Fine Wine and Caviar—Made in China?
ON A RARE CLEAR DAY, Grace Vineyard, 310 miles southwest of Beijing, might be mistaken for a winery in Tuscany. The balcony of the Italianate mansion overlooks lush rows of grapevines stretching to the horizon, where low mountains hover in the haze. Picnic tables sit scattered in a garden beneath slender trees that rustle in the dry wind. But take a stroll outside the winery gates, and you instantly step into the heart of provincial China. The unpaved lanes lead to farming villages whose crumbling facades are daubed with old Communist Party slogans and hung with tattered red flags. The motorbikes rattling past are beaten-up relics from Mao’s day; the grape pickers moving through the fields wear traditional broad peasant hats. Beyond them sit the half-forgotten byways of Shanxi province, a region renowned in the Imperial era as a center of trade and banking but more notorious in recent decades for its polluted cities devoted to the coal industry. Only a short drive away lie remnants of China’s ancient glory, such as the enormous Chang Family Manor, once the luxurious abode of tea merchants, its interior lined with exquisitely carved wood.
Grace Vineyard is focused more on China’s future. In the elegant dining room adorned with contemporary artwork, a small army of servers glides around me. While the kitchen prepares a banquet of delectable Shanxi treats, including scissor-cut noodles, sautéed river fish and fried bing pastries, a fastidious wine steward creeps up at regular intervals to refill my glass with Grace’s flagship Cabernet blend, the rich and velvety 2008 Chairman’s Reserve, rated 85 by Robert Parker’s website for its subtle blackberry flavors and hints of bay leaf, pepper and cedar.
Grace is at the forefront of one of China’s more improbable trends, as the most successful of a new wave of boutique wineries. Most have cropped up in the dry terrain of Ningxia in the north. But winemakers are also venturing into China’s more varied landscapes, laying vines from the deserts of the old Silk Road to the foothills of the Himalayas. There are now around 400 wineries in the country. Wine consultants from France, Greece, California and Australia are becoming as common as foreign IT experts in Shanghai, and the local product is being marketed not only to expats but to an increasingly sophisticated Chinese clientele.
The results are beginning to startle critics. In 2011, the Cabernet blend Jia Bei Lan,
from the Helan Quingxue vineyard, became the first Chinese wine to take theprestigious international trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards (judges praised its “supple, graceful and ripe” flavors and its “excellent length and four-square tannins”), and in 2011, four Chinese reds, led by Grace’s Chairman’s Reserve, beat French Bordeaux in a blind taste test in Beijing with international judges. Although some cried foul—wines had to be under $100, including the 48 percent mainland tax on imported wines—more vocal Chinese patriots hailed the result as heralding the arrival of an industry, evoking the famous blind tasting in 1976 when California wines outshone the Gauls for the first time.
As they advance, China’s boutique-wine pioneers may also help upend one of the many myths about the country. The conventional wisdom—or cliché—is that China can reproduce Western manufacturing or technology overnight, but European artisanal culinary delicacies that have evolved over generations are all but impossible to replicate. And yet, even apart from wine, there are dozens of small producers in China who are now attempting to do just that, with surprising success.
Truffles, burrata cheese, prosciutto, feta, Roquefort, baguettes, foie gras—almost every Western gourmet item has been tackled by Chinese entrepreneurs for a new audience of adventurous diners. The Temple Restaurant Beijing, a contemporary enclave that is part of a 600-year-old temple near the Forbidden City, offers excellent French-style cheeses crafted by Le Fromager de Pekin, founded by a local producer named Liu Yang. His specialties include Beijing Blue and Beijing Gray, whose consistency falls between a Camembert and Saint Marcellin. At Sir Elly’s Restaurant at the five-star Peninsula Shanghai, if you order the selection of caviars, three will be Chinese. For a decade already, a Chinese caviar industry in the rivers bordering Russia has been winning accolades and is exporting to the U.S. and Europe.
The main hurdle is convincing consumers to give Chinese products a chance—a problem that is particularly acute with wine. An affinity for grape wine seems culturally far removed from the Middle Kingdom. For some 4,000 years, the Chinese have preferred grain-based wine (typically rice), a dark, fortified brew that often resembles dry Sherry. (It became a state monopoly under the ancient Tang dynasty, when the government ran taverns that doubled as brothels, featuring female musicians outside to lure customers.) And like many uninformed outsiders, when I was first offered a glass of Chinese grape wine in Shanghai’s spectacular restaurant M on the Bund, I thought it was a practical joke. The idea tends to provoke remarks about toxic side effects—losing taste buds, for example, or even the sight in one eye. “Five years ago, you might have been right,” the owner, Michelle Garnaut, says, handing me a glass of Grace’s 2010 Chardonnay as we stand on the balcony facing the skyscrapers of Pudong. The first sip is a surprise—crisp and bright, with subtle nectarine flavors.
