EASTERN PROMISE

Correspondent Robin Lynam reports from Hong Kong on the dawn of a new wine culture in Asia.


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Correspondent Robin Lynam reports from Hong Kong on the dawn of a new wine culture in Asia.

On a sunny hillside in China's Shandong Province, a few miles from the picturesque old port of Tsingtao, a simple memorial plaque marks the best spot from which to look out over Michael Parry's dream.

Back in the early 1980s, Parry, an English wine merchant who had built up a business in Hong Kong, was convinced that China could make good wines from classic Western grapes—perhaps, eventually, great ones. This view was widely considered to be mad. In 1985 he founded the Huadong (East China) winery, and lived long enough to taste its first respectable Tsingtao Riesling and Chardonnay—both of which have improved beyond measure since. Sadly, by 1990 his bankers had foreclosed on the venture, obliging him to sell his shareholding to Allied Domecq; Parry died shortly thereafter.

Today, more than a decade since Parry's ashes were scattered among the vines at the foot of that hill, Huadong Supreme Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon—two limited-production wines available exclusively in Shandong—bear a label acknowledging his contribution. They are the first premium-quality varietals to be made in China, by a Chinese winemaker, exclusively from the grapes of a single Chinese region, and sell at the winery for around $14 per bottle. As a rule, the average price for domestically produced wine in China is $3 or $4 per bottle, but demand for the Supreme vintages is outstripping supply.

Initially, Huadong's wines were made by a series of visiting Australians. But according to Gabriel Tam—Parry's partner who stayed with the winery after the takeover and now owns a majority stake—Shandong winemaker Gloria Xia, who more or less grew up with the venture, is now in charge of the process and foreign assistance is no longer necessary.

"We have worked to create our own appellation here," says Tam. "We will only buy grapes from farmers with whom we have planted the vineyards and who we have trained. We supervise the pruning. The only problem is that we may not have enough grapes this year, and that just means we have to make less wine." Few other wineries in Asia are this insistent about making honest wine. It is on idealists like Tam—and Parry before him—that the development of wines that truly express Asian terroir depends.

Production is expanding rapidly all over the continent, but much of it is at best of average quality and depends on mixing local grapes with bulk imports of non-Asian origin. Furthermore, many of the purely local wines are made with grapes other than Vitis vinifera, with predictably undistinguished results.

Nevertheless (and perhaps surprisingly given the continent's oppressive climatic extremes), most Asian countries produce some grapes intended for winemaking—China, Cambodia, India, Japan, Korea, Myanmar (Burma), Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam among them. Even predominantly Muslim Indonesia allows some viticulture and bottling on the resort island of Bali, although the crushing and vinification take place in Australia in deference to Javanese sensibilities.


The wine selection at The Metropole, an elegant old hotel in Hanoi.

Winemaking in Japan is a large and complicated subject (which Wine Enthusiast will address in a future issue), but the country does produce a small quantity of high-quality wine from locally grown grapes. Labeling laws are nebulous, however, and much of Japan's supposedly domestic production is blended with imported must, grape juice or bulk wine.

Japanese winemakers otherwise work largely with table grapes. Koshu, the country's signature variety, produces a thin, rather anonymous wine, but more interesting results have been obtained from limited plantings of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Around 65,000 acres in 46 of the 47 prefectures are under vine, although only around 10 percent of all grapes grown are used for winemaking.

China—where grapes have been grown since around 121 B.C.—has by far the most potential, both as a producer and as a market. Since China opened in the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping's Open Door policy, the development of both sectors has been led by joint ventures involving major international wine and spirits companies such as Remy Martin (with Dynasty and a sparkling wine, Imperial Court) and Pernod Ricard (with Dragon Seal).

The foreign partners—most of whom went in during the Asian economic boom years of the 1980s and have since more or less pulled out—brought capital, expertise and up-to-date technology. Convincing their Chinese partners that quality production meant limited production, however, sometimes proved an impossible task. So impossible, in fact, that many partnerships collapsed because of it.

Yet China's potential continues to lure new investors. One of the biggest Chinese-owned labels, Great Wall, originally established with some assistance from Seagram, has never made wine of any real distinction. In 1997, however, the company went into partnership with Miguel Torres and local distributor Montrose to establish the Great Wall Torres Winery in Shacheng, Huailai County, northwest of Beijing.


