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12.27.2010

Chinese Wine Too Good to Be True

I had high hopes for Chinese wine. And I still do, to a certain extent. But I can't say I'm surprised by the latest news that the government is shutting down some wineries and pulling wine from the shelves after finding a whole lot of faked, adulterated, and chemically altered wine on the market.

I've heard rumors of such practices from various people in the wine industry, many of whom scratch their heads when they compare the amount of wine on the market with the amount of acreage under cultivation in China. The two don't add up. Add to that the ambitious and sometimes reckless drive for growth at all costs (Chinese Milk Powder anyone?), and this sort of thing was bound to happen eventually.

I had my first Chinese wine several years ago, when it appeared, irresistibly on a wine list at a wine bar I happened to drop in to in LA. There it was, a Chinese Cabernet Sauvignon, calling to me, as all unfamiliar and exotic wines do. I had to try it, and I was very pleasantly surprised at just how good it was.

After trying a lot of other Chinese wines it remains the best example I've had, and has always given me hope that China would emerge after a few decades of work, as a competent and productive wine region on the world stage.

This latest news, which includes the detention of six individuals and the shuttering of thirty wineries in conjunction with experts suggesting that some of the wines were potentially harboring carcinogenic chemicals, is an unfortunate blow to an industry very much in its infancy.

Having said that, however, it certainly won't be a bad thing for consumers or the industry as a whole to have a little more scrutiny and controls in place to make sure what comes out of Changli province is both genuine and drinkable.

Read the full story.

Comments (10)

Martin Silva wrote:
12.27.10 at 10:22 PM

Considering that the Chinese are notorious for counterfeiting commonplace products such as soap and toothpaste, it comes as no surprise that fake luxury items such as wine have been found.

It's a shame really, it just hurts their image as a whole. If they are going to pull that crap with food products, there's no way I would purchase Chinese wines.

12.27.10 at 10:44 PM

I remember (from about 3 years ago) that we weren't impressed with two Chinese wines that I had "acquired". And they were supposed to be a couple of the best.

Who is surprised by this story? Perhaps no one. That says something.

Wines expert wrote:
12.28.10 at 7:52 AM

I am willing to try and test new Chineese wine.

Marc wrote:
12.28.10 at 7:04 PM

You miss the point. These new wineries were investigated and shut down for their terrible practices. That means, the government actually cares about this emerging market. There are many very fine wineries in China, in particular Grace Vineyards (www.grace-vineyard.com) who are doing it right. You just have to know what to taste, and what not to taste...and it seems the government has made that a little easier by shutting down some counterfeiters. Also note, these were not sold as Chinese wines, but as French wines using a fake label. Take a chance..there's some good stuff over there!

12.30.10 at 4:06 PM

Marc makes a good point. I can't say that Chinese wine is really high on my list of wants, but I can't rule out wanting to try it someday.

Boyce wrote:
01.01.11 at 10:04 PM

@Marc,

While I think it is unfair that some people are demonizing all Chinese wines, I also think it is going too far to say that the country has "many very fine wineries". Yes, the wines by Grace are drinkable as are those of Silver Heights but the percentage of operations at or near this level is very low, and some stuff that is considered decent actually contains a good deal of bulk wine from Chile, Australia, or elsewhere. I guess the good news is that the number of such operations is increasing and I hear from friends who consult at wineries that quality is general is slowly rising.

Cheers, Boyce

Boyce wrote:
01.01.11 at 10:57 PM

@ Alder,

Did any of these people providing the rumors / scratching their heads mention the amount of imported bulk wine that comes into the China market and is bottled under domestic labels? I'm not saying that necessarily explains away the gap, only that things are more complicated than acreage versus bottles.

