China’s vineyards are a year older and its winemakers have another vintage under their belts and are thus a year wiser. Aficionados are waiting to see what’s next from the nation’s better producers. While much of the wine made in China is nothing to write home about, the focus on quality is growing.

Given it is now Year of the Horse, a natural place to start is Great River Hill in Shandong, home to a near-zoo of rescued animals that includes a donkey. That beast freely roams the Cabernet rows.

Great River Hill has made quite a mark over the past two years with its value-for-money Cabernet Sauvignon and owner Karl Hauptman thinks this year’s reds can challenge those of Bordeaux. True, this is an off-year for France’s most famous region but it would still be a feat for Great River Hill given this is only the third vintage. Hauptmann’s pet project is a “super ripe” Merlot that he hopes will take the winery up another notch. The wines are bottled under the label “Chateau Nine Peaks” and carried by East Meets West.

Wang Zhong winery in Xinjiang brings together an owner focused on quality (Chen Lizhong), one of the nation’s top consultants (Li Demei) and an Australian winemaker who first paid her China dues by working at Pernod Ricard in Ningxia (Lilian Carter). Last year’s inaugural vintage received positive reviews and this year’s taste even better.

Bottled under the name “Skyline”, these wines should soon have a nationwide distributor. Hopefully the same holds true for Wang Zhong’s custom-built tractor used to bury the vines each year as protection against the dry cold winters of northern China.

Meanwhile, French trade show organizer Vinexpo recently claimed China is the world’s top red wine consumer. While the numbers are debatable, red wine does dominate, with more than 80 percent of sales. That leaves white wine in the background and bubbly out of sight around a corner.

And that’s why one of the year’s top stories should be Grace Vineyard releasing its first sparkling wines. The entry-level Chenin Blanc will be about RMB 100 while a Chardonnay aged nearly five years will be pegged between RMB 300 and RMB 400. Pre-bottling taste tests suggest the winery has another winner on its hands.

Those are just a few examples from what should be an exciting year for local wines. The central government’s continued austerity program has slashed spending by officials and put more focus on the consumer market, where buyers tend to be pickier and armed with smartphones ready to check prices and reviews. The result should be a continued push toward better wines and better value.

This article originally appeared in our March 2014 issue.


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