The Great Wine of China

Perhaps you think you’re a pretty adventurous wine-drinker, and you’ve sampled a lot of different regions. Chances are though that all the wine you’ve drunk so far has been from boring old planet Earth. Whether Old World or New World, it’s all been ‘World’ up till now. Well, now’s your chance to branch out, because the China National Space Administration has sent Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Merlot vines up into space on China’s Tiangong-2 laboratory.

The crew, who took off on Monday, are hoping that the rather unusual (and irradiated) terroir up there will produce some useful mutations in the plants. Back on earth the vines will be examined for any signs of a hardy new cultivar suited to China’s climate. State media is unclear on what will happen to the grapes afterwards, but we like to hope that Chinese space scientists will get the chance to “examine” them over dinner.

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Whether or not the space vines bear fruit, as a PR exercise alone it demonstrates the lengths the Chinese government are prepared to go to develop and promote their nascent wine industry.

Although winemaking goes back thousands of years in China, their modern-day offerings have yet to become truly popular outside the country. After all, Low Earth Orbit might be a strange appellation, but when’s the last time you drank a glass of Ningxia? This unlikely region on the edge of the Gobi Desert is tipped to be China’s answer to the Champagne region and has nearly 200 registered wineries. A Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 and a Chardonnay 2012 from Ningxia were proudly served to assembled world leaders at September’s G20 summit in Hangzhou.

It might have come as a surprise to Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, but over the past decade China has quietly become one of the world’s largest wine producers. In 2015 there was much tutting and soul-searching in the French press at the news that China had overtaken France in terms of hectares of vineyards.  Last week came another blow to French pride, with the news of Chinese victory at the prestigious Revue du Vin blind tasting World Championship in France. The team from China beat the hosts into second place.

A result described by the organisers as a “thunderclap on the shores of the Mediterranean!”

The challenge now for Chinese growers is to prove that they can not just produce in bulk, but make high-quality fine wines which can hold their own against long-established wineries. Chinese vintners have looked towards the West to import this expertise. One such high-profile investment came this summer with the launch of Ao Yun by Moët Hennessy, the luxury company known for Dom Pérignon, and supplier to Chief Wine Officer events worldwide.

Moët Hennessy’s Head of Brand, Tamara Lee – and regular speaker at Chief Wine Officer events – told us it was “an opportunity to discover a new region with fantastic potential, rich culture and breathtaking landscapes. After years of research to identify the best region for making red wine in China, we found our ideal location in Shangri-La – North Yunnan Province, at very high altitude in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. The first vintage 2013 is a blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc. Ao Yun has the unique character of complexity and freshness with elegant tannins.”

Only time will tell whether China will become a great wine region of the world. At Chief Wine Officer we’re always keen to try new and exciting wines, and we’ll look anywhere in the world for them. Or, for that matter, anywhere in the universe…