In 2003 I managed to visit the top three Chinese wineries: Dynasty, Changyu and Great Wall. It wasn't long into the trip that I would hear a phrase repeatedly: 'We are the biggest in China, and the best.' It was a mantra conveyed within the first 10 minutes, several more times during the trip and repeated at least twice at the conclusion of my visit.
This is a phrase that triggers my suspicious journalistic instincts and so I would demand proof. Papers were produced containing a jumble of numbers and nothing I, or my translator, could decipher as proof of size and quality. Could you make a copy of this, I requested? Replies were all the same: 'No we cannot give you a copy. This is confidential information, but we are allowing you to view it. But as you can see,' they would say pointing to the documents, 'we are clearly the biggest and the best!'
Since 2000, China has grown as both a producer and consumer country of wines, now the sixth-largest producer in the world. According to the OIV (International Organisation of Vine and Wine), China produces more wine than Chile, Germany, South Africa and even Australia. Given its growth, it is surprising how little the replies among top Chinese wineries have changed. I spent quite some time with Luan Xiuju, managing director of China Foods, head of its enormous wine operation, which includes Great Wall, and Chateaux Sun God, Huaxia and Junding.
Luan is a no-nonsense woman who has streamlined Great Wall since taking charge early last year. She gained experience managing and leading to success COFCO Coca-Cola Beverages, a subsidiary of China Foods. However, Luan understands that wine is not a normal beverage - she has rebuilt the portfolio of wines into four categories: chateaux wines at the top of the heap, terroir wines equivalent to premium wine, followed by regional wines and table wines. Great Wall has also been on a buying spree, purchasing wineries in France and Chile, and now Luan is eyeing Australia, Spain, Italy and the US.
Not unexpectedly, Luan offers a long list of Great Wall's 'firsts': first chateau concept in China with Chateau Sun God in Hebei province in 1970. According to Luan, Chateau Sun God made China's first bottle of dry white wine in 1979 and Chateau Huaxia made China's first bottle of dry red wine in 1984. When I mention Changyu, Luan says, 'Yes, it has been around a long time, but the wines it was making were not completely dry. It made lots of sweet and fortified wines.'
The other top domestic wineries in the portfolio are Chateau Junding in Yantai in Shandong province. I have visited Junding several times and find its top cabernets credible and am impressed by its potential as well as price tag. Junding wines are very good by Chinese wine standards. Its Santa Grace Red has evolved from a soft fruity, uninspiring red four years ago to one that has some depth and structure now. However good the wines are, I would have to pass on paying more than US$200 per bottle. A cheaper alternative (under US$35) is Great Wall Zone A Cabernet Sauvignon from Hebei - it is a medium-bodied, fruity red with good substance and nice balance. It is still not worth the price for its quality level, but it is an example of where Chinese wines are headed.
Great Wall's other 'firsts', according to Luan, include making the first commercial sparkling wine launched by Chateau Sun God in 1986. Luan says: 'In many key markets, we [Great Wall] are the number one brand.' She rattles off a list including Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei and Sichuan. And very importantly, she adds, Great Wall and its subsidiary wineries are the first in terms of size among Chinese wineries.
But where does quality fit into this picture? I wish more Chinese wineries would boast about ever-increasing quality level rather than volumes or marketing success. Until recently, it seemed rather low on most Chinese wineries' priority list. But that is no longer the case.
At Great Wall, Luan has just signed on Michel Rolland, the high profile wine consultant and talented 'wine guru' (the English name of his recently released autobiography). For the far-sighted and marketing-savvy Luan, the quality of the wine is increasingly important. She shares her vision about the eventual competitiveness of top Chinese wines and for that dream to come true, Rolland and his team will play an important role in the Chateau and terroir range of wines.
Looking back on my meeting with Luan and reflecting on the sheer size of the market and the increasing number of competitors from all parts of China, I can understand why all of these 'firsts' are important. How else do you distinguish yourself in a huge, fragmented market with double-digit growth in competitors as well as in consumption? With Luan at the helm, those competitors should be getting worried.
Jeannie Cho Lee is the first Asian Master of Wine. Follow her at asianpalate.com, or e-mail her at email@example.com