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Raise a Glass to China: The Rise of Chinese Wine by JEFF YEUNG14/05/2024  


At the inaugural Wynn Signature Chinese Wine Awards, three experts tellPrestigewhy you should consider picking up a bottle for your next dinner party or date night.


When talking about wine consumption, it’s hard not to mention China, which in 2017 drank its way through 1.9 billion litres of the liquid. Although the numbers have gradually declined since the pandemic, the country is still the world’s eighth-leading wine consumer, at a steady 0.88 billion litres.

When it comes to the other side of the coin, that of wine production, China probably isn’t among the first countries that come to mind – in fact for most consumers it might not come to mind at all. Yet the fact is that the number of Chinese winemakers and production volumes have skyrocketed over the past decade. “There’s been an explosion of new producers,” says the China-based Master of Wine Julien Boulard. “When I first arrived in China 20 years ago, you could count on the fingers of one hand how many producers there were. Now, there are hundreds of wineries scattered around the country.”

In 2020, China was not only the world’s 10th-biggest wine producer, but also the largest grape producer, with more land used for vineyards than any other nation. Today, there are roughly 700 to 800 wineries in the country, which together produce 0.42 billion litres of wine a year. So why is it most people never think of Chinese wines when they’re picking out a bottle? The reason, say the experts, is simple: stigma.



“Is there still stigma? Honestly, yes, especially abroad,” says Janet Z Wang, wine pundit, judge and writer ofThe Chinese Wine Renaissance: A Wine Lover’s Companion. “One of the reasons why I wrote the book is because I was surprised that when Chinese wines started to win international trophies and I told people about it, the first reaction I’d get was astonishment. They had no idea China even made wine, and when they did find out, they thought we only make it because we could do it cheaper. It’s a preconceived notion, because most of those people I’ve spoken to have never even tried Chinese wine.

“What’s interesting is that this stigma comes not only from outside of China but also from within, and I think that’s the most important aspect of it. If a wine region wants to become famous outside of its own territory, it first needs to win the stamp of approval from its locals, and the problem is that a lot of Chinese consumers don’t believe China can produce high-quality wines. For the longest time, imported wines were the reference for quality, and the wine production scene in China was dominated by large-scale industrial producers who weren’t focusing on quality.”

Although these industrial producers still have a role to play in the Chinese market, trends have been changing. The surge in wineries in the country has led to the establishment of more boutique winemakers that focus on the production of premium wines. To demonstrate just how great Chinese wines can be, many of these wineries host blind tastings, pitting their own bottles against the best of the best from other more traditional winemaking regions. And guess who often comes out on top?

“Chinese wines compare brilliantly with international offerings,” asserts Boulard. “We had a blind tasting two months ago hosted by a top producer from Yunnan, where we compared his wines with the best of the best from Napa Valley, California. His wines performed much better than all of those from the US. And I can name three or four producers like that from Shangri-La. They can really surpass world-class wines.”

Wang agrees. “Quality-wise, Chinese wines have made leaps and bounds in the past decade,” she says. “The winemakers are more confident – they want to show their own terroirs, they want to share their own story, they want to make wine that talks about their own region and heritage rather than just imitating Western wines. They’ve made
so much progress in these aspects.”


This exceptional quality explains why consumers are beginning to appreciate Chinese wines, though progress remains slow. “My sommelier friends in Singapore told me that maybe four years ago, they’d promote Chinese wines during Chinese New Year and none of their customers would want to try it, because they thought the quality wasn’t as great,” says Della Tang, winner of the first-ever Asia’s Best Sommelier Award. “But now many restaurants or bars will have a full page of Chinese wines. I think that reflects the changing preferences of the market, because if you’ve got a full page of Chinese wines, it must mean they can sell.”

“If we look back to 2012, in London, which is one of the most diverse wine markets in the world, you’d be hard-pressed to maybe find even three Chinese wines,” adds Wang. “But today you can probably find 10 or 20. It’s definitely improved, though very slowly.”

Even though the quality can be on par with other leading wine-producing regions, good reviews and high ratings clearly aren’t enough to combat the stigma on their own. So what can the industry do?

“Grape wine needs more support in general from Chinese people,” says Wang. “It’s one of the only industries here that doesn’t have the natural support of our community’s diaspora. Out of modesty, a lot of winemakers in China will say things like, ‘Wine is really from the Old World,’ and that may be true from their personal experience, but China actually has thousands of years of winemaking history.

“I used to talk to a lot of Bordeaux producers who came to China for the first time, and they’d tell me that when they entered new markets, people usually preferred fruitier wines. But in China, consumers really understood tannins and structure, and they were surprised by how sophisticated our palates were. And they shouldn’t be. We have a very sophisticated culinary culture and tea culture that dates back thousands of years.

“The one thing we can do better is not to be so modest all the time. We should be proud of our heritage and the fact that we have – and have had for a very long time – a vivacious wine culture.”