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China's New Wave of Natural Wine by Jim Boyce09/03/2023  

Adversity has sparked diversity for China's winemakers, with niche wines emerging in what was a very traditional wine market.

They say a little stress for vines leads to better wines. That maxim also applies to Chinese producers these past three years.

Of course, Covid brought more than a little stress. Local wine production and wine imports plummeted while the trade had fleeting access to the outside world and faced major restrictions at home during a zero-Covid regime that ended in December.Even so, many winemakers raised their game in terms of quality and diversity. The latter saw a blooming of niche wines that checked boxes such as "orange", "natural", "pet-nat" and "biodynamic" and used grapes far beyond theBordeauxvarieties traditionally favored.

TakeChineseorange wines, virtually unheard of before Covid. Mega producer COFCO (GreatWall), boutique operations Silver Heights, Longting and Charme, and independent labelXiao Puare among those working this style nationwide.

In fact, critic Shuai Zekun rankedNingxia-based Charme's 2021 orangeViognierat number 10 in his recent Top 100 report on Chinese wines for

"It was genuinely outstanding," he said. "Last year, I tasted nearly 8000 wines from all over the world and this skin-contact Viognier still shines among its orange wine peers."

Overseas influenceNiche wines have grown steadily in China due to a blend of overseas influence, local ambition and economic necessity.

"We cannot ignore international winemaking trends and young people seeking something new," says Ma Huiqin, a wine marketing expert and professor at China Agricultural University in Beijing.

"People in China are hearing about natural wines, about orange wines, and have begun to try them."

Ian Dai, a veteran of China's "minimal intervention" circles and owner of label Xiao Pu (Petit Garden), says the first fans of his wines – rare Chinese options in a sea of imports – were foreigners in Shanghai's bars.

"They come to China not to drink another French wine, another Italian wine. They love to see innovative Chinese wines."

Others people soon followed, including Chinese citizens who had studied or lived overseas and had wine exposure, but no commitment to any style, and those with freelance jobs, who tend to drink more wine than most, he says.

"They're kind of newbies, I think they drink only natural wine!"

Simone Incontro, China rep for Veronafiere and organizer of its Wine to Asia trade fair in Shenzhen, points to 2018 and 2019 as crucial.

"In six months to a year, we went from a few natural wine bars in Shanghai to 10-15 minimum," he says. "Meanwhile, in Chongqing and Chengdu, I began to see new wine bars with 50 to 60 percent natural wines."

Smaller markets like Xiamen and Qingdao saw tiny shops run by 20-somethings with large lists of pet-nats and natural wines, he says.

Inspired by this phenomenon in wine bars, as well as via private sales and e-commerce channels like that operated by natural wine specialists Bruto, Incontro created a pavilion called Living Wine at the Wine to Asia fair in Shenzhen in 2020. It was a major success and, while nearly every wine was an import, the next Living Wine in May will have far more local flavor.

Local ambition

Professor Ma says a local driver of this niche is winemakers in their late 30s and early 40s, who tend to have more training, including overseas, than their older counterparts.

"They have become the main force to develop and test different styles, to try different grape varieties," says Ma. "They are becoming decision-makers in their wineries and have much better vision."

They are buoyed by a decade of rising wine quality – and winemaker confidence – in which wineries got more resources.

Tour China's wineries and you increasingly find amphora lined up like terracotta warriors as well as top-notch equipment for everything from precision viticulture to grape sorting to fermentation.

Jim Boyce | A shift to less-formal dining and entertainment has seen a surge in interest in natural and niche wines.

Canaan winery near Beijing made five orange wines in 2021. During a December tasting, winemaker Zhao Desheng led a tasting of theChardonnay,Riesling,Sauvignon Blancand (mostly)Pinot Grigio.

Then there was a white blend. Chardonnay andChenin Blancplus a trio of varieties rarely seen in China:Muscat Blanc,EhrenfelserandMuller-Thurgau.

"Some of these grapes are experimental," he said, explaining how each contributed certain aromas, flavors or structure.

It vividly showed the convergence of more grape varieties, quality equipment and a Bordeaux-trained winemaker in the age range specified by Professor Ma.

But makers of local niche wines are also diverse.

Sun Miao and Peng Shuai of Domaine Aromes began pursuing biodynamic principles a decade ago at their tiny operation in Ningxia, making delicate wines when ample oak was a norm.

Incontro contrasts Ningxia winery Silver Heights, which has a fixed site and is more of an "institutional" producer, with someone more mobile, like winemaker Luo Yuchen, who worked at Jade Valley in Shaanxi and has extensive experience. ("He takes it quite seriously; he is very focused on the wine.")

In fact, such "winemakers without wineries", who source grapes, rent equipment and create labels, are truly pushing the envelope. Dai is most adventurous, having worked such distant regions as Ningxia (West),Hebei(East) andYunnan(South).

Others, like Liu Jianjun of Lingering Cloud in Ningxia, focus on one region and an annual cycle of finding grapes and equipment – and worrying.

"During fermentation, I worry about the wild yeast. After bottling, I worry about the second fermentation. After the wine is ready, I worry about marketing and sales."

Economic necessity

But Liu'sworries will be worth it if he finds an opening in a tight market.

The state of Chinese fine wine must baffle outsiders. On one hand, China's reputation rose quickly this past decade, with a mountain of medals, high scores and accolades. This was at the same time asgrowing interestin local products, due to national pride, from cell phones to sneakers to high-speed trains.

On the other hand, prices are high compared to imports and sales low: official production fell 22 percent in 2022 to just 214 million liters, a fifth of five years ago. Even worse, the lucrative banqueting sector, where patrons drink copious amounts of alcohol, was hit hard by Covid.

"The last three years, business has not been strong, people had more time to think about what to do," says Ma.

And some thought niche wines, a small slice of the market, but a vibrant one. Perhaps partly because it doesn't fit the usual wine model.

"A friend of mine opened a wine shop," says Dai. "He told me half of his consumers say 'I don't want natural wine'. The other half say 'Oh, I love natural wine'."

Incontro also sees a division and says niche wines can be compared to cocktails. He cites young female consumers in Shenzhen.

"They often go to independent coffee shops, cocktail bars and wine bars. They want to try natural wine," he says, the labels, taste and sharing all parts of the experience.

"'Let me try! Let me taste!' Like they would a cocktail," he explains.

Lingering Clouds' Liu hopes they taste his wines. Last September, he poured Chardonnay samples from three tanks as he discussed the difficulties of the Covid-era market.

Each Chardonnay was infused with a tea – jasmine, oolong and longjing (Dragon's Well) – that he made into pet-nats. He was essentially creating a niche within a niche.

"Differentiation may be a way to break out in this market," says Liu. "Natural wines, pet-nats, these are adapted to the younger consumer. Rather than for business entertainment, they drink to please themselves."