It’s almost a year since the publication of my first book ‘The Chinese Wine Renaissance‘ in January 2019. I still pinch myself sometimes!
I am delighted to have received two book award nominations, and had a second print-run of the book. I hope to see another reprint soon – not least because of the need to add three CAPITAL letters – ‘OBE’ after the name of my dear ‘Foreworder’ and inspiration – Oz Clarke! Yes, Sir Oz, has been named in the Queen’s New Year Honours List 2020!
But first things first, if you are still wondering:
Where to get The Chinese Wine Renaissance
My preferred way to buy a wine book would be via a wine shop, and what better wine shop than Hedonism Wines, with UK & World wide delivery options.
Online book retailers:
UK bookstores: The book is available (or can be ordered from all major book stores, such as Blackstones, Blackwells, WHSmith, etc.)
Worldwide: Please search online at Amazon, or ask to order at a book store.
Now, time for a round up of some book reviews, media coverage and publications in the past year.
Amanda Barnes reviews Janet Z Wang’s new book The Chinese Wine Renaissance: A Wine Lover’s Companion.
Chinese wine still feels like a relatively ‘new’ phenomena in the wine world, but Janet Z Wang is out to set the record straight. Wang makes it very clear within the first few pages of her book that wine is very much part of the culture of Ancient China, and spends the following chapters detailing how wine is having a renaissance in China and the culture of wine is different and much more integral to Chinese culture than what most outsiders perceive.
The book delivers on all the traditional requirements of a wine guide – grape varieties, wine regions, wine recommendations – but where it goes further than usual is to explain certain phenomena and trends in the Chinese wine market. Wang delves into the trading floor of the fine wine market – the palpable excitement, tension and mistakes made – and assesses how the Chinese market has matured in relatively few years. She looks at the challenges in marketing wine in China and how an understanding of Chinese philosophy and history is the greater key to accessing the Chinese market than acing the wine vocabulary.
The latter part of her book is dedicated to a whirlwind taste of Chinese history and there is an eye-opening timeline at the end of the guide, which compares Chinese history to world history events. This is another example of Wang’s intimate relationship with the subject.
Chinese-born but British-bred in some ways, Wang spent her later education years in the UK and has the benefit of a dual perspective. This dual perspective and understanding allows her to marry Chinese customs with Western customs. Wang’s comparison of feng shui and feng tu with the western concept of ‘terroir’ was a lightbulb moment for me, for example.
Wang also isn’t afraid to poke fun at the cultural misappropriations, nor is she afraid to stand up for them. Most interestingly, her perspective always looks at both sides of the coin. One such chapter, entitled ‘Drinking Château Lafite with Coke’, of course, highlights the anecdotes of some super-rich Chinese adding Coke to their Lafite wines. But Wang bemoans the Western holier-than-thou response to these anecdotes. She goes on to argue that it isn’t as ill-educated as the western reader may at first assume. Chinese culture has a long tradition of drinking blended wines (infused with herbs, spices, flowers and animal parts) and alcoholic blends. “For a culture unfazed by drinking snake wine and bitter gall wine, Coke to Lafite looks pretty tame then,” she quips.
Wang doesn’t stop at just explaining Chinese culture, but comparing Western culture – in this case, the British and their tea. “How many casual Western tea drinkers pause to remember that fine teas might have been picked at the break of dawn by young girls with nimble wrists, hand-cooked repeatedly by experienced, calloused fingers in hot pans, painstakingly rolled manually to retain the flavour of the tea terroir, before they add their milk and sugar?” Point well made, Wang.
And that’s in essence what I enjoyed most about The Chinese Wine Renaissance. It doesn’t just serve as a quintessential guide to Chinese wine (its history, its present and its future), but it puts Chinese wine culture into context. And at the same time, The Chinese Wine Renaissance puts us, Western wine cultures, in our place too.
Reviewed by Amanda Barnes for the Circle of Wine Writers.
The Chinese Wine Renaissance
The Chinese Wine Renaissance written by Janet Z Wang is a fascinating, interesting and eminently readable book. So fascinating in fact that I have promised myself that I will find time to sit down and read it cover to cover, instead of what I have been doing – dipping in and out as my fancy takes me.
A gentle journey through Chinese history and wine
It is not just a book about wine production. Janet effortlessly takes the reader on a gentle journey through the history of this vast and fascinating country including its dynasties and their rulers, its art and its poetry.
