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Not for all the wine in China

On the Chinese wine market.

Children, I have two things to say to you. The first is that you shouldn’t be reading this column, since our society believes in keeping young people away from alcohol until they’re too old to learn to consume it moderately; the second is that if you ever doubt that you can make a thing true just by saying it with sufficient conviction, look at China. The People’s Republic is about as communist these days as I am teetotal, which is to say some of the time, until any kind of offer not to be arrives.

China is a huge growth market for wine, which has to be one of the world’s least egalitarian products. It’s all about private land: what you can extract from it and what you then do with the fruit of your toil. Collectivise and you mainly get mass-produced rubbish: swill for undifferentiated pigs. Winemaking is a peasant activity and communist regimes do not, traditionally, love peasants.

So, I should be pleased that China these days is capitalism in a party uniform. Certainly, I look forward to tasting a decent Chinese wine eventually (none I’ve tried has so far risen above drinkable) and I welcome their return to my favourite conversation. And it is a return. According to Michael R Godley’s book The Mandarin- Capitalists from Nanyang, the first Chinese attempt at a company producing a line of entirely western consumer products was the Changyu Pioneer Wine Company, founded in 1895 on the east coast in Chefoo (now called Yantai), partly to “take away the profits of foreign merchants”. The company didn’t have an easy time but despite war, regime change and nationalisation of the wine industry, you could still buy Pioneer Wines in Singapore in 1970, exported there by Chinese communists who could be said, in hindsight, to be ahead of the curve.

It will take a while before any country’s wine economy is threatened by Chinese exports but imports are another matter. They have a lot of people and several of them appear to be thirsty. Wine is considered healthier than beer or spirits (and red is a lucky colour) so consumption is rising: the retail market expanded by 22 per cent between 2008 and 2012, although Jim Boyce, who writes the excellent Grape Wall of China blog, points out that “this market is big and complicated: China is usually not the easy wine solution importers hope it to be”. Saying you want to sell into China, he adds, is a bit like saying you want to sell into Europe – well, yes, except that Europe has less than 800 milllion people and China has 1.35 billion, and many of the wineries I like are small and don’t produce many bottles for export.

It is Australia that particularly perturbs me: Australia, with its troubled wine industry, its close economic connections with China and its particular sensitivity to the UK’s tendency to behave like an imperial power, in the wine world if, these days, nowhere else. At the beautiful glass-tipped Watershed winery in Margaret River, Western Australia, overlooking swathes of sunsoaked vineyards, I sipped rich, spicy 2005 Senses Shiraz and wondered why they don’t sell this wonderful wine – which is big, yes, but structured and elegant in the way of the best Australian reds – to us. They’d tried, they said, but their UK distributor ran off with the consignment. Will you try again, I asked, staring wistfully at my empty glass. What for, came the response, when we can sell all we have into China?

It’s not that simple: there are Chinese distributors at least as unreliable as the worst British ones, and language and cultural barriers galore. Still, until Chinese wine really becomes a viable export proposition and the country acts again to take away the profits of foreign merchants, I shall worry. The world’s winemakers may not thank me but for purely selfish reasons (I’m a capitalist, after all) I look forward to a chill wind from Chefoo.


Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?