China emerged on to the global wine scene with unprecedented speed in recent years, both in terms of production and consumption. Currently, it vies with several countries for sixth-biggest wine country in terms of volume.
In terms of vineyard area, China comes second to Spain. In 2017 there were 847,000 hectares (2.09 million acres) of vines. However while 90 percent of French vineyards grow wine grapes, in China table grape production accounts for a similar percentage.
However domestic production dropped for five years in a row to 2017. In that year one billion liters (264 million US gallons) were produced, down from 1.137 billion (300.4 US gallons) in 2016. In contrast, as of 2018 sales and consumption of imported wines continued to grow. Over US$2.7 billion worth of wine was imported in 2017, a year-on-year increase of just over 17.5 percent. By 2021, China is predicted to be the second biggest consumer market (after the USA) of still and sparkling wine. Smaller (by Chinese standards) cities are seeing most growth.
Red wine is more popular with the younger generation of consumers (25-36); women typically regard wine as more stylish than beer. Wine drinkers are becoming more educated regarding imported wines, and rely less on distributors and retailers to inform their choices. Focus on Bordeaux has reduced as Burgundy – and many other varieties and regions – become more popular.
There is a certain degree of wariness regarding domestic wines regarding price:quality ratios. Therefore wineries face the challenge of not only improving quality, but winning medals at internationally recognized wine competitions. Successful wineries in this regard include Grace Vineyard from Shanxi, and Kanaan Winery from Ningxia.
Beer production also dipped in 2017 while imports rose. However, Baijiu – the distilled liquor which can be regarded as the national drink – seems to be showing robust growth in the face of changing drinking habits in China.
China's wine regions spread across the breadth of the country. On the humid, monsoonal east coast, Shandong Peninsula (including Yantai Province) and Hebei Province are responsible for over half of China's national production. The red wine grape variety Cabernet Gernischt is widely planted and vinified here. Fungal vine diseases are a major issue during the growing season here. Heavy spraying is needed to keep the grapes in fair health.
In the northeast, Jilin province borders North Korea and Russia and is known for its ski resorts. The Amur variety (the fruit of the Asian vitis amurensis vine species) is favored here for its frost resistance and is high in color and acidity. The neighboring Liaoning Province is known for its icewine, especially those from Golden Valley.
The Yunnan plateau in the southwest of the country, has a similarly humid climate with a long growing season. It falls below the ideal zone for viticulture in terms of latitude, but the climate is cooled by elevations up to 2500 meters (8200ft) near the Tibet border.
Further inland, the regions of Ningxia and Shanxi have become associated with high-quality wine. Ningxia experiences significant diurnal temperature differences, long daylight hours and low rainfall. It also benefits from considerable support from local government.
The official appellation of Helan Mountain, on the edge of the Yellow River is the most awarded in the country. It lies in an isolated mountain range marking Ningxia's border with Alxa League prefecture, not far from the Yellow River. The dry, high-altitude vineyards here have attracted international winemakers and are producing some world-class wines. These include the Helan Qing Xue Jia Bei Lan Cabernet blend that won a major trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards in 2010.
To the northwest lies Xinjiang province, which borders multiple countries and is home to many ethnic groups. The Tian Shan mountains and the Turpan Basin are key geographic features. Day/night temperature changes are dramatic, and rainfall is often at drought levels. Grapes therefore tend to reach high sugars and low acidities. Viticulture is growing fast here, with production more focused on sweet wines.
History of Wine in China
China's indigenous vine species have been cultivated and used to make wine for more than 1500 years. But it was not until the end of the 19th Century that wine production gained any form of scale and formality. In the 1880s, more than 100 Vitis vinifera vines were introduced from Europe by a high-ranking official, in much the same manner as James Busby had done in Australia 50 years earlier. The Changyu winery was established in Shandong soon after this in 1892, and retains a significant position in Chinese wine today.
With the birth of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the communist government became heavily involved in the country's wine industry. It expanded the wineries and, for economic reasons, instructed that grape wine be blended with that of other fruits and even fermented cereal-based liquids.
At the turn of the new millennium there were an estimated 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) under vine in China. This included classic European varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot (the key vines of Bordeaux) that were introduced by foreign investors along with Western winemaking techniques. Today, many international wine companies have interests in China. Among these are Moet Hennessy, Remy Cointreau, Pernod Ricard, Torres and the Bordeaux families of Lurton and Barons de Rothschild (of Cheval Blanc and Lafite Rothschild respectively).
However Chinese investment in the wine industry in the past decade has far exceeded international funding. Millions of dollars have been invested in establishing a wine tourism industry. However, this growth has not been without controversy. Wine counterfeiting has been a major issue, exacerbated by the regional nature of Chinese wine markets. In addition, quality of Chinese wine is thus far patchy, ranging from excellent to undrinkable.