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Grasping the size of China's wine market. Plus rethinking pink. Beyond Cabernet grape varieties. And a birthday party anecdote. If you know of others who'd like this newsletter, pass it on.

Greetings from Beijing,

Where we wrapped up our sixth annual World Baijiu Day last weekend, along with 20 other cities. Now it's time to shift from grain-based spirits to grape-based wines.

In the last Grape Wall, I reported that the Ningxia region sponsored a wine bar in Mexico City. The response of most people to this news?

"Why don't they open one in [name of Chinese city where the person lives]?"

It's a good question. One of many for a local trade where the wine increasingly improves but sales aren't following.

I'm planning to focus more on that issue as well as the upcoming harvest (Chardonnay is already being picked), import stats, the market impact of COVID-19, and more in the coming weeks and months.

This current issue of Grape Wall is essentially about a frustrating part of Chinese fine wine: actually finding the stuff. But first, three quick points.

1. I saw the recent import stats and, as one trade person noted, they seem to reflect a general recovery of the on-premise sector in China, save for a major hole due to a lack of banquet-related sales. That matches what I've heard from others, though I'm always wary of making judgments based on a few months of data, as they could also reflect excess stock, a rush to get wine in while one can or another factor.

We do see life returning to normal in much of China, from movie theaters opening, albeit with some restrictions, to bigger public events--an annual spicy food fest is slated for this weekend in Beijing and generally draws thousands of visitors. We also see more wine fairs and roadshows. All this bodes well for a pick up in banquets soon.

2. Having said that, is a return to "normal" good enough? The wine trade exudes self-importance at times--yay. we won another medal--at odds with its performance versus other sectors. Regular comparisons might serve a healthy humbling effect.

Like how the local rice wine sector is as big as the grape wine one. How craft beer venues, as often noted, crush their wine counterparts, at least here in Beijing. How bottled cocktails, craft spirits and other niches show much creativity. etc. There is much to achieve before declaring wine a success--so maybe we should seek a "new normal."

3. And what to make of a decade-plus of claims that wine education is key in China yet, despite this country being a top-three WSET market for ages, we saw stagnating wine sales and production even before the virus crisis. The money there isn't in selling wine but from selling courses, and, for some, from contracts from regional wine agencies who apparently assume someone good at studying wine might also be good at event planning, media relations, sales and marketing.

More on those topics soon.

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This is usually where I thank people who have contributed but there haven't been any the past two newsletters. Tough times!

Cheers, Jim Boyce
grapewallofchina@gmail.com
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This week, I received some WeChat messages from friends on vacation in China and in search of local wines, messages that reminded me of something that happened two years ago.

It's 2018 and I'm on tour with a handful of European wine writers invited to Ningxia by Lenz Moser, of Changyu Moser XV, a comprehensive journey that also took us to the company's operation in Shandong. We visit many key wineries, such as Helan Qing Xue, Silver Heights, Yuanshi, Chandon and, naturally, Changyu Moser XV.

That itinerary includes Kanaan, still relatively new but already ranked among the better wineries. (I introduced Kanaan to their distributor Summergate a few years earlier and even organized some sales like this one, so it was fun to see what was new.)



Anyway, we're in Kanaan. We've seen the equipment, cellar and guest facilities, and are tasting out back. Then I get a WeChat message. It's a photo of Kanaan's mural, the one we walked past 30 minutes earlier. I didn't post any photos and wonder how, and why, anyone would send this to me.

It turns out an acquaintance was at Kanaan at that very moment. On vacation in Ningxia, he rented a car, visited the winery with his family, took that photo and sent it to me with a simple query--how can I buy some wine?

Naturally, he was surprised to discover I was inside. I hustled to the guest area, found him, and eventually a staff member appeared. With no prices on the displayed bottles, I suggested the retail rate found in Beijing shops. The intrepid traveler eventually left with some Kanaan wine.

(I also messaged owner Wang Fang, but she was abroad that day, apparently in Germany at some event celebrating the two hundredth birthday of Karl Marx, as one does.)

