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Chinese wine on the table?

Washington vintners better be prepared to compete

There was a time when wine connoisseurs looked with disdain on wines produced in the U.S. Then, when California wines gained popularity, those made in Washington were viewed with skepticism. Wines fermented in Chile, Argentina and Australia were dismissed for years before finally being stocked on store shelves.

Well, in the years ahead, you may see Chinese wines appearing in America and they may compete with Washington’s award-winning fine red wines.

Surprisingly, some wines produced in China are getting good reviews, wine expert and author Karen MacNeil says. “I’ve been to every other wine region in the world, and I thought, ‘Wine near the Gobi Desert, impossible, right? Unthinkable.’ But, boy, wine near the Gobi Desert – it is a reality, and it’s a big reality. Our grandchildren will probably know this like they’ll know any other wine region in the world.”

The idea that a barren area of China might be the world’s next great wine region is mindboggling, but converting a vast desolate tract to fertile crop land is possible with water.

That’s just what happened in Washington, starting with the completion of Grand Coulee Dam in 1942. The dam’s reservoir now supplies water to irrigate 671,000 acres of cropland including wine grapes.

Today, irrigation water from a network of dams on the Columbia, Yakima and Snake rivers has transformed our state into one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions which produces some of the world’s most prized wines.

Similarly, the dry lands in Ningxia, about 500 miles west of Beijing, have had an infusion of fresh water from government-sponsored water projects. It is now home to more than 50 wineries.

There are about 80,000 acres of vineyards under cultivation in Ningxia and they plan to expand to 160,000 acres by 2020. That will be more than three times the acreage in wine production in the entire state of Washington, our nation’s second leading wine producers.

China is the fifth largest producer and consumer of wine. As the country’s standard of living continues to increase and people have more disposable income, they are drinking more fine wine.

While the history of Chinese grape wine dates back more than 4,600 years, the renewed taste for wine has grown rapidly over the last decades with China’s economic boom. Because domestic production could not keep pace with demand, China has relied on imports – including wine from Washington State.

In 2014, China’s wine imports from Washington took a 25 percent nosedive. China’s economy slowed down and the Chinese government’s austerity programs left its citizens with less money to spend on wine. However, the long-term outlook is brighter even as China increases it acreage in grape wine production.

Ningxia vineyard owners are rapidly expanding. As MacNeil noted, it took the Napa Valley growers in California a century to build a market, something China’s Ningxia region has done in a decade.

The wildcard for Ningxia growers is the frigid winters and harsh Gobi winds. Vineyard owners must bury their vines after the fall harvest to protect them from the extreme cold. Then they carefully uncover them at the right time to encourage the grapes to grow again.

Washington wines can be competitive in China but China’s growing presence in the wine business is something we should watch carefully as they start to compete for shelf space in the USA.

With more than 200 million Chinese now in the middle class, the market for fine wines is growing. As the quality improves, as MacNeil pointed out, Washington winegrowers now need to pay attention to Chinese labels.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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