Several years have elapsed since my last visit to China. Most of the time then, and especially when we were up country, we only drank beer or tea; but the white wine that we did have in a big, modern hotel in Beijing was actually very acceptable.
A fast growing wine-from-grape producing country
Thanks to Janet Wang I learn that the Chinese have been making and appreciating wine for thousands of years, probably long before the rest of the world was beginning to even think that those wild grapes might be capable of being cultivated and turned into a delicious beverage.
Today China is one of the fastest growing wine-from-grapes producing countries in the world, and also has the largest planting area of Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the world. (It rather looks as if the Chinese favour red wine over white.) Incidentally she doesn’t ignore Chinese wines made from grains; plus spirits and beer.
As Janet points out the area capable of producing grape wine extends from the Tibetan Plateau to the Yellow River valley taking in a wide range of altitudes and extreme temperatures. A challenging task in some of the areas but one the Chinese are rising to, and successfully too.
Wine tourism, etiquette and history
Wine tourism in China is starting to become popular, as is pairing wine with food. Usefully for those of us new to Chinese wines Janet is not afraid of taking the regions, along with their cuisines, and suggesting wines which complement the diverse dishes. She also instructs us on Chinese wine etiquette, and introduces us to many annual festivals.
I found the Vertical Tasting of History section of the book particularly fascinating – for instance sites along the Yellow River have yielded up many bronze wine vessels; she also includes wine references in poetry, and in war; the importance of the Silk Road and other important events up until the 20th century.
Whilst there are not a lot, there are some charming illustrations of wine artefacts, some in full colour along with pictures of vineyards and scenery.
Interested in trying some Chinese wine yourself? Turn to page 225 – Janet has thought of that too and lists several UK stockists.
As i said, a fascinating and interesting book , useful too.
The Chinese Wine Renaissance: A Wine Lover’s Companion. Janet Z Wang. Foreword by Oz Clarke. ISBN: 978-1-52910-360-1. £25. Ebury Press. www.eburypublishing.co.uk
Read the original text on the Foody Traveller.
Chinese restaurants are not incentivised to take a chance on new Chinese wines – because near zero historical demand means they are more interested in improving their crispy duck recipe than their wine list. That, combined with massive domestic consumption, and the difficulty of competing price-wise with the rest of the world has meant that we in the West know little or nothing about Chinese wine. Author Janet Wang hopes to change all that with her new book The Chinese Wine Renaissance, that explains why the Chinese wine industry has to be seen in its cultural context. Wang also picks her top 6 Chinese wines available in the UK and which are the top producers for us to keep an eye on.
By Peter Dean
What’s exciting about Chinese wine right now?
You are now getting wines that are trying to tell you something about where they come from in China. Five years ago, a lot of quality Chinese wines are aiming for technical precision and competence, or to taste like a ‘classic Bordeaux’. Now, having achieved certain standards and technical know-how, you hear winemakers say that they want to make ‘Riesling of Shandong’ and ‘Cabernet of Ningxia’. Winemakers are also experimenting with crosses between European and native Chinese grapes. All these are surely more interesting for the consumers too.
Given that China is one of the world’s largest wine producers – why do we know so little about it?
There is a Chinese saying that ‘even the best wines are afraid of obscure alleys’.
I think the main issues are to do with visibility, perceived relevance and also some out-dated general notion about what Chinese wine represents.
The reality is, most Chinese wines are consumed domestically, and cannot compete internationally on a quality-price ratio at present. Most people who say they’ve had Chinese wines, are likely to conjure up traumatic memories of cheap and fiery grain liquors or low grade grape wines made by some state-owned enterprise. Chinese restaurants are not incentivised to take a chance on new Chinese wines – because near zero historical demand means they are more interested in improving their crispy duck recipe than their wine list.
So this is an unfortunate starting point for Chinese wines wanting to establish a good international reputation.
Furthermore, if Chinese wines don’t feel relevant to the western market, in the sense that nobody cares to write about it or talk about it, then it follows consumers don’t know about it, and don’t seek out to try it, and there’s no demand so there is limited appetite for supply. It doesn’t actually matter how big you might be domestically, but if it is not relevant to the people here, then it is not making the news.