I've told this story often, because I wonder how many times people have visited wineries in Ningxia and left empty-handed. I've arrived at wineries there to find them closed, even in cases where it was booked ahead. Or, when they are open, found myself unable to find someone who can do a tasting or sell a few bottles.

To be fair, it's been over a year since I've visited Ningxia. I hear more hotels and restaurants sell local wines now, so arguably the situation is better. On the other hand, I get a steady flow of messages from people visiting there and having difficulty getting to wineries and finding local wines. So arguably it isn't that much better.

 

I thought of this story a few days ago when friends visiting the tourist city of Lijiang in Yunnan province messaged me with photos of two local wines. I knew both but suggested a few I consider better since they price was no object. Unfortunately, my picks were not on menu.

So, I contacted the wineries directly.

Swiss winemaker Yves Roduit of Chateau Roduit quickly replied and said his wine is listed on the restaurant menu at Songstam Hotel, although if my friends wanted to buy retail, he would have to send it from the home base of Shangri-la and that would take a day.

I admit I got a little argumentative with Roduit--sorry Yves!--about how we see a rising number of quality China wines that are being pushed out to the world but are hard to find in their home regions.

"This is the China wine story," I messaged to him. "'Hey everyone, we're making great wines. You need to try them!'. 'Great! Where can I get them?' 'This one hotel...'"

I also contacted Xiaoling, which people like to compare to Ao Yun, the pricey LVMH-owned label made high in Yunnan's mountains. Bertrand Cristau told me they are seeking a good distributor in Lijiang but no luck so far. He is also negotiating with a distributor in Kunming and looking to add his wine in a second Shangri-la venue.

As for Ao Yun, I have yet to hear back. Based on an Internet search, you can buy Ao Yun in nations like Australia, Japan, South Africa, the Netherlands and the United States, but I'm not sure if you can get it in Lijiang.

To be fair, these producers make fairly small volumes and can't stock their wines everywhere. But at the very least, the local authorities could establish retail shops in key places to radically boost availability.

Frankly, it's not a good look that we can buy a Yunnan wine in London. Or Tokyo. Or Capetown. With a 96 point score from a critic in Hong Kong. But struggle to find it in its home region. What then is Yunnan's role save for terroir and tales -- those 19th-century missionaries! -- to exploit and export?

That's harsh but so much of what local wineries do is focused beyond their homes. That goes for Ningxia, too. The trade there favorably compares the region to Bordeaux and Napa Valley, but visit those places and you will find local wine everywhere. It's part of the culture there in a way that it isn't--at least not yet--in many parts of China. Again, things are slowly improving but this seems an area where fast gains should be pursued.

In case you think I'm picking on isolated wine regions, let me assure you similar things happen in populated regions like Shandong and Hebei.

I wrote about Chateau Nine Peaks in Shandong last issue, about a recent breathless article posted on their WeChat account of how their owner Karl Hauptmann saw their wine listed in a Berlin hotel. Berlin!

But where was the post about how to find the wines in China? Like in Beijing at restaurant Hulu, part of the well-regarded TRB Group, which is unlikely to take the next vintage as sales are low. If only more people knew to buy it there.

To be fair, I've exchanged a lot of messages with the marketing team at Nine Peaks and they have not only explained the difficulty with sales in China but also even followed up on several restaurants in Qingdao where the owners might  interested in the wine. Kudos to them for the effort!

But difficulty in finding wine offline is the norm. My favorite winery story of this past year is Shi Bai Pian, just outside of Beijing in Huailai County, which is not only making delicious Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but also entry-level wines at fair prices. But I'm hard-pressed to say where in Beijing to find the wines, outside of places I've encouraged to carry them, and haven't seen any such info  posted.

In the meantime, many importers post information about new arrivals, and dinners, and package deals (with posters and QR codes that make buying a snap), and restaurants that carry their wines -- wines that often cost far less than Chinese ones.

