What associations do the words “wine in China” conjure up? Scandals concerning fake bottles of Château Lafite; apocryphal stories of Chinese tycoons drinking Château Margaux with Coca-Cola; undrinkable plonk in Chinese supermarkets? If so, consider the associations wine has for the Chinese. It is regarded as a status symbol; a sign of success and a means of being western. As such, it is more often bought as an elegant present than as something to drink. It is said that until recently the Chinese didn’t really like wine. They found it too sour. But China has a long tradition of making and drinking alcohol, and now its newly-affluent consumers have acquired, if not a taste, then at least a firm practice of drinking European wines.
The preferences of the new elite are clear, and depend on a chain of associations. The word sometimes used for wine in Mandarin, hóngjiu, means “red alcohol,” so wine is often taken to mean red wine; red wine means French wine, and French wine is Bordeaux. The most highly-prized wines are those classified as first growths, the most sought after of all being Château Lafite. This is unsurprising: the Domaines Baron de Rothschild, who make Château Lafite, also own 25 hectares of vines in Shandong, where they aim to produce the first great Chinese Grand Cru for the domestic market. Shandong is a peninsula southeast of Beijing, at roughly the same latitude as Napa Valley, where growing conditions are good. The Rothschild investment in China has created very powerful brand recognition for Château Lafite, which is now virtually unaffordable to anyone but Chinese billionaires. One consequence is the rise of forgeries in China; the company has responded with security measures on its bottles. But there are also lookalikes, such as the respectable winery Château Lafitte, and the delightfully absurd Châtelet Lafite.
The thirst for Bordeaux has led to Chinese investors purchasing châteaux there, the latest foreign investors after the Germans and Americans. In a way, their passion for Bordeaux is puzzling. These wines can be austere and high in tannin, needing time to age in the bottle, and far from an ideal accompaniment to Chinese cuisine. Instead, cool climate reds from Austria, Germany and the Loire may be the way to go. At a tasting of these in Beijing a couple of years ago, I came across several people enrolled in wine education classes—this may gradually…