A case in point is the Chinese baijiu (grain liquor) market – 10 billion litres are consumed a year in China alone, versus the global vodka consumption of 4 billion litres a year. Or, China’s Kweichou Moutai is the most valuable liquor company in the world, having overtaken Johnnie Walker’s owner Diageo in 2017. Yet very few people know about baijiu or Moutai over here.
Is that set to change? Do you think we will get to be seeing more quality Chinese wine in the UK?
Yes! Because there are now more good wines wanting to come out of China and can offer quality, interest as well as value in a global market place, not merely as a curiosity. As a result, more distributors and promoters are getting involved. We should see more coming – especially UK being considered one of the most important and benchmark markets.
Is there a set Chinese wine style?
It is not so easy to generalise Chinese wine style now – versus perhaps five years ago. Previously, many Chinese wines have been described as ‘technical’, in the sense that you can’t really fault it but it is not terribly inspiring, but now this is no longer a fair comment. However, average age of vines in China are still quite young compared to elsewhere in the world, so you’ll find more ‘fruit forward’ wines. And Chinese wines tend to be ‘food friendly’.
Is it largely indigenous grape varieties or international varieties that are proving to be popular?
Cabernet Sauvignon is the most planted grape in China. Carménère (known in China as Cabernet Gernischt) is the most established and Marselan (originally a French variety, Cabernet Sauvignon x Grenache) is a rising star variety in China. For whites – Chardonnay and (Italian) Riesling dominate.
There are interesting local varieties too, such as a white wine grape called the Longyan (dragon eye – not to be confused with a fruit from the lychee family with the same name!) Some intriguing crossbreeds such as Beichun (Muscat Hamburg x Amurensis) are making promising red wines, although they are not yet produced in large quantities so are hard to find, even in China.
If someone wants to start tasting more Chinese wine – where should they start?
I would suggest trying something from Ningxia, Shandong and Xinjiang provinces – they are the most prominent wine regions in China and will take you from the land of the ancient Silk Road in the far west of China to the other end where the Yellow River empties into the East China sea, via some unique terroirs verging the Gobi desert and foothills of once impassable mountain ranges.
In terms of varieties, try some examples of Bordeaux blends, Marselan and Cabernet Gernischt (Carménère). For whites, Rieslings tend to be more uniform in quality, although some fine Chardonnays are also available. If you like bubbly, try Chandon China (Moët Hennessy’s sparkling wine from Ningxia). For something sweeter, Liaoning province is set to become a top region for ice-wine (made from Vidal picked while still frozen on the vine).
Does Chinese wine go well with just Chinese food or are there other styles of cuisine that it is well suited to?
Chinese wines can definitely go with other cuisines! You can quite happily drink a Xinjiang Cabernet blend with a steak, or a Ningxia Riesling with a Thai curry.
Interestingly, however, matching any wine (Chinese or not) to Chinese food can often be more challenging because of the way that dishes are served together rather than course by course. This is another reason why Chinese restaurants have by and large avoided the challenge of food and wine matching, however this is changing too. Some top Chinese restaurants are now designing their menu and wine list in tandem, hopefully we will see that gradually filtering through to the mainstream.
You’ve just published The Chinese Wine Renaissance. What is it that made you want to write a book about it?
I remember when I first came to the UK as a child, I felt really proud that so many people loved Chinese food! Of course the same cannot be said for Chinese wines. Yet China did have, and is now reviving, an ancient and rich wine culture, now with a global flavour. I was surprised that so little has been written about China’s wines, which are just as diverse and fascinating as Chinese cuisines.
I realised the main reason is that wine culture is very much tied to a nation’s prosperity – as my book shows, in times of hardship and chaos, winemaking is often prohibited or disrupted. So as China re-emerges from a perilous period in recent history to become a global super power, the wine culture of China is flourishing again. And, as a result, we are observing a boom in wine demand as well as production, and Chinese wines are now making inroads in the global arena.
So I feel the time is ripe for a book about Chinese wines and also its rich heritage, in English. I also feel that my multi-cultural upbringing enabled me to have a rounded perspective, and to bridge cultural concepts between western and eastern audiences. I hope this book can be a first step towards more interest in Chinese wines and I am quietly confident that one day Chinese wines will make me feel the way I felt when I first realised how popular Chinese food was around the world!
Is your book meant to be a definitive guide to Chinese wine?
Not definitive, but it is quite comprehensive in its coverage of the subject matter. I hope as a result of this book, more people will seek out (good) Chinese wines and try them, and also understand more about why a particular wine made its way here.