In fact, grape wine was first grown commercially in China in 1892, using vines imported from California, when it was marketed to foreign residents and the first rising class of Westernized Chinese. It was a strong beginning: In 1915, the winery, Changyu, won a string of gold medals at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, and in the wild and decadent 1930s, sultry movie star Hu Die (“the Chinese Marilyn Monroe”) promoted it in Shanghai. After a long period of stagnation following the Communist Revolution, production of wine began expanding after the country’s embrace of capitalism in the 1980s. According to Vinexpo, an international wine and spirits trade group, China is now the world’s eighth-largest wine producer and will be the sixth-largest by 2016, surpassing Australia and Chile. But the emphasis has long been on quantity rather than quality, with enormous state-owned companies like Great Wall and Dynasty churning out cheap wines for locals with industrial speed, often using grapes imported from Argentina and South Africa.
THE RISE OF boutique wineries is just one element turning the wine world on its head; another is the recent boom in international wine imports to China. At the luxury end of the market, the shifting tastes of China’s super wealthy are now dictating prices at auction houses around the world. Hong Kong led the way, abolishing the tax on imported wine in 2008 and becoming the world’s No. 1 wine auction market by 2011.“People say it’s a miracle, but it’s not,” says Gregory De’eb, general manager of Crown Wine Cellars, a fine-wine storage facility housed in a World War I ammunition depot leased from the Hong Kong government. For decades, Hong Kong’s wealthy had been storing their wines in cellars overseas. “In 2008, the floodgates opened,” De’eb says. “There was 40 years’ worth of wine knowledge, 40 years’ worth of stocks and a huge amount of capital. All the building blocks were in place.”
This wine expertise is now percolating through the mainland. “China started late, but it’s catching up quickly,” says Simon Tam, head of wine at Christie’s in China. “In just a few years, people have reached a very high level of appreciation. Chinese clients used to talk only about prices and vintages, not what was in the bottle. Now the important thing is not how much money you have but how you express it in wine knowledge.” Tim Weiland, former general manager of the exclusive Aman at Summer Palace in the emperor’s onetime retreat in Beijing, suggests that the image of China’s wealthy class as crass nouveau riche—mixing expensive Bordeaux with Coca-Cola, for example—is entirely out of date. “The nouveaux riches of 10 years ago are now the old rich,” he says. “They have homes in Switzerland and Aspen, they’re incredibly sophisticated and well-traveled—much more well-traveled than I am—and they know their wines.”
“Grace Vineyard is a model for the Chinese wine industry’s potential,” says Tam of Christie’s, pointing to its consistently good results over the past decade. Grace has an annual production of two million bottles, specializing in robust reds, with a few fine whites. Next year, Grace is even releasing the first Chinese sparkling wine, a blanc de blanc.
But on China’s wild frontier of taste, the artisanal success stories are nothing if not
eccentric. Even the birth of Grace Vineyard sounds like the premise of a reality-TV show. “We’re considered a miracle in the industry,” says Judy Chan, the CEO of the family-owned company, whose father moved from mainland China to Hong Kong in the 1970s after the Cultural Revolution. “We had no experience in wine, no connections, no distribution network.” Chan’s businessman father, Chun Keung Chan, purchased 150 acres of farmland in Shanxi in 1997 to fulfill a fantasy of owning a winery, and in 2002, as the first vintage was hitting the market, he handed over the reins to his spectacularly unqualified 24-year-old daughter. A psychology graduate who had recently quit Goldman Sachs, Chan had experienced wine only as a teenager on holiday in Burgundy, where she drank two glasses of red and fell asleep on the couch. Her arrival in the backwaters of rural Shanxi was a culture shock, as she was collected from the airport by the surly local vintners, who were suspicious of her youth, gender and evident inexperience. “When they mentioned Cabernet Sauvignon, I didn’t even know what they were talking about,” she recalls. “But I BS-ed my way through—a skill I had learned from Goldman Sachs.”
She had to learn almost every aspect of the industry from scratch, Chan tells me when we meet at a Michelin-starred Hong Kong restaurant, Bo Innovation, which serves a range of Grace wines with its molecular Chinese cuisine. A local designer created Grace’s first label, Chan says, but “it looked like soy sauce. We had to beg people to take it.” She hired an Australian consultant, Ken Murchison, and to improve quality, they uprooted half the original vines, which horrified government officials (“In China, everything has to get bigger and bigger!”). Even marketing the unfamiliar product had its comic elements. In 2003, Grace opened its first retail store in Fuzhou, where Chan’s family originated. “For 16 days, not a single person walked in,” Chan recalls. When one finally did, the four shopgirls rushed him. “He fled! They scared the poor guy to death.”
The breakthrough came when hotels in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing began to serve Grace wines—the Peninsula chain even commissioned a special label. The initial appeal was to foreigners who enjoyed the novelty, but the new wave of Chinese middle-class diners has now become the majority of the market. “A lot of Chinese people are proud of our wines and want to show them off,” says Chan, who admits there is still a deep prejudice against Chinese wine overseas. But if the quality is consistent, China can overcome its poor image, she suggests, as New World wines have. “People forget that when Californian and Australian wines first came out, consumers were very, very skeptical. The French looked down their noses for decades at the Napa Valley.”