Winemakers from East and West converge on Chengdu

Updated: 2014-04-14 15:46

By Ye Jun in Chengdu (China Daily USA)

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New Chinese wineries courted the media for attention. Wine associations organized tastings to introduce the latest wines. Wine merchants invited clients to dine at many of the city's gourmet restaurants, taking the time not just to sell, but also to socialize.

The 90th China Food and Drinks Fair created plenty of buzz in Chengdu, capital of Southwest China's Sichuan province, during the last week of March. Old and new powers of the wine industry made an appearance at the fair - testimony to the growing strength of the Chengdu market area.

The loudest buzz reverberated from Chengdu to California: the Robert Mondavi Winemaker announced an alliance with the Chinese giant Vats Liquor that aims to make the Napa Valley winery "the No 1 premium wine brand in China".

Mondavi's parent corporation, Constellation Brands Inc, has more than 100 brands in its portfolio, and sales in approximately 100 countries. Founded in 1945, it is a leading international producer and marketer of beer, wine and spirits with operations in the United States, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and Italy.

Vats Liquor, meanwhile, is a top chain store in China. It is the agent and distributor of such big-name brands as Moutai, Wuliangye and Lafitte.

 Winemakers from East and West converge on Chengdu

The Leirenshou winery in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region promotes its wines in Chengdu. Ye Jun / China Daily

The deal merges Vats Liquor's deep understanding of the Chinese consumers and its professional brand building capacities with Mondavi's big production, good value for money, and guaranteed quality, according to Wu Xiangdong, chairman of Vats Group and Vats Liquor.

Mondavi sells about 10,000 12-bottle cases annually in China - a small showing compared to the potential it sees working with Vats as its distributor on the Chinese mainland.

At a tasting at Chengdu's Minyoun Royal Hotel, Genevieve Janssens, director of winemaking with Robert Mondavi Winery, explained her company's vision of a good wine: finesse, elegance, balance and always good to pair with food.

All the wines of the day reflected that. The Fume Blanc 2012, Chardonnay Reserve 2009, Pinot Noir Reserve 2011, Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2008 and 1998, and Sauvignon Blanc Botrytis 2001 all matched up wonderfully with dishes served. The wines are generally rounder, more balanced, with a longer aftertaste than many table wines on the market. Wines with good power and structure, they tasted better after a while in the glass.

Compared to the ambition of Robert Mondavi, the Leirenshou winery in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region was just testing the waters in Chengdu.

Owner Feng Qing exhibited his wines at a five-star hotel, the fair's branch site. He invited wine sellers and the media to dinner to sample his wares. It was an experimental step, he said, to see the market's reaction.

The winery has just 267 hectares at the east foot of Helan Mountain, facing the bank of Yellow River. The logo is an ancient rock carving of the god of the sun, a pattern resembling a human head. Production began under a French winemaker and continues by a Chinese.

Try the winery's rose and red wines, blends of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and you will be surprised by their high quality. The winery that is just 11 years old won a Decanter's silver award with its 2009 cabernet sauvignon-merlot blend.

Blessed with good soil, water from the Yellow River and plenty of sunshine in Ningxia, quite a few good wines and wineries have emerged in the region. The Ningxia local government gives a lot of support, Feng says, and the region is likely to assemble a team to represent themselves collectively at a wine fair in the future.

Wine consumption by the Chinese is different from foreigners', says Shen Zhongxun, wine expert with the Wine Institute of Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University.

"It is not just a way to celebrate holidays but also a means to maintain social and business relationships," he says at a fair forum.

"Imported wines such as those from Bordeaux once created sales miracles. Chinese people for a while thought only imported wines are good wines. That boosted prices to far above value."

The situation has now changed, he says, as the quality of Chinese wines rises and problems with some imported wines are exposed.

"Now Chinese wine lovers understand high-priced wines are not always the best," he says. "They are more willing to try wines with unique flavors."

On the other hand, there are opportunities for imported wines, too. As import taxes decrease, Chinese wines are not as competitive in price as before. Good imported wines are now available for less than 100 yuan ($16) a bottle.

For the first time at the fair, grape-wine displays exceeded those for baijiu, Chinese clear liquor. But Vats Liquor's Wu believes wine and baijiu are not competitive varieties of alcohol. He says many Chinese people drink wine when they are middle-aged, and consider it a healthy substitute for baijiu.

(China Daily USA 04/14/2014 page10)