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Wine tourism in China: How to explore emerging Disney-esque world

www.dallasnews.com by Kathy Chin Leong30/09/2017  

Inside a dimly lit room, rows of bobbleheads resembling medical doctors illuminate a wall in a game dubbed "Testing of Health Puppet." Correctly answer questions on the benefits of wine by pressing a button. If you fail, the dolls tumble to their doom. 

Steps away, tourists stick out their tongues to examine their magnified taste buds. Others pass a ceramic grape, toy truck-sized. In a corner, kids on a field trip take turns grabbing a joystick to swirl a digital glass of merlot and see it change color. 

Delivering an experience part Disney-esque, part edutainment, China is entering the realm of wine tourism.

Destinations such as Chateau Changyu Rena in Xi'an are sparing no expense to share vino culture with its own citizens. 

The multi-million dollar Rena stone castle with a wine museum, cherub-filled fountains and gold-gilded ceilings echo the Palace of Versailles. Yet, in the restrooms, squat toilets remind you that you're in rural China. The nearby countryside is lined with cemeteries and local families burning incense to pay homage to their ancestors.

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The newly opened wine production center from Changyu Pioneer Wine Company resembles a series of barrels on their sides. Based in the city of Yantai, the company intends to develop the northern China region into an internationally known wine city. (Kathy Chin Leong/Special Contributor)


Go big or go home

In spite of the chateau's location, Chinese are flocking to all things European. Showcasing gargantuan oak casks in endless barrel caves along with statues a la Michelangelo, these facilities dwarf Napa wineries in comparison. 

"If contemporary China had a motto, it would be 'Go big or go home,'" said New Yorker Mark Ellwood, a recent visitor.

"It's disconcerting to see an Italianate chateau in the Chinese countryside like it was plopped there by some giant, imaginary crane. But's also quite charming. There's a kitschy winkishness to it." 

Changyu Pioneer Wine represents the country's first and largest wine company, which began in 1892. It is ranked among the 10 largest winemakers in the world. Today, it is expanding its territory, sprinkling wine chateaus like its Xi'an property throughout the land and building processing facilities so James Bond-ish that guards protect them day and night.  Six fairy-tale castles are in operation now with two more under construction. 

"The knowledge of wines of Chinese people is lacking," said Changyu general manager Zhou Hang Jiang, through a translator at a recent press conference at Xi'an chateau. "We want this place to be another place of interest, a sightseeing point." 

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Changyu Pioneer Wine, the oldest winemaker in China, is building a series of wine chateaus around the country. This one is a brandy chateau due to be completed this year in Yantai, a city in northern China. (Kathy Chin Leong/Special Contributor )


Chinese wine rarely exported

The majority of vineyards are scattered throughout northern China, often erected in the middle of peasant villages and outlying territories. According to Demei Li, enology professor at Bejing Agriculture College, China has at least 1,000 wineries, and the number is rapidly growing. And if you have never heard of Chinese wine, that's because bottles are sold domestically and rarely exported. 

Many wineries are not ready for prime-time tourism, but the ones that are have unique approaches. Treaty Port plays up the Scottish castle theme, featuring gargoyles and kilted staffers. Junding Winery has a golf course for club members. Grace Vineyard's French manor offers food and wine pairings with classic gourmet Chinese dishes. 

Small operations are in abundance, but harder for Westerners to access because they are scattered.  Shangdong province (more than 200 miles southeast of Bejing), Shaanxi province (756 miles west of Beijing), and the autonomous desert region of Ningxia (500 miles west of Beijing) are the most popular geographical areas for wine visitors. 

According to Changyu vice manager Mayzee Zhao, the company plans to develop the beachside community of Yantai, in Shangdong, as China's first international wine city with an investment of more than $942 million. 

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Visitors from the Czech Republic learn about vine-tending methods at a Chinese winery. (EasyTourChina.com)

At its new industrial park, Changyu has opened a 19-story wine research center and airplane hangar-type production facility with fermentation tanks so high that its takes a spiral staircase to reach the top.  It will debut a brandy chateau and white wine castle within the next year. 

