Life and Leisure

A wine history that goes back 2,200 years

By Maggie Beale (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-10-29 11:26
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Just a few decades ago drinking grape wines grown and produced in China would have been unimaginable. Which isn't logical considering China has a history of grape planting and winemaking stretching back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).

Although history states modern winemaking started in 1892, it came to notice in 1980 from a joint venture between Remy Martin and Dynasty Wine Ltd. First reports were mixed, a tasting of the wines left me unimpressed.

One of my more memorable experiences of Chinese grape wine came from Huadong winery close to central Qingdao, when it was established by Michael Parry and Gabriel Tan.

And the 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon from Dragon Seal also opened my eyes to what could be done.

Today, Dragon Seal's Huailai Reserve is undoubtedly its flagship wine. It is a 50/50 blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah, grown in Hebei province. The 2005 vintage is intense ruby in color, with wonderfully complex aromas of ripe plums and raspberries. There's a subtle spiciness to this wine and fleeting coffee flavors. It is full, ripe, and mellow with the lengthy, minty finish oddly reminiscent of the best cabernet sauvignon wines from Central Chile.

Wines from Grace Vineyards in Shanxi province are of consistently good quality. The 2004 Tasya's Reserve cabernet sauvignon, which justifiably received an Honourable Mention at the 2007 Decanter World Wine Awards, is exemplary. The vintage is brick red in color with intense ripe black plum and blackcurrant aromas, a tinge of spice - mainly cinnamon and black pepper, followed by toasty characters, and a lingering finish.

First brought to my notice because of their vino-therapy health spa, a concept previously only known to me through visits to that of Chateau Smith Haut Lafite in Bordeaux, it was a pleasant surprise to find the wines Bodega Langes in Changli, Hebei, merit attention. Bodega Langes vines are grown organically, only natural-gravity production is used (as in the grand chateau of Bordeaux) and they have their own barrel making facility using oak wood from Changbai Mountain in the north of China. If ever a wine merits the title "made in China", this is it.

Founded through investment by Austrian crystal producer Swarovski, the Bodega Langes vineyard, hotel, spa complex lies near the coast - just as elevation is important to grape growing, sea breezes are also a plus factor in forming the character of wine.

The climate in the north of the country tends to be more favorable for grape-growing, especially to the east and west of the capital, where the climate is similar to that of the renowned French wine-producing region of Bordeaux.

Officially there are 150 wine producers in Yantai, northeastern Shandong province, where it all started in 1892, including famous local brands such as Changyu, Great Wall, Xintian and Weilong.

While some critics have treated these wines with the same type of disregard with which Chilean and Australian wines were once treated, others have recognized a new frontier with the potential to yield some interesting finds, and that China is producing drinkable table wines comparable to wines from other countries.

Highly respected wine critic Michael Fridjhon, who is based in South Africa and travels the world lecturing on wines, said: "I've tried quite a few wines from Grace Vineyards - and lately had what I understand is quite a prestigious brand served on Cathay Pacific Airways in J class.

"By and large, I've liked what I've tasted. Nothing exceptional yet, wineries are trying a little too hard, oak being used too evidently - but this is no worse than could be said about many New World wine producers - many with a longer established modern wine tradition.

"I have no doubt that China will be an international wine force - and I'd be keen to taste more extensively."

It is a view held by other luminaries of the wine world.

In conversation some weeks ago with internationally renowned winemaker Michel Rolland, he recalled his impressions when he first visited China with our mutual friend and winemaker the late Jean Michel Arcaute about 20 yeas ago.

"We saw some possibilities even then. I know China is growing very fast and producing a lot of wine - even if the quality is so-so," Rolland said. "Every country in the world has made so-so wine at the beginning. China wine is just at the beginning now and the Chinese are not stupid. They will be able to produce very good wine in the near future."

Well, as they say, what goes around comes around, and with smart commitment from the government and the private sector they're catching up fast. China is, once again, producing wines from grapes, and the domestic market is blossoming beyond all expectations.

According to recently published accounts, in 50 years it will be the biggest producer of wines in the world. As for quality - with China's reputation for tenacity and ability for research, in the not-so-distant future "made in China" could give the world's wine drinkers something to write home about.