In China, meals have always represented not only sustenance through food and drink, but a social, cultural, and even spiritual tradition. Which is why I jumped at the chance to visit the country when I was recently invited on a 12-day culinary tour with the Wine Portfolio television show, to explore traditional and modern cuisines as well as vineyards and winemakers. I blinked and looked at the itinerary again. Wine? From China?
I had never heard anything about vineyards in China, but as it turns out the country’s burgeoning wine industry was just one of many surprises awaiting me. Jody Ness, host of Wine Portfolio, had filmed episodes in Italy, Napa Valley and even Africa – but why China? “Wine Portfolio is a global television show that celebrates the wine lifestyle, and as such I am always on the look out for interesting wine destinations,” Jody explains. “We wanted to travel to China to check out the wine scene first hand. It is like being at the epicenter of the new ‘new world.’”
The country has begun an exciting love affair with wine, and vineyards are springing up as European investors have poured more than 150 million Euros into the effort.
The Chinese are now the largest consumers of wine, and the winemakers here are the world’s 7th largest producer of grape wines. Yantai’s wine region is known as Nava Valley. There are several large wineries open for visitors, with cellar tours and tasting rooms; it’s an extremely interesting and unexpected side trip to take them in. They strive hard to offer expected Western amenities such as golf, spa services, five-star gourmet dining and chateau lodging. The result is a strangely charming, and often amusing, near-miss hybrid of Eastern traditions and a clearly Chinese interpretation of Western tourism.
Check out Chateau Junding, clearly modeled after the French tradition and employing a combination of Old World methods, with French Oak aging barrels, and New World, with the stainless steel vats used to crush the grapes. In a gorgeous setting they produce four varieties of red wine, two of white, as well as brandy and their newest endeavor, champagne.
Nearby is Changyu Winery, the first Asian vineyard to make it onto the Top Ten Global Wineries list, in 2007. It was also the first winery in China, established in 1892 and winning gold medals by the 1915 World Expo for their red rosewine and reisling. Their Great Cellar building, the largest wine cellar in Asia, was completed in 1905 and makes for an interesting tour not just for the winemaking, but the historic value as well. Some of the original barrels, over one hundred years old, are still used in Changyu’s production, which puts out a million and a half bottles of wine annually.
Dawei Wu, Deputy Director of China National Tourist Office in Los Angeles, says, "China's geography, weather and regional resources inspire our eating culture. Likewise, I believe the wine in China will become equally famous as our food. Ask those that have traveled the Silk Road how delicious Chinese grapes are and you’ll see the potential in wine.”
Some of the wines are quite good, particularly the reds; others have a long way to go, but the fun of the Chinese wine scene is that it is still taking baby steps. The excitement lies in seeing the birth of New World wines, much as if we could go back in time thirty years to the Napa Valley or several hundred to France or Italy. “Currently I think Chinese producers have a way to go,” says Jody, “but the product has immense potential. Traveling across the breadth of the Chinese wine industry it becomes obvious there is a real excitement here. It’s like being in Napa 35 years ago; there’s a buzz, the industry is still in its infancy but you know it is bound for greatness.”