Of course the book has information about production regions, grape varieties, commendable producers, wine and food suggestions etc. but it is also a cultural tour of China with wine as the unifying theme. So we look at how Chinese festivals are celebrated with wine, how businesses are conducted with wine, why are the Chinese so obsessed with the health benefits of wine, why did the Chinese pay THAT much for Bordeaux cru classe, how can we use native concepts to talk about foreign wines to make communication more effective, etc.
I actually don’t think it is possible to write a definitive guide to Chinese wine, because things happen so fast and change so much in China. Facts and figures can be quite fluid and it is a fledgling industry where people are still learning and experimenting as they go along. I hope this book touches on all the important wine themes in a China context, and lays the foundation bricks of knowledge and ideas. After that there’s the internet for more current affairs! (I will also post news and updates on my blog at winepeek.com)
Who is it intended for?
My first attempt at writing a book blurb goes: ‘If you like wine, and have heard of China, then this book is for you!’
I am still determined to use this line somewhere!
I think you will enjoy this book if you like trying new wines from different regions, if you are interested in delving into various cultures and want to know the backstories of what brought about a new phenomenon.
Is there a particular angle or stance you’ve taken?
My main premise for the book is in the word ‘renaissance’, in the book title. I really want to show the reader a wine culture spanning thousands of years and that shares a fate with the rise and fall of civilisation. I think this macro view of Chinese wine culture is essential if you want to understand the pace and ambition of the modern Chinese wine industry, and Chinese people’s relationship with wine.
Talk us through the process of how you start writing about such a massive subject.
The whole thing started off from fragments of impressions, thoughts and tasting notes I jotted down – I had the great privilege of meeting the late Jean-Paul Gardère at his home in Bordeaux (chief winemaker at Latour for 25 years) and hear him talk (via translation) about his working principles, and it struck me how many parallels I could draw from his words to various schools of Chinese philosophy.
I grew up with an interest in Chinese classics and history, so I felt compelled to write down thoughts from such conversations. This ignited an interest to learn more about wine, and the more I delved into the subject, the more complexities and intrigues are revealed – it sucks you in forever. And all the while, I was also exploring these concepts by drawing from my own experiences from a dual-cultural upbringing.
Over time I organised my thoughts into short essays, and then organised the essays into themes. Then from the themes, I went back to talk to more producers and merchants, asking them their views and experiences on certain topics that I wanted to write about, such as how to talk about wine to a new consumer market.
By this point I have got a framework in mind, and decided to have three parts to the book:
Part I, by way of an ‘aperitif’, introduces China’s wine industry, its major wine-producing regions and the evolution of grape wine among the various types of alcoholic beverage that make up China’s wide repertoire.
Part II is a ‘mixed case’ that covers enduring wine themes in the context of China and explores the distinctive fusion of cultures in wine and beyond.
Part III is a ‘vertical tasting’ of the dynastic history of China, illustrating the evolution of wine alongside the evolution of a civilisation.
Then it’s just a matter of colouring in with contents for each section. I had most of the material for Part II already from interviews, conversations, notes and essays. This is the section where I have put in a lot of my own observations and thoughts. Then I wrote Part III, which is essentially a brief history of China through a wine glass, which then led me to write about the present day and look to the future, which turned into Part I.
Read the full interview on The Buyer website.
The Press Association 2019
by Sam Wylie-Harris:
The Chinese have been producing wine using grapes since the days of the Silk Road and today, according to Janet Z. Wang, author of The Chinese Wine Renaissance, China’s wine market is worth around $18 billion a year. It currently produces more than one billion litres annually, making it one of the largest wine producers and consumers in the world.
So why is Chinese wine so little known in the West, until now? To understand more, here’s what to be aware of…
China’s wine culture is tied to its prosperity
“In times of hardship and chaos, winemaking is often prohibited or disrupted, but as the nation prospers, wine and culture flourish. So as China re-emerges from a perilous period in recent history, to become a global super power, winemaking is experiencing a renaissance – this time embracing influences and expertise from around the world,” explains Wang.
“As a result, there’s a boom in demand as well as production, through international joint ventures, private and state-backed enterprises. And now, as vines and know-how gain in maturity, Chinese wines are making inroads in the global arena.”