Meanwhile, at least 100 wineries are operating in the parched Ningxia province, a grapes' throw away from the Gobi desert, where winters are so cold wineries must bury their vines and exhume them in spring. Ningxia is positioned to become China's most productive wine region with an estimated 200 million bottles by 2020. Established wineries open to tourists include Silver Heights Winery, Chateau St. Louis Ding and Qingxu Vineyards.

How to tour the wineries

Independent travelers should plan well ahead and secure transportation and a translator. 

"If you are an adventure traveler, then this type of trip can be for you," said Janis Miglavs, an Oregon photographer who has visited China wineries on multiple occasions. At the same time, benefits of going with an established tour operator include tailored winery visits, English-speaking guides, and bundled flights or bus transportation. 

Marc Curtis founded China Wine Tours (chinawinetours.com) in 2007. This American said he takes participants through Ningxia at boutique wineries. 

The cost is $200 per person per day and includes three wineries, transportation, meals and guides. Tours typically have only two to four guests and winemakers can answer guest's questions in great specificity. "They have studied abroad and have the same appreciation for the art of winemaking that is found in the best wineries of the world," Curtis said.

Quality is on the upswing. "In 2006, I bought a bottle of Great Wall cabernet sauvignon, took one sip, and wouldn't touch the rest of the bottle. It was truly the worst wine I have ever had in my life." 

Since then, Curtis has tried fabulous wine from other China producers, and after sharing them with his sommelier friends, he reported, "We are all amazed! It is an industry that is winning praise." 

Larger outfitters, notably Easy Tour China (easytourchina.com), added winery visits to its itineraries last year. The eight- and 14-day vino excursions run $2,500 and $3,900 and combine wineries with local attractions. The fee includes English-speaking guides, domestic transportation, lodging, meals and entrance fees. The best time to go is from September to November. 

Don't assume a winery will offer tastings. Even if one does, it may not have the personnel who understand how the wine is made. "Each winery sets its own method," said Curtis. "Some won't do tastings unless you buy a bottle first."

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Tourists from the Czech Republic compare Chinese wines on their wine tour from Easy Tour China.

(Kathy Chin Leong/EasyTourChina.com)

A different take on wine

As it matures in wine development, China is conjuring up its own take instead of copying everyone else. Grace Vineyard in the province of Shaanxi makes Yiyuan Blue, a blue wine once offered by Cathay Pacific Airlines. For those who prefer sweeter concoctions there's Chandon Me Rosé, a lollipop-flavored sparkling rosé. It is designed to be savored at room temperature; Chinese believe that quaffing very cold beverages is unhealthy. 

Although the average resident barely knows the difference between a table grape and a wine grape, there are some 40 million wine consumers in the  country's population of 1.3 billion.  Experts report that China is the No. 1 buyer of red wine since the color is equated with prosperity and wealth. 

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At the Mengtequan Aged Wine store, medicinal wine in large vats hold center stage. Chinese have long believed in the curative properties of wine for drinking and rubbing on the body. 

(Kathy Chin Leong/Special Contributor )

Wine history

Chinese have been fermenting grapes for thousands of years, but drinking grape wine didn't catch on in popularity until the 1990s, when China's rising middle class traveling abroad wanted to emulate the West. Sophisticated wineries have sprung up with European- and American-trained winemakers on the forefront. Their wines are sweeping international awards.

China's poor air quality is a fact of life. When asked about the impact of air pollution on wine, Reina said jokingly, "We don't get into that. We let the farmers do their jobs."

You might call the hullabaloo China's Grape Leap Forward. Seeing how China explains wine to its own people at the most elementary level is a fascinating cultural snapshot. 

"Remember, this economy has gone from zero to hero in two generations," says Ian Bremmer, CEO for Eurasia Group, New York, a political consultancy. "The Chinese have an appreciation for higher quality stuff in the same way people in the U.S. and Europe look for the best restaurants or hotels."