China is now the world's sixth most important wine producer and, according to market analysts employed by the Bordelais, is also the world's biggest market for red wine. So what goes into Chinese wine glasses matters to everyone in the world of wine. I have been visiting China every two years since the millennium and am fascinated by the changes evident for an infrewuent visitor. Shanghai is my usual base and what was most noticable during my visit last month was the slowdown in construction, mirrored by closures of such temples of luxury as Louis Vuitton's Pudong showcase and the Wine Residence, an ambitious series of private dining rooms owned by fine-wine importer ASC. The company's American co-founder, Don St Pierre Jr, sold ASC to Santury of Japan in 2009 and is now involved with Vinfolio, a fine wine company in San Francisco - there are no official curbs on business entertaining in the Bay Area.
After phenomal growth in the early years of this century, total sales of wine in China have leveled off in the past four years, partly thanks to president Xi Jinping's crackdown on corruption. I had come to Shanghai for the China Wine Summit (this year's discussion forum was “growing pains of China's developing wine market“).
At least wine in China is now being drunk rather than expensively packaged and handed out as a corporate gift. Changqing Duan, director of the Centre for Viticulture and Oenology at China Agricultural University, is one of the most reliable analysts of the Chinese wine market. He pointed out that the most frequent wine purchasers in China are now between 26 and 35 years old, and buying for personal daily consumption has become much more important than buying wine as gifts or for business entertaining.
One significant change is that red bordeaux and its domestically imitations no longer dominate. In fact, I spent five wine-rinsed nights in China and was not once served a red bordeaux. Among Chinese wine lovers, red burgundy seems all the rage but the range of wines on wine lists and in stores is far more eclectic than even two years ago - and not all wine is red!
This is very good news in terms of matching wine with Chinese cuisine. Thin Cabernet Sauvignon, too often from overproduced young vines if homegrown, is a poor accompaniment to the spicy, sometimes sweet dishes that are most likely to end up on the country's ubiquitous Lazy Susans.
As in other Asian countries, Chilean wine has been making a huge impact at the volume end of wine sales. Mineral-rich Chile has cunningly signed up favourable trade agreements that give it big advantages over its competitors.
One healthy sign is that the proportion of wine imported into China in bulk has been declining and is now just 21 per cent. There was a time when blending the cheapest possible imports into liquids of dubious provenance was far more common than it is today. But an increasing proportion of Chinese wine drinkers is now familiar with how wine should taste and there are almost as many students of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, the world's leading wine educator, in China and Hong Kong together as are there in its homeland the UK.
But also wine continues to be a great signifier of status and westernisation in China, the country's total area of vineyard has been increasing more slowly than the amount of wine produced, suggesting that in this belt-tightening era yields are pushed even higher.
As wine was catching on in China - and before the anti-bribery measures - overpriced, fancily packaged bottles were sought after. But, more recently, there has been a big increase in demand for mid-priced bottles, with almost two-thirds of all wines sold retailing at Rmb60 to Rmb180 (£6 to £18) a bottle. Wine duties in China are relatively high and calculated on value. Many of China's fine wine enthusiasts import special bottles from duty-free Hong Kong thanks to a well-organised network.
But what of the quality of wine produced? Every time I go, I try to taste as many of the better Chinese wines as possible. For many years that was a pretty grim exercise but, recently, there has been a definite increase in the number of successful, ambitious wines.
The last China Wine Summit wine competition was held two years ago, with entries having to pass muster with the organisers before being allowed to compete. Then we tasted 53 wines but this year there were 68 entries, including 10 dry wines, one very respectable fizz from Chandon in Ningxia, a rosé and two sweet white icewines (both based on Vidal hybrid grapes).
Most of the dry whites were standard issue international Chardonnays without too much distinction but among the reds three wines - two Cabernets and a Syrah - were really very sophisticated, fine wines by any measure. Two of these were from Ningxia, China's most wine-minded province, but one of them was from Xinjiang, the far western province with an exceedingly continental climate. A further eight reds were nearly as good, whereas the 2014 version of this tasting yielded just four wines that stood out.
There was clearly much more winemaking skill, with tannins nicely ripe and phenolica astutely extracted. Chinese wine producers will surely start to think about exporting wine seriously before too long. LVMH, for example, is targeting its really rather delicous brand new Yunnan red to Ao Yun (at €200 a bottle), at markets other than China.
The Chinese are now a major presence among student numbers in French wine faculties and in Bordeaux châteaux ownership too. The latest high-profile buyer is Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, who is reported to have said that he intends to turn Château de Sours in Entre-Deux-Mers, which he acquired in February, into a “mini-Versailles“. The Chinese may have retired from the Bordeaux primeurs market (for the moment) but they clearly have no intention from retiring from wine.
Fazit: Ein Weltmarktführer in Sachen Wein wird China nicht.