There are three key wine growing regions
Wang suggests opening a bottle from Ningxia, Shandong or Xinjiang provinces: “They are the most prominent wine regions in China and will take you from the land of the ancient Silk Road in the far west of China, to the other end where the Yellow River empties into the East China sea, via some unique terroirs verging the Gobi Desert, and foothills of once impassable mountain ranges.”
China grows a variety of grapes
“While cabernet sauvignon is the most planted grape in China, carménère (known in China as cabernet gernischt) is the most established and marselan (originally a French variety, cabernet sauvignon x grenache) is a rising star,” notes Wang. “For whites, chardonnay and riesling dominate. There are interesting local varieties too, such as longyan (dragon eye).”
The wines are fruity and approachable
“Chinese wines tend to be ‘fruit forward’ and ‘food friendly’ in style,” says Wang, “as vines are generally still quite young and wine is usually enjoyed with food.”
The Chinese Wine Renaissance: A Wine Lover’s Companion by Janet Z. Wang, foreword by Oz Clarke, is published by Ebury Press, priced £25. Available now.
© Press Association 2019
Tasting the new dynasty of Chinese wine
By Louis Thomas
As the renowned Chinese poet and Tang dynasty government official Bai Juyi quipped, “the grand household snorts at syrupy wine, the exalted scholar laughs at petty poetry”. The first of this sentence was stolen from Wikipedia, the latter half from Janet Z Wang’s presentation to Bacchus, the University’s wine society (of which I am not a member, but I am their chief of propaganda), on Chinese wines. Like every fat bloke in a pub lamenting at how everything these days is made in China, I too was suspicious, but my scepticism was unfounded.
The tasting commenced with a 2014 Dragon Eye Longyan Dry White from Heibei province. Using hardy Chinese grapes, this is a very unusual wine, one which even my terrible palate could pick up tropical hints, particularly coconut. It was exquisitely fresh, and, according to people who know far more about this sort of thing than I do, would go excellently with a light starter. It had more tang than a dynasty lasting from 618 to 907 AD.
Next was another white, this time from Xinjiang: the elaborately named Skyline of Gobi Chardonnay Reserve. Hailing from a region with a history of producing grape wine, it smelt rather sharp, which put me off a bit, but I found it to be surprisingly drinkable. There were definite citrus notes, and even a hint of freshly mown grass, which gave me horrible flashbacks to the hay fever induced delirium of my youth. Aside from the trauma of childhood allergies resurfacing, it was very nice.
It was now time to hurtle towards the reds, beginning this new chapter with a 2014 Red Label Marselan Blend. Marselan is a cross breed between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, a cross breed created under the watchful eye of a Frenchman. The first thing that hit me was the aroma of berries. At this point I would normally say “it smelt a bit like an Echo Falls”, but I don’t want to be excommunicated by the good people of Bacchus, so I shan’t. Upon second sniffing I even got a little hint of butter, though that may just be because, as per usual, I was thinking of butter. It seems that the biggest problem with wine tastings is that as soon as someone says they can get a hint of something, that is all you can smell. It was light and approachable, the alcoholic equivalent of Simon Mayo.
More divisive would be the Rouge, from Bolongbao, a suburb of Beijing. It was very woody, offensively woody in fact. More hints of wood than you can/would like to shake a stick at. “Medicinal” was a word which kept being used by my fellow tasters, with the phrase “wet dog” being uttered by some. Apparently, it is such a polarising wine because of a certain yeast. Very much a Marmite drink, except that I like Marmite. I did not like this. If I were to make a terrible joke, I’d say that it belonged to the Minging dynasty, but I’m occasionally better than that, so I won’t.
“Once it was pointed out to us that there were hints of tea, all I could smell was tea…”
Ah! Sweet relief! The wine to follow was a very drinkable red from Ningxia province, an up and coming wine region. The 2015 Jia Bei Lan was sweet and mild with a plummy twist, perhaps because the grapes used are grown at a high altitude and thus have more exposure to direct sunlight. Or perhaps I am so positive about it because it was such a relief after the Bolongbao Rouge. Either way, it was very nice, being a slight riff on the Bordeaux style, according to someone at the table. It is a new import to the UK and, though I do not know the price, I reckon it would make a nice gift for somebody.
