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Domestic wine with a global passport

By Mike Peters ( China Daily ) Updated: 2016-06-07 07:25:24

Domestic wine with a global passport

Austrian winemaker Lenz Moser. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Barrel No 1 is almost chocolaty, softer than any of the others. Barrel No 2 is more macho, the flavor long and spicy.

"Too much, of course," says consulting winemaker Lenz Moser from Austria, who was in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region for a barrel tasting last fall. "But it will age well, getting smoother while adding 'power'."

Fast-forward to last month, when two years of cosseting in six different French oak barrels was complete, and deft blending by in-house winemaker Fan Xi had produced the 2013 Chateau Changyu Moser XV. One of Europe's top distributors has signed on after a barrel tasting, and hopes to make deals with two other Ningxia wineries. Meanwhile, thousands of carefully selected corks arrive from France, and an eager parade of glass bottles sails along a Changyu conveyor belt.

By the time you read this, five different premium wines-65,000 bottles-will be on their way to the finest restaurant tables in Europe.

Domestic wine with a global passport

Austrian winemaker Lenz Moser. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Evolving wines

Changyu was founded in 1892 in Yantai, Shandong province, by a veteran Chinese diplomat named Zhang Bishi. The company's name is formed from his surname Zhang (Chang) and the Chinese character that means prosperity.

Zhang, a vineyard enthusiast from his wide travels, had big ideas for what was a novelty business in China. By 2011, Changyu Pioneer Wine Company was among the 10 largest wine companies in the world, producing more than 90,000 tons of wine that year. Now a stock-listed corporate giant, the company has holdings in France and Spain, with eyes on other acquisitions.

Despite a slump in 2014, China continues to be a fast-growing market for wine, with consumption per capita doubling between 1995 and 2010 to 1.2 liters. That is still 40 times less than consumption in France, where wine drinking is actually declining, so the potential in China is huge.

For most of its short life, the Chinese wine market has grown faster than producers could keep up. Commercial giants like Changyu had little need to produce vintages of superior quality when making wine fast and cheap generated quick sales. Graced with European-style chateaux, Changyu vineyards now sprawl across millions of hectares in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region (its biggest operation), Liaoning (where it makes a lauded ice wine) and Shaanxi (with what may be the largest wine cellar in Asia) provinces.

However, China's biggest companies took notice when boutique wineries sprang up in Ningxia and created what has become a Napa Valley wannabe, a wine zone that would feed a thirst for quality instead of quantity. When labels like Jia Bei Lan (made by Helan Qingxue) and Pretty Pony (Kanaan) started scooping up international awards and tributes, the value of that effort became plain.

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