Anyway, I wrote re imported bulk wine in China about a year ago for a wine magazine and that might be of interest here. This is from the rough draft (I never did see hard copy of the article):

"A frequent question raised about Chinese wine: Just how Chinese is it? While domestic labels hold over 90% of the market, the wine behind them is not always made from locally grown grapes. Besides producing 698.3 million liters of wine last year [2009], China imported 57.6 million liters of bottled wine and 105.6 million liters of bulk wine, according to Customs. Chile (48 million liters) and Argentina (25 million liters) accounted for two-thirds of this bulk wine, most of it destined for blending. Spain and Australia, and to a lesser degree France, Italy, and the United States, have been key suppliers over the past three years.

"While these figures suggest bulk wine accounted for about 12% of the market, the actual share is far higher. This is due to how local production is calculated, says Ma Huiqin, a professor at Agricultural University of China. Example: A Shandong winery reports 1,000 liters of production, including 200 liters of surplus wine bought from a Ningxia operation. Since the Ningxia operation also counted that 200 liters as its production, the wine has been counted twice, thus inflating official numbers. Ma says talks with viticulturists in key wine-producing regions suggest imported bulk wine represented 40% of the market in 2008. It annually ranges from 35% and 45% based on consumer demand, international bulk wine prices, exchange rates, and local harvest sizes, she says.

"[Professor] Li Demei describes imported bulk wine as a safety net. By stocking up, producers protect themselves from low local harvests and increases in consumer demand, such as during last year's Olympics. Ironically, in a “good year” part of the harvest might go unsold. “It doesn't matter if the vintage is good, it just depends if they are short of stock or not,” he says.

"Ma calls it a “two-leg policy”. Imported bulk wine offers good value and reliable quality that can improve the blend. (Consistency is another matter. In 2007, 70% of bulk wine came from Chile. In 2008, it fell to 45%.) Producers can also avoid sourcing grapes, buying equipment, and so on. But using too much imported bulk wine would create a backlash, says Ma. Producers need a presence in the form of wineries, jobs, and government relations, and to mind nationalist consumers who assume Chinese wines are from Chinese grapes, especially since the country's labeling laws remain largely unenforced. “There is a long chain from the farmer to the consumer,” she says.

Again, I'm not saying there isn't a problem, and maybe it could be argued it is even bigger than we think, only that the scene here is more complicated than is often presented outside China. There are big differences in the wine scenes in different parts of the country (such as between northwest China and the coastal province of Shandong), conclusions about what is happening can hinge on whose numbers are used, and so on.

Cheers, Boyce

01.03.11 at 8:19 AM

Very interesting... About 3 months ago, after the People's Daily reported that China had become the world's 6th largest wine producer by volume, I posted an article that eerily foreshadowed this latest development. Here's a quote: "Their wine could be like their toothpaste (contaminated with DEG, a solvent used in anti-freeze), dog food (contaminated with melamine that killed American pets), or seafood (farmed in raw sewage and rejected by the FDA), to name just a few incidents of dangerously unhealthy products. And let’s not even get into the electrical products that burned down houses, baby carriers that dumped kids on their heads, and circular saws that sawed fingers instead of lumber."
It's really too bad this turned out to be true. I hate to see unethical behavior in the wine business anywhere.

Steve Heineman wrote:
01.04.11 at 9:00 AM

Why do eonophiles become xenophobes when it comes to Chinese products?

Guitarguy wrote:
01.08.11 at 8:31 PM

If I never drink a Chinese wine, I will die happy. Sorry Steve, call it Xenophobia if you will, but maybe I don't have a desire to try a food product from a place that competes unfairly, is Communist and treats its citizens like animals, counterfeits products intended for human and animal consumption with little apparent consideration or care about the damage those products might cause and appears to put the almighty yuan above peoples' lives. We can get into all kinds of discussions about the damage China has done to American (and other countries) manufacturers but it isn't worth it in a wine blog. Suffice to say where food products go, buy what you know and don't trust the Chinese until they can guarantee food safety across the board. Personally, I don't care if there are good wineries over there, I don't feel like shipping my wine dollars there like I must do with just about every other consumer good I purchase in the US today. For me, Chinese practices, nearly universal in their manufacturing and food production (including paying many of their workers less than $2 a day) are my reason for not wanting to buy anything Chinese. It has nothing to do with prejudice.

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