The final wine would also be somewhat divisive, though personally I really enjoyed it because it was like drinking syrup, one of my favourite pastimes. Silver Label Ice Wine hails from Liaoning province in the far north of China and is made from Vidal grapes which are picked when they are frozen on the vine. It was very sweet, to a sickly extent for some, and very viscous, but, being nicely chilled and with the taste of lychee and nectarine apparent even to me, I found it surprisingly refreshing. Once it was pointed out to us that there were hints of tea, all I could smell was tea – though this may possibly be an example of the nocebo effect.
So, will China conquer the vineyards of the world? I have no idea, but if you want a more informed perspective, you should probably read Janet’s new book “The Chinese Wine Renaissance” – I am ignorant when it comes to most things, but this Chinese wine tasting has slightly enlightened me.
Read the original article at The Oxford Student.
When you imagine uncorking a bottle of vintage red from a particular geographic origin, China is probably not the first place that comes to mind. But the country’s status as a world-leading wine producer is growing at pace, with homegrown varieties, particularly full-bodied bordeaux-esque reds, praised by industry experts. Although Chinese winemaking stretches back to the days of the Silk Road – around 130 BCE, and in fact there is evidence to suggest much earlier – it’s historically been associated with mellow rice wines or fiery grain-based spirits. But that’s changing: the country’s grape wine market is now worth $18bn per year, and it produces more than a billion litres annually. Despite this, Chinese wine remains relatively unknown in the West.
British-Chinese author Ms Janet Z Wang is set to spread the word with her new book, The Chinese Wine Renaissance: A Wine Lover’s Companion. It tells a story of Chinese wine that’s interwoven with the country’s complex history. “China’s wine has always shared its fate with the Chinese social, economic and political health,” writes Ms Wang. “During periods of prosperity, wine culture flourished. Now, as the second-largest world economy, a new lease of life has emerged, embracing globalisation while asserting its own characteristics.”
Most of China’s vineyards lie just north of the Yangtze river. Around 80 per cent of China’s wine growers overall are dedicated to bordeaux-style red wines, and cabernet sauvignon is the predominant grape (China has the largest planting area of cabernet sauvignon vines in the world). You’ll also find pinot noir, muscat hamburg, and grape crossbreeds – made when growers deliberately cross two grape species – such as marselan, a blend of cabernet sauvignon and grenache.
Despite cold winters, which create difficult growing conditions, wine quality in China has dramatically improved thanks to tenacious growers willing to experiment with intervention methods. Many growers, particularly in the colder regions, bury their vines underground throughout winter to protect them from the cold. These measures are necessary since the vineyards span diverse terrains, “from the foothills of the Tibetan Plateau to the Yellow River valley, from altitudes of 3,000m to winter temperatures of -25ºC,” writes Ms Wang. The resulting wines, “combine the best qualities of their parents: Chinese cold hardiness with European sweetness”.
These characterful wines are impressing tasters. China’s first official appellation, Ningxia’s Helan Mountain, is an area known for its excellent bordeaux-style reds. Helan Qingxue winery’s richly fruited Jia Bei Lan 2009 won the Decanter World Wine Award’s coveted international trophy in 2011, cementing its reputation as one of China’s flagship wine producers.
Pairing wine with Chinese food is becoming more common, but it can be a tricky business, says Ms Wang, given that most meals usually involve several dishes eaten at once. She suggests considering the region of the food you’re eating: milder Cantonese cuisine pairs with fresh, acidic whites, while spicy Sichuan food works alongside off-dry or sweet aromatic whites. Soy sauce and garlic-laden Shandong dishes from the north, meanwhile, should be matched with fuller-bodied reds.
Chinese wines are now more readily available for curious drinkers in the UK. In London, historic merchant Berry Bros & Rudd stocks a selection from the Changyu house. Look out for the fruity and full-bodied Noble Dragon Red, and the classic bordeaux-style Chateau Changyu Moser XV cabernet sauvignon. Rarer bottles can be sought out at specialist wine sellers such as Liberty Wines and Panda Fine Wine. Top-end restaurants, too, such as London’s Hutong at the Shard and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, are stocking fine Chinese wines. Get ahead of the curve and stock up now: these interesting and characterful wines look set to soar in value.
Read and shop at MrPorter.com
Meet The Member: Janet Z Wang
With early childhood memories of drinking ‘posh’ brandy with her parents in China, Janet Z Wang had always fostered an interest in wine and spirits. But it wasn’t until she was working on the trading floor in the city of London with French colleagues that she got her first taste for fine wine and the inspiration for her book, The Chinese Wine Renaissance (shortlisted for a Louis Roederer award). Amanda Barnes sits down with Janet to learn about her perspectives on the Chinese wine industry and why this isn’t a ‘new’ wine country at all.
