China stakes claim in wine's past, future
Enlarge By Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY
WHO WAS FIRST?
BEIJING - Conventional theory in China was that wine arrived from the Middle East in the seventh century, via traders plying the Silk Road trade route.
Two years ago, archaeologists at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences came up with a new theory, based on the discovery in northern China of evidence of fermented wine made from rice, honey and fruit. They pegged the find at 9,000 years old.
Wang Jihuai, a professor at the academy's Institute of Archaeology, says the discovery isn't conclusive.
"I won't dare say if China invented wine first - there isn't enough evidence," he says. "But we can say China had an advanced winemaking culture, either cereal- or fruit-based, at least 5,000 years ago."
The real mystery, Wang says, isn't when wine arrived in China. It's why winemaking and drinking died for a thousand years before being reintroduced in recent years by foreigners.
BEIJING ！ China claims it gave the world pasta, gunpowder, the umbrella and paper. Scholars here say the Chinese were golfing before the Scots and roaming the New World before Columbus.
Two years ago, archaeologists came across evidence that led to another claim: China may have been the first to make wine. Wine historians generally regard the Middle East as the region where wine originated.
Today, China is determined to join the ranks of France, Italy, the USA, Chile, Australia and other great winemaking nations.
Five hundred wineries, most of them less than 10 years old, have sprung up around the country.
Forty miles northwest of Beijing, along grasslands within view of the Great Wall, French winemaker Nicolas Billot-Grima oversees the harvest of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and marselan grapes at the Sino-French Demonstration Vineyard. The vineyard, a joint venture of the French and Chinese governments, is intended to build interest in wine and serve as a showcase for traditional French winemaking techniques.
In six years, "we have changed stones into gold," says Billot-Grima, a sixth-generation winemaker who splits his time between China and Laroche Pipeau, the family chateau in Bordeaux, France.
Cultivating a reputation
Next year, local authorities plan to market tasting tours along a road that connects Sino-French with others nearby. The idea is to create a Chinese version of California's Napa Valley, where Highway 29 is studded with inns, restaurants and famous wineries such as Mondavi, Sterling and Beringer.
Winning respect for what's in the bottle won't be easy.
Many of the country's vintages are blends of Chinese grapes and bulk wine imported from Australia or Chile. Local importer John Gai of Palette Wines is blunt in describing most Chinese wines. "Undrinkable," he says.
There are other hurdles. The business of matching specific wines with certain foods ！ "pairing," in wine parlance ！ has been tricky. "I like Chinese food, but I couldn't find the right wine for the food," Billot-Grima says, adding that his more recent vintages pair well with Chinese dishes.
Another problem: few Chinese have ever tasted wine. Other than beer, the spirit of choice here has been maotai, a fiery, sorghum-based drink high in alcohol. (Mao Zedong served it at a banquet during Richard Nixon's visit in 1972.)
"When Chinese drink wine, they like it," says Don St. Pierre, an American who came to China as a Chrysler auto executive in the 1980s and owns one of the country's largest wine distributor. "They don't get drunk as much (as with) the white poison they've been drinking."
Newly affluent Chinese such as Erika Chen, a manager at IBM in Beijing, have gotten curious. She recently took a course in wine to learn more about it. "I have a lot of clients, and when I take them out, I want to introduce the wine to them. You don't want to seem ignorant," she says.
Sales of foreign wine have boomed. St. Pierre founded ASC Wines in 1996 with five employees and $400,000 in sales. Today, the company employs 300 people. Sales for 2006 are forecast to hit $40 million.
Still, wine is beyond the reach of the average Chinese. Fan Quan, 71, a farmer who earns $3 a day picking grapes for the Sino-French vineyard, has tasted the finished product: chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons that cost $19 a bottle. "The wine here tastes good, but I can't afford to drink it," Fan says.
Lastly, there's the question of whether China is suitable for making world-class wines. Winemakers here combat frequent hailstorms, a lack of rich soil and winters so severe that vines must be buried to protect them after harvest.
French winemakers believe in terroir ！ the idea that the soil and climate of a particular area are what give each wine its unique characteristics. Billot-Grima says Sino-French is situated in the best area China has to offer, one blessed with moderate summer rains and warm, sunny autumn days. He plans to build his own winery, Chateau Tayshi, in the next year.
"China's best wine comes from here," Billot-Grima says.
Bodegas Langes, an Austrian-owned winery near the Bohai Gulf in eastern China, says it's got the best piece of ground.
"The best locations worldwide are all by the sea," says Ren Jing, the general manager. At his winery, visitors can get "vino-therapy" baths in wine and massages in grapeseed oil. Strauss and Mozart are piped into the cellars. "We believe classical music makes the wine more romantic, gives it more harmony and feeling," Ren says.
Judy Leissner, president of Grace Wines, says her family-owned winery is located in central Shanxi for a reason. "We drove across China with experts from France and found the coastal area was too humid and sugar levels (in the wine) to the west are too high," she says.
Suntime Winery in the far west Muslim province of Xinjiang boasts the country's largest vineyard. The Silk Road, an ancient trading route linking China to the Mideast and Europe, runs through the province.
"This is the home of Chinese wine," says Robert Wu, Suntime's general manager. "In eastern China, there's too much rain, and the grapes never get ripe enough. We have an even climate with very hot summers. The difference between day and night temperatures is great for the grapes to ripen."
The fact that there's even a debate is a healthy sign.
"China is the market of the
future," Billot-Grima says.