's bodegas, Changyu Moser XI, go overseas, some to European winemaking countries. Indeed, China could eventually be self-sufficient in wine.