Chinese Wine Goes Down Slowly
By Hannah Beech Qingdao
In a sleepy Chinese outpost, spice traders have created a little
bit of Korea
Shao xuedong can sniff out a good vintageeven if it's mixed with
a dash of Sprite. Unlike the average Chinese tippler, though, the Qingdao
vintner doesn't take his wine diluted with soft drinks. Instead, Shao
and his colleagues at the Huadong winery in fertile Shandong province
are aiming for a doubly difficult task: creating a top-notch Chinese wine
and training the public to appreciate it.
Wine-drinking got a big boost in 1996 when then-Premier Li Peng decreed
that state banquets should be lubricated with wine instead of baijiu,
a potent grain alcohol consumed in rapid-fire shots. Despite the official
approval, however, most cadres complained that anything but the sweetest
wines tasted spoiled or vinegary. Their solution? To dump sugar or Sprite
in the offending liquid to mellow the bitter tannins.
To be fair, the bottles uncorked at state banquets haven't exactly been
grands crus. Dynasty and Great Wall, two of the most popular brands, taste
as if they are designed for college drinkathons. Other offerings, like
Luminous Cup or Shenzhen Wang's, are equally uninspiring. Huadong, on
the other hand, displays good breeding: last year, the 15-year-old winery
was the sole Chinese representative at the Vinexpo in Bordeaux. French
vintners, recalls Shao, couldn't believe that a Chinese offering was actually
Praise from the French Elite doesn't count much with Chinese drinkers.
Though Huadong production has increased tenfold to 200,000 cases in the
past decade, most Chinese still prefer beer over Bordeaux. Much of that
attitude is a matter of price. A 1998 Huadong chardonnay is priced at
$13, while the average monthly wage in rural Shandong is little more than
$20. Says Liu Dongwen, a 32-year-old employee at Huadong's bottling plant:
"I'd rather save up for a TV."
Shao hopes to market his boutique wine as a luxury product like cognac.
"People think that if the price is high, it must be good," he says. "Then
after they buy it, they can slowly learn to enjoy our wine." Not that
slowly is the way Shao consumes his drink. "Bottoms up," he announces
during lunch, as he drains a glass of reserve Riesling. Even with years
of viticultural training, some habits die hard.
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