There’s been a lot written about China’s growing appetite for wine consumption (much of it from well-heeled Bordeaux estates and Burgundian domains), but the Chinese are serious about wine production too and are the world’s leading grape producer, growing 11.7 million tons of fruit in 2018, equating to around 15% of global grape production.
Chinese wine has existed for hundreds of years, so why are we only just now starting to hear about it? Well, production has increased in recent decades, but most often it has been consumed in China, much like other Chinese alcohols that are produced on a massive scale—like the grain spirit baijiu, made from fermented sorghum and sometimes rice—but haven’t found a strong footing in drinking culture in other parts of the world.
Surprisingly, it’s reported that China is now the seventh largest producer of wine in the world, just behind Argentina and Australia. Second only to Spain in terms of area under vine with 875 k Ha of vineyard, China is on track to top this table too very soon with significant year-on-year increases in plantings.
It’s no surprise that Chinese wine and the major focus on Cabernet Sauvignon means that much Chinese red wine tastes of sweet, jammy, dark fruits, sometimes with notes of oak or tartness. Chinese white wines carry flavors of white peach, floral honeysuckle, and citrus.
Because some of these vines are so young and the techniques for tending these vines in a new place are not yet refined through generations of growth and tending like you see in Old World vineyards of Europe, some Chinese wines come off a bit imbalanced, too tart, and big on flavors but unrestrained. This doesn’t mean some Chinese wines are not good—many are certainly good and have won awards accordingly—but this means Chinese wines have the chance to continually get better as more experience is gained in the care for vineyards and winemaking.
Clearly much of this wine never leaves China but increasingly it’s finding its way onto export markets, with a growing interest from UK importers and consumers.
One such importer is Panda Fine Wine, which is the UK’s first specialist importer and distributor of Chinese fine wines, whose aim is to bring to the UK some of the most interesting and distinctive wines that are emerging from China’s burgeoning industry.
Panda was founded by husband and wife team Michael Sun and Meiyu Li. Sun’s background in sales and marketing, while Meiyu Li has worked as a wine buyer and sommelier in China and has a unique knowledge of and access to some of the best wines China has to offer.
“We started in October last year,” Michael Sun told Harpers. “It was my wife Meiyu Li’s idea – she was China’s first female sommelier – she wanted to do something meaningful for Chinese wine and try to introduce it to the world.”
“I went to school and university in the UK so I know the UK well and think there’s great potential in the market here for Chinese wine. Over the past four years we have visited many wineries in China and we were impressed by the effort they put in to winemaking and China is definitely making better and better wines now.”
Panda is concentrating its trade on the high-end restaurant and hotels sector, as well as independent merchants, and its customers include The Ritz Hotel, Kai Mayfair, Oxford Wine Company and Theatre of Wine.
“We have great diversity within the range and our portfolio is made up for wines from China’s six most important regions and from what we believe are China’s most iconic wineries,” said Sun.
The portfolio includes examples of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Chardonnay, but also Marselan which Sun is very excited about. “It’s originally a French grape but has adapted very well to China and a lot of people say that it is going to become the future signature grape in China,” he said.
As well as international grapes, China is forging ahead with its own indigenous varieties such as Longyan (translation, Dragon Eyes), a white grape producing creamy but fresh wines with tropical fruit characters. “It’s a table grape that’s very big and which looks like a dragon’s eye,” said Sun. “Although originally from Europe it has been growing in China for nearly 900 years, and now it’s only grown in China.”
Sun understands how hard it can be to sell Chinese wine, especially from unknown varieties, in the UK, but has a plan to educate the trade on its joys and pleasures.
“We do a lot of wine tastings and attend many wine fairs, such as ProWein and London Wine Fair, and have worked and with a brand ambassador to help promote our wines. There’s still a lot to do, but we stand by our wines and will continue to bring the best Chinese wines to the UK. We are getting great feedback from consumers and buyers and professionals.”
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