Tell me about where you grew up in China and your first experiences of wine.
I grew up in Shenzhen, which is very interesting as it is the first city in China that opened up to foreign investment – it was a testbed for the first joint ventures. Shenzhen Special Economic Zone is older than me, but not much older! It is the 40th anniversary this year, and as far back as I can remember Shenzhen was always filled with foreign companies and joint ventures and producing goods to sell overseas.
I grew up with my parents who were in importing and exporting, and I had early exposure to brandy in fact — that was the first luxury import in China. I was always fascinated by drinks. My first experience in wine was baijiu (Chinese liquor) and also Hennessy XO Cognac as a special treat at Chinese New Year. It was considered a very posh drink and came out at special occasions. I remember trying it from the age of 6 or 7, nagging my parents and their friends for a little sip!
My mum was also a classic Tiger Mum (an Asian mother who imposes a strict extracurricular program on the children). And my mum made me learn a lot of Chinese poetry. When I was little I was force-fed Chinese classics and poetry and I noticed there was lots of poetry about wine, they used it as a metaphor for the human condition. So even though I wasn’t drinking wine, I always had this notion that wine was something that was hugely important to how humans interact and express themselves. So wine stayed with me as an interesting thing to learn about.
Then I came to the UK at the age of 11 with my parents, when my mum became a consultant to Sheffield University advising on business investment in China. I lived in Sheffield until I was 18, and my parents did drink wine but they were much stricter in the UK!
In China, children can buy alcohol, and when I was a child I would buy alcohol for my parents. So when I came to the UK at 11 years old, I once went to buy beer for my dad at the local shop! I didn’t speak much English then and the guy at the check out kept saying ’18’ to me… I thought he meant I had to buy 18 cans, so I came back with three six-packs! It took me a while to understand you couldn’t buy alcohol until you were 18.
I only started to drink at Cambridge University. My director of study loved Port and at the formal dinners, she would let us drink some with her after dinner. That’s when I started to get into wine. I was studying Computer Science, which is the most unsociable class but people would get more social after wine — I realised wine was a good thing to loosen people up!
You worked on the trading floor for a decade after university, how did you develop your career in wine writing?
After I graduated I went into commodities trading and my main market was in France (and then Italy and Spain too!). A lot of my colleagues were French, and the brokers introduced me to Bordeaux producers. That was in 2008 to 2009, when China was becoming a really important market for Bordeaux and the producers started asking me about the Chinese palate. Bordeaux at the time had no idea about what China was about, and after having these conversations I realised there were some gaps of knowledge: the cultural knowledge, the market landscape and also people didn’t realise the wine culture in China is very ancient.
If you think that you can teach people from scratch that isn’t going to work. Chinese people are not receptive to fundamentally changing what they think a wine experience should be — you have to have more of a cultural understanding. Some things won’t change, and other things they do want to learn about. I started to learn about wine from these producers and I was going to France very regularly at the time — and spending my weekends in Bordeaux.
While I was learning about wine, I was teaching the producers a bit about Chinese culture. For example, I thought they could explain terroir through the concept of Fengtu: the understanding of regional characteristics and their effects on human activities and well being; or through the concept of ‘Heaven-earth-people’, which is a philosophy that you need all three elements to succeed in what you do. I started to find these cultural parallels for them with Chinese concepts, and we would discuss that. This turned into the second chapter of my book!
Through the Circle of Wine Writers, I met Oz Clarke, and started to meet some of the other wine writers in the UK: Sarah Kemp, Richard Bampfield (they all helped and encouraged me in various ways)… It was an ongoing learning process getting into wine, and at the same time, I was writing more material for my book. I decided I wanted to talk about the modern Chinese wine market and main regions of production, but also these cultural parallels and the historical backdrop in China and why wine is something with much deeper roots there. It is related to the historical timeframe and economical cycles of China.
Have you seen any changes in the attitude of the wine industry and/or wine consumers in the UK towards Chinese wine over the last few years?
Within the trade, definitely. From my own experience when I first started to taste Chinese wine outside of China (mainly at Vinexpo and Prowein) you could tell at first that people were talking about Chinese wine as to whether it was technically competent or not. Whether it had too much oak etc. You could see from the Chinese perspective too that they were not confident and they were looking for approval.
