Elite French winemakers seek elusive Chinese blend

 A general view of the vineyard owned by France's Domaine Barons de Rothschild (DBR), maker of the renowned Chateau Lafite reds, in Penglai, east China's Shandong province, is seen in this photo taken on Aug 29, 2013. DBR, one of the world's fin
 A general view of the vineyard owned by France's Domaine Barons de Rothschild (DBR), maker of the renowned Chateau Lafite reds, in Penglai, east China's Shandong province, is seen in this photo taken on Aug 29, 2013. DBR, one of the world's fine winemakers, is planting roots in China in search for an elusive Chinese blend. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

PENGLAI, CHINA (AFP) - The world's fine winemakers have exacting standards for soil, climate and cultivation to produce the perfect grape. And they are looking to recreate that unlikely blend in China - better known for cheap mass production.

The potential harvest will be more drinkers in the world's most populous country, where wine consumption more than doubled in the four years to 2011 and is set to rise another 40 percent by 2016, according to the industry's top trade-fair organiser Vinexpo.

France's Domaines Barons de Rothschild (DBR), maker of the renowned Chateau Lafite reds, is planting roots in China with an initial 15 hectares (37 acres) in Penglai, a hilly green peninsula dotted with vineyards on the east coast of Shandong province with a century-long history of winemaking.

Its great rival, French luxury group LVMH - owner of Dom Perignon champagne among other brands - has 66 hectares for sparkling wine in the up-and-coming wine province of Ningxia in the north.

LVMH is also harvesting its first cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes from 30 hectares in the cool hills of southwestern Yunnan.

"It's a new El Dorado, it's a New World," says Mr Jean-Guillaume Prats, who oversees the firm's wine division.

"No one knows really where and how vines should be grown. We have some ideas. People have tried. But nothing has been proved." The three areas' winemaking reputations are just beginning to develop, with experts gaining confidence in Ningxia - whose products have won international tasting competitions - and seeing promising conditions in Yunnan, but worrying that Shandong's wetness could encourage disease.

Even so, bottled results could still take years, as winemakers experiment with the terroir - the soil, climate and other conditions that influence the grape - going so far as remaking the land to improve their odds.

China's first wine company began production in Shandong in 1892, but a tradition of high-quality vintages never took root.

DBR chose the province after scouting several sites and has spent years blasting through thick layers of rock and digging up earth to create the ideal soil depth, says vineyard director Olivier Richaud.

To counter the summer rain, leaves on each vine - most of them cabernet sauvignon, but six different varietals in all - are thinned to give the grapes more sunlight, and weeds have been planted between each row to absorb more water.

"Everything is completely different from what the company is used to in all the vineyards we have," says Mr Richaud, standing amid rows of terraces overlooking green hills and a lake.

"Until the end we won't really know what quality we should get." For its part LVMH settled on Yunnan after a three-year search for elements such as good summer months, natural soil drainage and access to water.

The area resembles Bordeaux but at a higher altitude, says Mr Prats, but it could be a decade before the firm makes something it is happy with, he adds.

"I am absolutely incapable of telling you when this wine will eventually be released and what it will be called and how many will be produced," he says.

Chinese vineyards have only recently begun to gain respect for quality, with a Ningxia vintage even winning the title of best Bordeaux-style wine at the 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards in London.

But so far Chinese consumers have largely given wine as a gift, so they tend to buy expensive foreign labels for show.

They themselves drink cheap local brands and only recently has a niche but expanding group begun drinking for taste, says Mr Jim Boyce, a Beijing-based wine expert who runs the blog Grape Wall of China.

As a result local vintners have generally obliged by making low-cost wine, he adds.

"Instead of growing a nice amount of high-quality grapes, they just grow quantity, and don't care much about them and pick them too early." Greek winemaker Mihalis Boutaris found that out the hard way, producing a locally branded good-quality bottle in the western province of Gansu that sold poorly.

He turned to importing Greek bottles instead and sidelined his 20-hectare Chinese vineyard.

"It made me realise there's really no demand for premium local wine, or there is very little of it," he says.

Hong Kong-based wine expert Jeannie Cho Lee says foreign firms could not only benefit themselves but also lift the quality of wine made and enjoyed in China - if they can deliver.

"We have to be realistic and very careful," she adds, "because we have no idea about the quality levels." Still, anticipation for these prized brands is already high. Fake bottles claiming to come from the Shandong vineyard have already been seen on sale, Mr Richaud says - "even before we started production".

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.