The Sweet Taste of Success

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Gerard Colin is in despair about the state of his vines. Pacing along a line of barren brown twigs, the French winemaker stares balefully at the ground, then sinks to his knees beside a particularly spindly specimen. "What a ragamuffin," he groans. "How can I make grapes with wood like this?" Behind him, two Chinese farmers exchange anxious looks. Colin calls his assistant over to translate, and asks for a pair of pruning shears. Snipping the dry wood almost down to the ground, he tells the farmers not to worry about a small harvest in the fall: "If you let such young vines grow too tall too fast, sure, they'll make lots of grapes next summer, but they'll be dead in five years. We have to slow them down. Making good wine takes time."

Colin knows good wine. He worked for four decades among the vines of Bordeaux before moving to China five years ago as a wine consultant for the fledgling Grace Vineyard in Dongjia village near the Shanxi provincial capital of Taiyuan. And although he's only concerned for now with a small plot of poorly cultivated Cabernet, he might as well be talking generally about China's wine industry, which remains the viticultural equivalent of a spindly ragamuffin.

Serious winemaking was virtually unheard of in China before the 1980s, when the government began to revive long-dormant vineyards in the coastal provinces of Shandong and Hebei. The few Chinese who bought wine tended to treat it as an exotic curio to be displayed on bookshelves, not savored. Chinese have long preferred baijiu, a spirit distilled from grain. But in 1996, health concerns about hard liquor and worries about potential grain shortages led the government to renounce baijiu; Li Peng, China's then Premier, called instead for wine to be used for toasts at Communist Party banquets. This policy, along with a spate of news reports about the health benefits of wine, caused a breakthrough in the industry. With domestic producers unable to meet the new demand, imports poured in, increasing tenfold from 1996 to 1998. And as China's middle class expanded, wine emerged as a major status symbol. "Wine is the latest must-have item in urban China," says Patricio de la Fuente Saez, director of Links Concept, a Hong Kong-based wine distributor. "People want a fridge, a car, and a bottle of wine on the table. It means you've arrived."

Even so, the average Chinese drinks just 0.3 liters of wine a year, compared with 12 liters for Americans and 59 liters for the French. Smelling the heady bouquet of ripening profits, investors have been looking for ways to play China's emergence as a nation of wine enthusiasts. When Dynasty Fine Wines Group, a vintner in Tianjin, offered stock to the public in January, retail investors placed orders for 625 times the shares on offer, and the stock surged 43% in a few hours. Foreign companies want in, too: Rémy Cointreau owns nearly 25% of Dynasty, and Italian spirits company Illva Saronno recently paid some $58 million for 33% of a Shandong vintner, Yantai Changyu Pioneer Wine.

Between them, China's three largest wine producers—Dynasty, Changyu and China Great Wall Wine—control about half of the country's wine market. But they've typically specialized in cheap, mass-produced brews. These days, however, a growing class of mainland vintners is attempting to create wines to rival foreign imports. Several entrepreneurs have established instant wineries, importing everything from grapevines to foreign experts like Gerhard Markowitsch, who jets in regularly from Austria to concoct Cabernet at Bodega Langes in Hebei, a winery whose mustard-colored buildings were designed to evoke Vienna's Schönbrunn Palace. The sprawling complex—owned by Gernot Langes-Swarovski, a scion of the Austrian crystal family—boasts a four-star hotel, China's first wine spa (using beauty treatments produced on site), wooden tubs where visitors can stomp grapes, and a state-of-the-art winemaking facility so immaculate that it doesn't even smell of wine. Beneath it, oak barrels of maturing wine are nurtured by soothing tunes. "Our wine listens to music," gloats managing director Ren Jing. "We use the most current research."

Wineries like Grace and Bodega Langes are trying to achieve in one generation what it took most of their counterparts in other wine-producing nations hundreds of years to develop. "I want to show the world that China can do more than produce cheap products. I want to show the world we can produce great wines," proclaims Hong Kong tycoon C.K. Chan, who says he's already invested $10 million in Grace. Daniel Schuster, an award-winning vintner and pioneer of the New Zealand wine industry, thinks these aspirations are achievable, having observed the rise of Chinese wine for several years. As a judge at Hong Kong's International Wine Challenge in 1999, he found two of the 15 Chinese entrants acceptable; in the 2004 contest, "no less than five or six were in the fine wine category. One of them was absolutely outstanding." (The wine in question: Grace Vineyard Tasya's Reserve Merlot 2001.) "China's potential is enormous," says Schuster. "If this kind of progression continues, there's no doubt that in 10 years China will be one of the major players among the 'new wine' countries." Grace isn't wasting any time. The successful launch of its Tasya label in Europe in March is already generating a buzz in the wine world, and curious oenophiles from Germany to Belgium to England have been eagerly snapping up bottles.

Gaining Chinese consumers' trust will be hard, though. "The biggest obstacle to China's growth as a wine producer is a lack of regulations," says Links Concept's Saez. The country's lax labeling laws, clever fakes and a history of disguising cheap imported wines to make up for shortfalls in domestic production have left many people with little confidence that what they're drinking is what it claims to be. "With no quality guarantee, who is going to buy this stuff?" asks Saez. Last year, for example, Wu Shuxian, a well-known wine critic, published an article in the Guangzhou-based Private Economy News alleging that China's prestigious Great Wall Huaxia Vineyard was misrepresenting its wines. The article took aim at the Hebei-based vineyard's 1992 Cabernet Sauvignon, questioning whether it was truly made from grapes harvested in 1992, whether it was genuinely made from grapes grown in the Changli region of Hebei, and whether it was even made by Great Wall. Among other things, Wu argued that, in 1992, Huaxia's Cabernet vines were too young to produce grapes and that they had been planted in quantities far too small to account for the seemingly boundless supply of the '92 vintage in Chinese supermarkets. Before writing the article, Wu says she took a bottle of Huaxia '92 to France to have it analyzed. "Unsurprisingly, given how it tasted," she says, "the labs found that its true vintage was between 2000 and 2002." When contacted by TIME about Wu's article, a representative from Great Wall's parent company, China National Cereals, Oils & Foodstuffs, responds that the winemaker has "always produced its wine in a manner consistent with national standards."

Wu's article is widely expected to spur new labeling regulations in the coming months. But Wu remains skeptical about the extent to which such regulations will be enforced. "Everyone in China wants to drink old Chinese wine," she says. "But it just doesn't exist." As long as that's what people want, and as long as few people notice, unscrupulous vintners will continue putting new wine into old bottles.

A more fundamental problem is that most Chinese grapevines haven't yet matured enough to produce wines worth laying down for more than three years. For a wine to age well, it requires a strong structural foundation: well-developed tannins and an artful balance of sugar and acid. But even the most qualified winemaker cannot mask the product of young or poorly tended vines like the ones Colin is trying to fix in Shanxi. The best wines come from rigorously pruned vines in which the fruit's natural sugars are concentrated into a few perfectly ripened grapes—a practice antithetical to traditional Chinese agricultural methods, which seek to maximize fruit growth. "We aim for no more than six bunches of grapes per plant," says Judy Leissner, CEO of Grace (and daughter of C.K. Chan). "Even though we no longer pay them by weight, our farmers still have a hard time understanding what we are doing. They want to grow 10 bunches, just in case the birds eat them." But Colin's guidance, along with twice-weekly monitoring of the vines, is building a firm base for a vineyard that should one day produce a top-quality Chinese wine—even if the farmers who grow the grapes don't actually drink wine themselves. "They think it's too sour," says Shirley Feng, one of Colin's assistants.

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