The Chinese wine industry is getting into its stride and among the huge vineyards and endless empty towerblocks there are some rare finds to be enjoyed.
few miles outside Xi’an, the city of Emperor Qin’s terracotta warriors, the guide on a tour bus filled with Italian wine professionals pointed across a bleak plain shadowed by empty towerblocks to a medieval castle with crenellated towers. We were touring the estates of the Yantai Changyu Pioneer Wine Company and our guide was pleading with us to love what we were seeing. “Look at how beautiful the castle is! Just like your country.”
Spring had not quite broken in northern China and the Italians were struck dumb by this strange semi-industrialised land where only the tiled tombs seemed to come from a China they might have imagined. Now they were faced by a looming vision of their own culture. It was the Chateau Reina winery, and the fields of vines around it had a slightly tenuous appearance, as if they had been placed there by an army of conquest.
Chateau Reina was set to welcome its part-owner and investor, 76-year-old Augusto Reina, who was ahead of us in his private limo. Reina is the CEO of Illva Saronno, maker of Disaronno (the world’s most famous almond liquor), the renowned Sicilian marsala Florio, and other alcoholic brands. Reina once tried to buy Drambuie, but his joint ventures today reach deep into new, booming markets such as India and China. He is said to produce the most-consumed wine on earth and clearly enjoys marketing a “made in Italy” chic.
“We try to look forward,” he was recently quoted as saying in a profile in Italian Vogue “riding the desire for novelty with ideas that generate fashions, tastes, trends.” I wondered if medieval castles in China were included. He and his wife come to China frequently. “China was lovely in the 1980s,” she said to me earlier that day. “There wasn’t any wine but there weren’t any cars either. I miss it.”
After lunch in Chateau Reina’s banquet hall, I went for a buggy ride around the wine-themed park where gold cupids danced with plaster putti and a bench seemed to hold a life-size bronze of Augusto Reina himself, raising a glass. Changyu was founded in 1892 by a maverick diplomat named Chang Bishi who built his winery in the Shandong peninsula on the coast south of Beijing in a then small city called Yantai. But Bishi had to import all his plant stock from the west and, after decades of indifferent Communist rule, the experiment failed to produce anything drinkable.
The story is much the same with China’s other major wine-makers. Ten years ago I visited the Great Wall Wine Company near Beijing in the middle of winter with Chinese wine writer Jim Boyce and found its vines desolately buried underground in order to endure a Mongolian-style winter, its freezing labs filled with shivering men and women in white coats looking more like year-rounders in a nuclear power plant – though they offered us a rather fine grappa.
The wines were a work in progress and, as they delicately added, “not yet pleasant”. But everything has changed. Wineries like Grace, Changyu and now Great Wall have begun to carve out segments of the growing Chinese wine culture. Grace’s Deep Blue, for example, has become ubiquitous in luxury Chinese hotels and, along with Lafite, is a notorious favourite with government officials. Many wealthy drinkers will buy higher-priced wines simply to “give face” before a client, a boss or a mistress, and red is the luckiest colour to the Chinese.
At Macau restaurant Robuchon au Dôme, Beijing and Shanghai millionaires happily pay thousands for Hermann Goering’s stash of rieslings (complete with swastika labels) and for rare bottles of Pétrus. The national palate is evolving and Dr Pepper is no longer poured into glasses of Romanée-Conti.
That night at the Italian restaurant of the Xi’an Sofitel, I had a bottle of the Changyu Noble Dragon cabernet-syrah blend from another estate in Shandong, and was told that it was the world’s best-selling wine. Millions of bottles sold, production greater than the whole of rioja, etc. It was national pride in a bottle. Noble Dragon was “dry”, as advertised, technically well made, with an ornate old-world label – the canny Reina touch. Aside from the cabernet and syrah it also contained a dash of a local variety known as Dragon’s Eye. The Spanish love it.
I followed it with a $90 bottle of Master’s Choice cabernet from Chateau Changyu and was quietly satisfied I wasn’t paying for it. It’s a pleasant wine, with a carefully studied technique behind it. The local party bosses wouldn’t mind the $90. In the dining rooms of the Sofitel, a vast Communist Sino-Russian art deco pile built in 1953 and once a state guesthouse, these wines were at home, perfectly attuned to their environment. They serve a distinctly Chinese corporate world inside which there is a fierce desire to make an indigenous equivalent to anything the outside world can create.
The next day we flew to the place where that wine was made. On the way from the airport we passed through a wonderful bank of rolling mist that came off the sea and submerged the empty promenades. There was no sign of the horrifying apartment towers and as I sat in my 17th-floor room in the Yantai Hilton looking down at the misted sea, I had a feeling China’s original wine town might be more charming than I had anticipated. But at sunrise the mist had cleared and brilliant sunshine lay upon the sea and a hundred empty tower blocks identical to the ones surrounding Xi’an.
“Yantai is famous for its beauty, for its Red Fuji apples and beautiful wines,” our translator cried into the microphone as we passed more tower blocks on our way to Changyu’s massive Wine City. One of the Italians asked how many people lived in Yantai. “Small city,” the translator smiled. “Only five million or so.” It was like the Wine City itself, a sprawling viticultural Willy Wonka factory with roofs taller than Amiens cathedral and endless conveyor belts, bottling machines and probably the largest fermentation tanks ever seen.
That night we were invited to a banquet for the Reinas at the original Changyu chateau, this one more gothic in style, with suits of armour at the entrance and a bronze equestrian statue which could have been a mercenary Florentine condottiere commander of the Quattrocento or, quite possibly, Signore Reina himself once again. In yet another chilly and huge banqueting hall we sat through yet more eulogies to Chinese success, brilliance and vastness and then I was seated at a merry table along with the company’s principal wine-makers.
Finally, drinking with the men who make the stuff, the mood swung back to something approaching the better spirit of Dionysus and, after I had expressed my enthusiasm, in my appalling Mandarin, for the whites being served, a few bottles of “off menu” stuff were brought up from the cellars, including an unusual example of Viognier.
The Mandarin word for comrade, tongzhi, has taken on all kinds of meanings over the past 30 years but it is able, at certain moments, to encompass things like shared enthusiasms for the pleasures of fermentation. And this is what redeems all the gigantism, the empty towers, the billions of bottles, the projections of future glory: the feeling that, deep down, an old culture is returning to its roots and becoming, in a strange way, more Italian.
By Lawrence Osborne