If this sounds too critical, I apologize. I've been enthusiastic about Chinese wine for over a dozen years, I'm willing to support the labels I enjoy and, like many consumers, I'm frustrated at how hard it is to do that. It should be easier to visit a wine region and find that region's wines, to be out and about and keen to try something local, and be able to find it. I've written about China wines hundreds of times and the number one response is always the same: "Great, where can I buy it?"

I'll finish with something positive, from Yunnan, the region that inspired this long post, because some very special stuff is created there.

Sunday was World Baijiu Day but I nevertheless took along a bottle of Xiaoling 2015 to one of our events in Beijing: it was hosted at Yunnan restaurant In & Out, I wanted to thank them for giving us space and wine seemed appropriate.

And what a lovely drop. Xiaoling is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon, with a bit of Carmenere and Merlot. It poured light--seemed more Burgundy than Bordeaux--with a fresh berry aroma--think wild blackberry and raspberry. Then came the barrel influence, a soft and pleasant vanilla.

Add a touch of earth, a hint of mint, and complexity and elegance not found in some bigger ripe China wines and all of us--from a bartender to a former natural wine bar owner to fellow consumers--thoroughly enjoyed it. I also have the 2014--and won't be waiting another year until World Baijiu Day to drink it. I just have to make sure where I can get more.


 
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Cheers, Jim Boyce
grapewallofchina@gmail.com
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Note: This newsletter content is general info. I make no guarantee as to its completeness or accuracy. Use it at your own risk. In other words, I try hard to be accurate, but mistakes can happen, so reader beware. Also, I'm not a fan of spam and aim to send this newsletter only to people who signed up at Grape Wall blog or agreed by email or in person to receive it. Cheers, Jim Boyce
14 August 2020
 
Grape Wall covers China's wine scene. Winery visits, tastings, news, reviews and interviews. Since 2007. Administered by Jim Boyce. Get the newsletter here.
E-mail: grapewallofchina (at) gmail.com
 

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Check out my new page of curious wine labels seen in China. From Marx to Lafite, from the head-scratching to the historical.
World Marselan Day
 
Grape Wall launched this project on April 27 to honor the grape's creator, Paul Truel, and shine a light on a variety found in dozens of nations and across China.
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Back Issues

Issue 62
Jancis Robinson finds China wene pricey. Plus, lessons from hard seltzer. And Ningxia goes to Mexico.

Issue 61
China's shrinking wine market. Plus, rethinking pink. And varieties beyond Cabernet.

Issue 60
China's president visits a winery, 2020 import stats, quality entry-level wines

Issue 59
Wine, nationalism & China, tariff relief for US wine, Gernischt & Marselan

Issue 58
Q&As with Wang Shenghan aka Lady Penguin, Simone Incontro & Tim Hanni, plus making Marselan

Issue 57
More crisis: China wine observations, a success story, quarantine pairing fun

Issue 56
More crisis: the F&B crash, the trade swarms online, 'cloud wine' & more

Issue 55
  More crisis: canceled fairs, crashing sales & closed shops

Issue 54
The coronavirus crisis impact on China's wine trade

Issue 53
Top China wine posts of 2019

Issue 52
Lafite's China gamble, what a pizza fest says about Italian wine, plus Q&A with Helene Ponty

Issue 51
What if Penfolds were a nation? Plus the quotable Michel Bettane. And China's first million-point wine.
Events. When we put down our wine and organize stuff.

Grape Wall Challenge
Chinese consumers judge in this annual blind tasting.

2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009

China Wine Tour
Four bars, a red and white wine at each. More here.
 
North by Northwest
Wine experts, chefs and journalists try Chinese wine. See here for the results.

Ningxia vs Bordeaux
Five wines from each region blind-tasted by ten experts. The results were a bit controversial. Details here
World Baijiu Day
 
I started this project in 2015 so more people could try China's national booze, a grain-based spirit with 20 billion bottles sold per year. Dozens of cities host events each August 9. See here.
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Cheers, Jim Boyce
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