The Huadong Winery and vineyard in Shandong Province, founded in 1985

This operation currently bottles Spanish Torres wines under the "Tres Torres" label for Chinese hotels, restaurants and supermarkets, but is also experimenting with plantings of various European grapes. So far Syrah, Merlot, Cariñena and Garnacha have struggled, but some lots of Cabernet Sauvignon appear to show potential.

 

Cabernet Sauvignon also appears to thrive in at least one highly unlikely location—the Turpan Basin in northwest China between the Gobi and Takalamakhan Deserts. In this remote region, the Lou Lan winery, a 30-year-old but previously unsuccessful government-owned operation purchased in 1996 by Shanghai-born Woo Hang Lung, is a remarkable success story.

Like Huadong, Lou Lan has been built on one man's dream—along with a great deal of hard work and an investment of $2 million in state-of-the-art French and Italian winemaking equipment. Woo recruited French winemaker Gregory Michel from his native Provence in 1997. Michel has supervised a transformation of the winery, showing enthusiastic staff how to prune vines for higher quality and lower yields, improving quality controls, and changing the style of the wines from sickly sweet to dry and well structured.

"When I arrived we had about 100 different grape varieties, white and black, all planted together," Michel recalls. "We made some selections and settled on Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Syrah and Merlot. We also kept a local variety that we call Bayiu, with which we make a medium-dry white; Chenin Blanc, Italian Riesling and another local variety called Rou Ding Xiang that makes very good sweet wine." In addition, a new 100-hectare vineyard has been planted exclusively with Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Lou Lan has built a solid reputation in China on its French and American oak-aged Turpan Basin Cabernet Sauvignon and Lou Lan Dry Red, both of which are featured on many hotel and restaurant wine lists in major Chinese cities, and in Hong Kong.

Michel's ambition, however, is to produce a wine from some of the Chinese grapes he inherited from the previous management. "We want to produce wine of as high a quality as Europe, America or Australia, but with our own local character, and we want to develop one of the best wines of China with our own Chinese grapes," he says emphatically. "I am sure we can do that."

The world, however, will have to wait a while. So far, distribution of Lou Lan has been confined to greater China, with a few cases going to Japan. Woo and Michel want to achieve higher levels of quality before tackling international markets in earnest. "We want to offer a very high quality of wine to the international market, but we don't expect to become one of the biggest wineries in China," says Michel. "Our target is to produce 4,000 to 5,000 tons per year—about the same as a medium-sized French winery. We don't want to become another Great Wall, Dragon Seal or Dynasty."

Harvest time at Lou Lan Winery

In India, as in China, cost-conscious rather than quality-conscious wineries make wine from table grapes, and the emphasis is generally on the low-quality plonk that naturally results from big yields. Only two operations currently make wines that enjoy any serious international acceptance, but their success may mark the beginning of a trend towards smaller production of better wines.

Chateau Indage, in the Maharashira area southeast of Bombay, where 70 percent of India's wine is made, is best known for its sparkling wines—Omar Khayam, the sweeter Marquise de Pompadour, and the Vintage Celebre. Grover Vineyards has around 150 acres under vine near Bangalore.

Opinion is divided as to the merits of the Indage fizz, but by 1996 Veuve Clicquot thought enough of Grover, established in 1988 by Kanwal Grover, to take a stake in the venture. By that time Michel Rolland, the world's most famous flying winemaker, was already dropping in three times a year to offer "technical guidance," as it says on the labels.

"To do this you need to be passionate about wine," says Kapil Grover, a director of the company, "and my father is absolutely passionate about quality. On the rare occasions when he gets a bad bottle you should see the faxes that fly back and forth between here and Bombay."

Before opening the winery, Kanwal Grover had experimented for six years in different locations, and with 35 different grape varieties. He then settled on his vineyards, planting mostly with Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Clairette. He tried Chardonnay and deemed it a failure, but Viognier is doing well.

"I've tried a lot of Indian wines and I've not found anything comparable to Grover," says Patricio de la Fuente Saez, whose company, Links Concept, introduced the wines to Hong Kong and China. He first contacted Kapil Grover after discovering, while in Bordeaux, that French buyers had ordered 5,000 cases of the Indian wine.