Over time you can see their confidence level increase, and now you can see professionals also asking more specific questions. This year at Prowein for example, you could see people asking more nuanced questions — about whether certain grapes were doing well in a region, and people wanted to taste single varietals from regions. I just came back from China last month and you can also see producers now saying ‘we don’t want to be the Napa of China, we want to make the Cabernet of Ningxia’. Now Chinese producers are ready to reflect the places where their wines are coming from, and not just follow the typical Bordeaux method (which you wouldn’t have seen before!)
It’s in the consumer market where all the work still has to be done. Consumer awareness of Chinese wine is negligible. When I tell a consumer I write about Chinese wine, there’s either no reaction or a negative one. You aren’t even starting from zero, you are starting from minus one! Consumers have likely only had experiences of cheap baijiu — which they say tastes of detergent or paint — or cheap cooking wines from the supermarket. Cheap baijiu gives Chinese wine a negative perception.
Unfortunately, Chinese restaurants also haven’t historically had good wine lists. In China, we normally drink a grain-based wine, liquor or beer. And so the restaurants haven’t needed to innovate in the area. If you speak to the restaurants in Chinatown in London for example, many feel they simply don’t have the need to develop their wine lists.
You write about wine in both the UK and China. How do you see wine communication vary between China and the UK?
That depends on if you are writing for the trade or the consumer. I think the trade and consumer in the UK is a bit more uniform, the knowledge base is quite low for both in terms of the Chinese wine knowledge – you can talk about grape varieties, regions and pairings in general terms. But if you are talking to the Chinese audience, the expectations are quite different.
The Chinese consumer has an interest level which is just as low as here, they want to know about wines from traditional wine regions – Bordeaux, Burgundy, or Chile and Spain etc. They still don’t know China is one of the Top 10 producers in the world! It’s interesting now that Chinese wineries are sold in the UK, which is a positive marketing strategy for them selling back in China too. Creating an international reputation is helpful for selling wine in China — the market responds well to brands that are internationally recognised in quality and style.
The Chinese wine trade has both optimists and pessimists. Pessimists feel that Chinese wine production is still not able to compete on price domestically or internationally, the price to quality ratio is not quite there yet. There’s so much choice with wines from all over the world. Either they are looking for special wines or playing safe with French wines. And the trade feels it will be very hard for Chinese wines to become successful.
Optimists are like me! I basically feel that we shouldn’t judge Chinese wine with traditional distribution targets. We don’t need to be saying that Chinese wine needs to be in supermarkets or certain shops for commercial acceptance. I think with Chinese wine you are talking about a very different story – it’s a story of modern China. It’s what China is trying to become in a new era.
China has become the second-largest economic power within 40 years. So with that, how do you shake off this past of being a big polluter in the world, or having the reputation of not being able to innovate and only copy? How do you shake off this accusation of the big poverty and wealth gap? How can you solve these problems? Whether these are problems for the international community, or whether you have to answer these questions to your own people.
Wine is a tiny capsule of what is happening in China. In some ways, it is reducing poverty in these wine areas – Ningxia, for example, will never be a major agronomy capital or tourism hub. But although poor soil is bad for rice growing, it is good for vine growing. And this has helped them to keep young people at home (rather than fleeing elsewhere for work). Wine production brings some hope to the region.
The wine industry also helps push a green agenda and refocus on the pollution problem. Wine is also helping the consumer to become more aware of what they buy in general – the providence and how it is made etc.
Thirdly, wine allows for this rebranding exercise of ‘Made in China’. In the wine industry, we can see people trying to develop their own style and use native grapes and native hybrids. In the wine industry, it is an area where we will see people innovating, and it is an example of a high-quality export.
I think the wine of China is just a little something that shows you a glimpse of China in general – how it is trying to achieve a balance and resolve issues with the poverty gap and start to solve environmental issues and rebrand Chinese produce. The Chinese wine industry is interesting for those reasons.
If you didn’t write about Chinese wine, what region would you want to specialise in?
I started working in wine with a lot of people from Bordeaux — it’s a region that catches everyone’s interest. But recently I think Italy is really interesting. There are all these small places to which people aren’t paying attention, but the wines are amazing. And it’s an amazing holiday destination – where you can eat and drink well too!
Reprinted with kind permission from the Circle of Wine Writers.