The East is Red

In terms of wines, anyway, as China's leading vineyard continues to win awards and turn heads with surpassingly tasty vintages from the Middle Kingdom

By Ron Gluckman/Qingdao, China

AS THE SUN NEARS THE CENTER of the sky, commotion ripples through the fields near Laoshan, one of China’s most sacred mountains. Hoes are dropped in unison at 11:30 a.m., and scores of workers simultaneously leap upon bicycles. Then, the peasants pedal home for bowls of rice, and cups of tea or beer - the traditional mid-day fare.

But the boss of this farm lingers. In a mellow mood, Lin Ke Qiang walks a few guests into a parlor, opens a fridge and pours an odd lunchtime beverage. Sipping the clear liquid, he proclaims: "This is our best wine yet."

Harvest has come to Shandong Province in northeastern China. Revered for its apple orchards, the region has lately been gaining a reputation for the juice of another fruit. The remarkable Chardonnay that Mr Lin is sipping is the reason.

Wine in China has long elicited chuckles from viticulturists and consumers alike, but at Huadong Winery, Mr Lin and his colleagues are having the last laugh. In the process, the output from its vineyards may well reshape drinking habits in what is, potentially, the world’s largest wine market.

However, it’s been a long march for Huadong, a winery with a lifeline as hearty as the Chardonnay, Riesling and two red vintages it produces. Michael Parry, an English wine merchant from Hong Kong, imported over 40,000 vines from Europe in the mid-1980s to establish China’s finest vineyards. The estate was destroyed by a typhoon the following year. Parry replanted but went bankrupt in the process. Undaunted, he found new partners, and the revolutionary winery struggled on. Unfortunately, Parry never had a chance to savor success from what he had sown. He died a few years back, and his ashes were planted in the vineyards along with his bold dreams of a brave new wine for this ancient land.

Although wine making has a thousand-year history in the Middle Kingdom, the wines have mainly been lethal libations like "baijiu," a clear liquid of 45 percent alcohol, or syrupy concoctions made from table grapes. Huadong produces China’s first varietals, as well a red table wine that mainly uses Cabernet grapes.

The wines are produced to western standards, in state-of-the art equipment in a charming chateau about 40 minutes from Qingdao, the old German colony on the coast that is home to Tsingtao Beer, China’s best known export brand.

However, Huadong may change that. Its tasty Chardonnay, in particular, has won gold medals in Europe and, most recently, from as far away as South Africa. Yet, more significantly, the winery’s major success has been in the mainland itself. About three-fourths of Huadong’s output is consumed in China, mainly at upscale hotels and trendy pubs. That is, when they can find the wine.

Production has been a problem, albeit a delightful one, according to Mr Lim. Five years ago, production was 30,000 boxes, each containing 12 bottles. "Last year, we increased production to 100,000 boxes," he says. "This year, we should double that to 200,000 boxes, but still, it’s not enough. I hope to take this winery to one million boxes."

Quite often, Huadong is simply sold out. It’s quite a tribute to Mr Lim, who was working in a sewing factory until Mr Parry arrived from Hong Kong with his European vines. "I started from nothing. I had no knowledge at all."

Actually, Mr Lim was the typical Chinese consumer at that stage, he reckons. "Four or five years ago, people in China didn’t really like wine. They thought it was too sour," he says. The winery mounted a series of promotions, including tastings in Chinese hotels. There has also been limited advertising. But the real change has been one of lifestyle. As incomes in China have spiraled upwards steadily since the reforms of the 1980s, so have consumer tastes. A nose for wine is only to be expected in a country that already brews 15 million tons of beer.

"We’ve been very successful," Mr Lim admits, "but I foresee great competition in the future. This market needs a lot of wine. We cannot satisfy that demand in the future. There must be a great deal of expansion."

That potential has been noted by numerous foreign firms, including Remy Martin and Pernod Ricard, which were both involved in early joint ventures in China. Huadong Winery’s partner is Hiram Walker Wines & Spirits (HK) Ltd., a subsidiary of the British Allied Domecq Group.

"Competition is fierce here, particularly for grapes. It’s a clear case of demand exceeding supply," says Lincoln Sauer, an Australian who is serving as chief wine maker at Huadong this year under terms of a regular contract for foreign consolation. "It’s getting difficult to find the grapes, especially the right quality."

China claims over 160,000 acres of vines nationwide, but much is in remote areas, like north of Tibet near Kazakhstan, where Silk Road traders brought seeds centuries ago. There is also a small native grape (Vitus thunbergii) which grows wild north of Shanghai. And Russian visitors brought plantings of Muscat and Ratsiteli, which form the backbone of the mainland’s modern wine growing. But, the future for wine making, most believe, is in Shandong Province, which lies, roughly along the same parallel as California’s esteemed Napa Valley.

Already the region claims several reputable wineries between Qingdao and Yantai. The area is also the source of Laoshan mineral water, bottled near the 2,000-year-old Taoist temple that is a popular site of pilgrimage. Also nearby is Qufu, birthplace of Confucius, and Tai Shan, most sacred of China’s mountains. Mao reportedly lumbered to the top, like a handful of emperors before him and watched a sunset. Afterwards, he proclaimed: "The east is Red!"

The Great Leader may be right again. Perhaps it was Cabernet he foresaw.


Ron Gluckman is an American journalist who has been based in Hong Kong for six years, but roams around Asia for various publications, including the Wall Street Journal, which ran this story in October 1996. For some of his other stories from China, please click on the Jews of Shanghai, Dream Park, the Americanization of China , Shrapnel and Sand, Hemp, Stuck inside a Shanghai Harmonica Factory and Old China Hands.

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