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China has the grapes but needs its own wine vision

Jan 4, 2016

(Star2) - In a country renowned for forgery, winemaker Jose Hernandez worries China’s burgeoning viniculture industry will suffer from blatant copying of Bordeaux’s output.

China has the world’s second-largest grape growing area, but experts say its winemakers need to innovate rather than imitate established European or New World regions if they are ever to join their ranks.

When Hernandez, a Chilean, walked into a winery in Ningxia, he found an unappetising blend of brand new Chinese equipment and old French ideas about winemaking.

Hernandez was among more than 50 foreign winemakers brought to the northern region by a government-sponsored competition that pairs each with a local winery, in an attempt to drive up quality and earn a global reputation.

“The wines have potential, you see they have something special, but right now most wineries are just copying Bordeaux styles; it’s the same mistake all the South American countries made 20 to 30 years ago,” said Hernandez, who has made wine in Argentina and Spain as well as his home country.

Instead they needed to showcase their own terroir, he said. “They need to offer something unique from that place.”

Walking among sun-kissed vines, most of the winemakers were initially impressed by the grapes. But good, albeit not spectacular, fruit is not enough to make a great wine.

Ningxia has only a limited history of viniculture, and most of the vineyard workers have never tasted their produce – the region is the homeland of China’s Hui Muslim minority, who adhere to the Islamic prohibition on alcohol.

But it hosts some impressive wineries, owned by members of China’s Han majority, complete with the latest technology, imported oak barrels and slick tasting rooms.

The biggest problem, Hernandez said, was an idea that money and investment can make great wine.

“For the wineries in Ningxia, in their mind, making wine is more or less the same as making cars: grapes go in, wine comes out,” he said.

Currently, most Ningxia vines are cabernet, and wineries are trying to make high-alcohol, heavily oaked products.

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