"It's in a class of its own," Saez reflects. "The Cabernet Sauvignon has a very mature Bordeaux-style nose—plummy, leather, raisins. It takes five minutes to open up and then, boom!"

With Rolland's assistance, Grover also makes a more complex and oakier Cabernet Sauvignon—La Reserve—while its Rosé Dry and Blancs de Blancs de Clairette are light, refreshing wines that could have come from Languedoc-Roussillon. One thing nobody calls them, tasting blind, is Indian. Between them, the Grovers and Rolland appear to have succeeded in creating a little corner of France in South India.

This is proving a little more difficult to achieve in Southeast Asia's more tropical conditions, although Thailand now has at least eight wineries. Respectable wines are being made in the north by operations such as Chateau de Loei, which makes an acceptable Chenin Blanc, and Khao Yai, owned by a subsidiary of Thailand's Boon Rawd Brewery (which makes the country's popular Singha beer).

Although Chenin Blanc and, to some extent, Shiraz, are the only Western varieties to have demonstrated an affinity for Thai terroir thus far, experiments are underway with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Ugni Blanc, Sangiovese, Lambrusco, Lancoletta, Carignan and Mourvèdre.

The most successful Thai wines to date are probably the Siam Winery's Chatemp Vin Blanc and Vin Rouge, made under the supervision of French winemaker Laurent Metge-Toppin. He is currently experimenting with both classic French and native Thai varieties, grown in the "floating" vineyards of the Chao Phraya plain (where grapes are harvested by boat) and in the Kwai Valley.

Chatemp, like Grover, is owned by a wealthy businessman with a passion for wine, which means that Metge-Toppin gets all the technological and labor resources he needs from proprietor Chalermchai Yoovidhya. He is also in the unusual position of being able to call on two vintages per year, each recorded on the label in line with the Buddhist rather than the Christian calendar. The "2541" Vin Blanc picked up a bronze medal at the 2000 International Wine & Spirit Competition in London—one year in the regular calendar after Lou Lan's Turpan Basin Cabernet Sauvignon picked up the same medal at the same show.

The taste for wine that was developing in Thailand prior to the onset of the Asian economic crisis in 1997 appears to have survived the worst of the ongoing recession. But optimism in the trade about Vietnam—which, with its long French-colonial heritage and population of 77 million, was regarded by many as second only to China in its potential as a market for locally produced wine—appears to have been premature. "I think we were just here too early," says Tony Allen, one of the directors of Allied Domecq's Ninh Thuan joint-venture winery.

Until this year Ninh Thuan was making sparkling wine aimed at supplanting Vietnam's well established favorite, Russian "Champagne," and making a dent in the much bigger market for fruit wines. Wines made from apricots, pineapples, strawberries and wild apples, as well as traditional rice wines, are readily available all over the country, but only around 3 percent of Vietnam's total wine production is made from grapes.

According to Allen, experiments were underway in Ninh Thuan's vineyards with cuttings from Australia; although Cabernet Sauvignon had proven disappointing, Chambourcin was showing promise. With a flat local market for Vietnamese grape wine, however, experimental cultivation has temporarily ceased. Allied Domecq still bought out its joint venture partner's interest in the winery before mothballing it, and they retain the winery's staff.

"At the moment, the Vietnamese only want to drink Bordeaux—or something called Bordeaux—and foreigners don't want to drink Vietnamese wine. In the long term, though, we still think it has great potential—we're just going to watch the market very carefully," says Allen.

Patricio de la Fuente Saez has no doubt that the next few years will see several Asian countries evolve into serious producers and consumers of quality wine, and he believes that China will lead the way.

"China has not yet found a variety that is truly its own—something that matches Chinese terroir as Australia has with Shiraz, or Argentina has Malbec. Once they've found that, it's just a matter of cloning and getting it better and better," says Saez. "I think that in 20 years they will have developed wine into a very serious business. Let's not forget that there are 1.3 billion people. That's certainly enough to support the country's own wine industry. It's going to be very, very interesting."

A native of England, Robin Lynam has lived in Hong Kong since 1982, and writes about wine, food, travel and culture in Asia and other parts of the world.

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