I touched base in Shanghai after a marathon – cross-Pacific fourteen hour flight from Chicago to find an environment like a sauna! Forty degree temperatures and 90% humidity is enough to scare the hell out of a budding wine marketeer attempting to peddle luxury red wines into the world's largest market.
There is nothing small about China and arriving into this former communist country combines feelings of trepidation with elation at the potential that this economic powerhouse offers. I had taken good advice and had studied closely local traditions and customs, and had at least a basic idea of what to expect, how to communicate, and how to avoid social embarrassment by embracing the ways of the locals.
I was met by my interpreter, Sharon, who was to shadow me all day for the four days that I am in China. At US$80 per day, she is one of the better paid people in Shanghai. In a country where the average wage is about the same as my weekend stay in a relatively nice hotel, she was worth every penny.
Mandarin, (the local language) bears no resemblance to English or any European language. I can honestly say that in my four days I did not ever (ever!) understand a single word that was said. Routine tasks like taking a taxi become challenging endeavours and, apart from rudimentary sign language, there is no way to communicate with your average Shanghainese.
On the positive side, the same communication issues that I experienced appeared routine for the locals as they were very comfortable with interpreters. A further barrier was that despite an excellent interpreter, there appeared to be a number of English concepts which did not translate into Mandarin and this complicated my voyage of discovery.
Even educated, affluent and urbanised Chinese are generally not familiar with even the basics of wine appreciation. Wine has simply never been part of the culture here and it is a tribute to an insatiable appetite to comprehend Western traditions that the body of knowledge is growing at a frenetic pace. It was told that even basic concepts like the difference between red and white needed to be explained.
I overheard a story that an affluent Chinese gentleman had a fight with a sommelier that had recently decanted a Bordeaux first-growth that he had ordered. It took a lot of explaining to the business man that decanting would indeed improve the wine and that the sommelier had not just ruined a perfectly good and ludicrously expensive bottle of wine. The same sommelier explained to me that he had a hard time explaining to people that winemakers did not actually add ‘gooseberries’ to Sauvignon Blanc and that a grape could produce the flavour of something else. Again, basic stuff...
I had arrived in China wanting to dispel the urban legend that the Chinese ‘mixed’ their wines with Coca-Cola. I could not! Simon Zhou, an extremely knowledgeable local wine merchant, explained to me that Chinese wine is by far the most common wine consumed in this market, but that the quality of the wine was generally of an extremely low level. ‘Great Wall’ appears to be the most prominent local brand which is unencumbered by local content and vintage restrictions.
Apparently the big local producers are a bit slack in updating the vintage on the labels and a vintage from the '90s has been on sale for the past five years, despite the vintages progressing apace. It is also not uncommon to find that the ‘Chinese’ wine is in fact a bulk import of low-quality juice from Chile or Argentina.
Not all was like this however; I made a point of experimenting with some local wines and found a recent vintage ‘Grace Vineyards’ Chardonnay Reserve to have a deep minerality, a welcome freshness, recognizable character, and a lovely integration of oak. Surprise, surprise! I immediately set about securing a couple of cases of Chinese and look forward to presenting a tasting for twenty people in the Vilafonté boardroom in a couple of months. (I will offer four places to the first reader to request a seat on our blog at www.vilafonte.com.)
I would suggest that anybody who underestimates the ability of the Chinese market to innovate and make a chameleon-like transformation into a quality wine producing country would be a fool. Over and over I read and heard about massive construction projects coming in ahead of schedule and under budget.
The energy, industrious nature and commitment of the Chinese people is obvious after even a few hours in China.