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New World wines are popular but now the Chinese are coming - according to a North East couple

www.chroniclelive.co.uk by JANE HALL27/07/2017  

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Ruth and Kelvyn who run Guest Wines aim to be among the first to start offering it to the public here in the UK, and are holding a special wine evening presented in Mandarin in collaboration with a former pupil of theirs, Lian Zhang (Image: Newcastle Chronicle)

We’ve grown to love New World wines from the likes of Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile.

Of the top five exporters of wine to the UK in 2016, three may have been ‘Old World’ – Italy, France and Spain – but coming in third was Australia, accounting for just over £236m, and at fifth was New Zealand at £222m.

It was the Aussies who helped erase much of the snobbishness surrounding viticulture in the UK by giving people what they wanted – flavour-packed and drinkable wines at affordable prices with (God forbid) intelligible labels.

In a few decades, wines from ‘Down Under’ have gone from being the butt of sommeliers’ jokes to picking up top industry awards.

It’s a feat the Chinese are now hoping to emulate.

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Ruth and Kelvyn who run Guest Wines aim to be among the first to start offering it to the public here in the UK, and are holding a special wine evening presented in Mandarin in collaboration with a former pupil of theirs, Lian Zhang (Image: Newcastle Chronicle)

Baijiu (or Chinese vodka, as it is also known) may be the national alcoholic drink. But the most populous nation on Earth (1.37bn and rising) has fallen under wine’s heady spell.

China has more land given over to its production than all but one other wine country. And its citizens – especially the young and upwardly mobile – are getting a taste for it, currently drinking around two billion bottles of red every year.

Here in the West, Chinese wine has barely made a ripple – but that could be about to change.

Sainsbury’s and Tesco have both recently added Chinese wines to their ranges. Sainsbury’s is stocking Changyu Noble Dragon Cabernet Gernischt and a Riesling, both at £10 a bottle.

The move followed the launch of Changyu wines at upmarket Berry Bros & Rudd in London, which supplies the Queen’s cellars.

China’s oldest domestic producer, founded in the Yantai region in 1892, is credited with being at the forefront of the country’s wine revolution.

Tesco, meanwhile, has added a Chinese Cabernet Sauvignon to its shelves from Changyu’s Chateau Moser XV, at £8.50 a bottle.

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Ruth and Kelvyn who run Guest Wines aim to be among the first to start offering it to the public here in the UK, and are holding a special wine evening presented in Mandarin in collaboration with a former pupil of theirs, Lian Zhang (Image: Newcastle Chronicle)


Both supermarkets believe China and its people will soon be a big player in the global wine world.

And so do the couple behind North Shields-based Guest Wines.

Soon Ruth and Kelvyn Guest hope to be among the first crop of businesses in the UK offering Chinese wines through their online shop.

But whereas Sainsbury’s and Tesco have gone with China’s largest and oldest producer in the Changyu Pioneer Wine Company (to give it its full name) the Guests are setting their sights on smaller, more specialised makers.

The pair have teamed up with Lian Zhang, a former student of theirs who is currently studying for a wine diploma.

She will be their eyes and ears in China as they hunt out the very best vintages to introduce to the UK.

In the meantime, the 28-year-old marketing graduate, who came to the North East five years ago to study at Northumbria University and currently lives in Killingworth, is helping her compatriots discover the delights of wine drinking.

She is hosting a wine tasting evening on July 27 at Bonbar in Newcastle organised by Ruth and Kelvyn. Aimed at the area’s Chinese community, the goal is to broaden their understanding of good quality wines.

For while China has shot up the wine producing league table, average annual consumption is still only 1.17 litres per person compared with between 30 and 40 litres in France and Italy.

Price has been cited as a deterrent but Lian says the real problem is knowledge. Low quality, super-cheap wines that flooded the Chinese market have soured people’s experience.

Lian started drinking wine at home in China because she says: “I just like drinking! I switched on to wine because it seemed posh, but I didn’t understand it. I think the problem for the new generation is that people don’t know what wine is.

“But I want people to understand it, to be able to look for the quality names and to see what a versatile drink wine is.”

Lian, Ruth and Kelvyn are not talking about the kind of professional knowledge they have acquired, but about raising general awareness and people’s curiosity.

The July 27 event will feature six non-Chinese wines to help open participants’ eyes to the huge variety available. It will be held in Chinese and English.

Kelvyn, 50, says there is a large Chinese community in Newcastle, especially among the student population.

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“They are already soaking up knowledge. If we can offer something to them in an easy going, fun way that they can take back to China, it will open so many doors for them, not just on a social level but potentially with employers.”

Lian hopes it will also encourage her compatriots to try their own home-grown wines. “Even if we have a really good wine in China, we can’t sell it to the Chinese people as the brand hasn’t been promoted so they wouldn’t touch it.

“They will buy from Australia or Chile as that is what they know and think is good.”

Kelvyn says it echoes British people’s relationship in the past with English wines. “People have been reluctant to drink English wines because they haven’t trusted them or they haven’t had the brand awareness. It was easier to go for an Australian or New Zealand brand.

“But English wines have proved themselves and more vineyards are opening.”

There is, says Kelvyn, a new wave of wine drinkers looking for something different – and be believes Chinese wines will fill that gap.

This is why, in November, Guest Wines will also be hosting a ‘New’ New World Evening in conjunction with the Cumbria Wine Society at the Armathwaite Hotel, on the shores of Bassenthwaite Lake, that will feature Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Thai wines.

By then they hope to be offering their first Chinese wines through their online shop.

Kelvyn and Ruth have already been bowled over by samples Lian has brought back from China.

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It was three years ago that the Guests first met her at a wine tutorial they were holding. Lian was so smitten by the experience, she has gone on to gain further wine qualifications and has been working at Bin 21 in Hexham to broaden her horizons.

She is originally from Xining, the capital of Quinhai province in the west of China, which in the last few years has become well-known for producing Shiraz, Riesling, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon wines.

China is so big that it can deliver a diverse range of wines although the majority are still reds.

But Kelvyn and Ruth say producers are becoming more daring as international winemakers with money in their pockets and centuries of expertise, such as Remy Martin, have begun moving in.

By the same token, Chinese investors have been snapping up vineyards, most notably in Bordeaux and California’s Napa Valley.

Things are moving apace and the feeling is that it won’t be long before Chinese wines are giving the old brands a run for their money.

In reality, wine is not new in China. There is evidence it was being consumed there nearly 5000 years ago. But at some point it seems to have fallen out of favour.

It wasn’t until the late 19th Century that European grape varieties were planted in China and it’s only recently, as the country has opened its borders and become more outward looking, that a wine drinking culture has begun to expand.

For Ruth, 41, being able to offer Chinese wines here in the UK would be especially poignant. She taught English as a foreign language, first at primary level and then in a high school, in Harbin in Heilongjiang, China’s northernmost province.

She then moved to Hong Kong for a time and worked for the British Council.

Her experience of Asian wines was mostly confined to the output from the Great Wall Wine Company, China’s largest domestic brand. But she has been bowled over by the quality now emerging.

“Production is quite focused on the French model and one of the criticisms has been that the Chinese have tried to reproduce the Bordeaux and Shirazes. But some of the ones we have had have been very impressive.

“They have learnt so quickly and are looking at climate, soil and techniques, and transferring those skills. For us it is great to be in a position to be able to get things out there and develop people’s tastes and interests further.”