Although winemaking first arrived in China over 2,000 years ago during the Han Dynasty, the country is new to modern winemaking. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1980s that China made the decision to resurrect and repair its presence in the wine producing community.
It is no secret that China is an enormous country. As a result, it features a broad spectrum of topography, climate and soil types, all contributing to the diversity and quality of its products. Its current vineyards are predominantly focused on growing red varietals, including Cabernet Gernischt (Carménère), Merlot, Marselan, and most importantly, Cabernet Sauvignon, the country’s favorite varietal.
When China first set its new winemaking wheels into motion, its main objective was to recreate Bordeaux-style wines. From
There are currently twelve major wine regions in China, with five fostering reputations for enhanced quality and more sophisticated production techniques. The Shandong Peninsula, located on the westernmost border of the country, has been China’s most productive wine region for decades, and is responsible for yielding over 40% of its wine. Changyu, China’s first modern winery, was opened in Shanndong in 1982. Shandong’s climate is decidedly maritime, what with its proximity to the Pacific Ocean. This proximity also translates into monsoons and high annual rainfalls for the region as well, often wreaking havoc on already vulnerable vineyards. Grape varietals planted include Cabernet Gernischt, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. 2018 was a stellar year for Shandong, as France’s Château Lafite Rothschild released its first Chinese brand called Domaine de Long Dai based in Shandong’s sub-region, Penglai. The Château had initiated investments in the region in 2008, and planted 30 hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon, Marselan and Cabernet Franc among the granite-dominant soil.
In central China lies Ningxia, a relatively isolated region known for producing many of China’s most celebrated and well-received wines. Specializing in Bordeaux-inspired varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Gernischt, the region raised its commercial profile after winning a highly publicized “Bordeaux versus Ningxia” blind competition. Ningxia went home with four of the five top placements. Approximately 38,000 hectares are under vine in Ningxia, and over 200 wineries are currently in operation in the foothills of Helan Mountain despite the often uncooperative climate. Winter is especially harsh, driving caretakers to bury the vineyards in order to ensure their survival.
Northwest of Shandong and surrounding the capital city of Beijing is the Hebei region which includes two separate sub-regions, Hualai and Changli. The third largest wine producing region in China, it has over 13,000 hectares under vine and generates over $1.4 billion annually in global sales. Huailai sits to the northwest of Beijing, nestled within the region’s hillside. Its vineyards enjoy high-altitudes of up to 1,000 meters, with dry weather sustaining throughout most of the growing season. Changli rests near the Bohai Sea, bringing in high levels of humidity. As in Ningxia, the sub-region’s harsh winters require that the vines be buried by hand to survive.
In remote northwest China lies Xinjiang, a region larger in size than California and Texas combined. Despite its expanse, the Xinjiang has only 6,500 hectares under vine, as its difficult environment presents high temperatures and little rain for relief. These conditions tend to yield grapes with a higher sugar content and low acidity, making them more appropriate for sweet dessert wine production. Due to its location, transportation is cumbersome and problematic; in response, most wines are shipped to larger wine companies for blending and distribution.
Hedged between Laos and Myanmar near China’s southwestern tip, the Yunnan plateau grows grapes in altitudes reaching as much as 2,600 meters high. At these heights, quality fruit can be easily cultivated despite the overly warm and humid climate. This attribute caught the interest of Moët Hennessy, as the producer recently purchased over 200 hectares for planting Cabernet varietals.
While China still has much to learn, the country is determined to nurture its fledgling wine industry to greater heights. Challenges, especially those associated with climate, remain frustrating, but they seem to make local winemakers all the more tenacious and resolute about identifying solutions that will drive their presence on the global wine market.