Rebecca Smithers, Fiona Beckett, The Guardian, March 22, 2013
The Queen's vintner has become the first major UK retailer to give the Chinese wines a permanent place on its shelves.
Berry Brothers & Rudd, which has a shop and cellars near St James's Palace, will begin selling four Chinese wines this month and for the first time Chinese vintages will be showcased at one of the retailer's exclusive tastings, at which masters of wine and senior wine writers gather to sample new arrivals.
The four wines are produced by the leading producer Chateau Changyu, and includes a cabernet sauvignon, merlot blend (which has been aged in imported French oak barrels) and three more unusual ice wines – made from frozen grapes, which give the wines a fresh and pure flavour, and an intense sweetness. The producer – the Changyu Wine Group – is the oldest and biggest in the country and makes the wine in central western China on the edge of the Gobi desert.
China has a long history of winemaking but it has in the past struggled for credibility with its wealthy native wine drinkers favouring imports from France and Australia.
Chinese producers got a boost last year in the prestigious International Wine Challenge, when nine wines received some form of recognition, including a silver medal.
Now the eighth-largest producer of wine in the world and predicted to be the sixth largest by 2016, Chinese consumers already drink more than 1.6bn bottles of wine annually, and this is forecast to grow by a further 1bn by 2015. The Chinese have also acquired a taste for fine wine and are now the second-biggest buyers of top claret by volume behind Germany.
Mark Pardoe, master of wine and buying director at Berry Brothers & Rudd, said: "It was only a matter of time before China entered the international market and its huge geographical size and range of climates mean that there must be regions capable of producing good wine."
He said that until now the country's focus had been "on its volume-driven domestic market, and other export efforts have been based on external investment.
"Changyu's strategy represents a change, with home-grown investment in partnership with international expertise, with a real will to get things done, so the time felt right to take an early temperature of the water."
A supplier to the royal family since King George III, the vintner's historic customers have included Byron, William Pitt the Younger and the Aga Khan. The newest wines to be added to its stable are likely to appeal predominantly to fine-wine connoisseurs, however, retailing for between £19 and an eye-popping £65.
But Pardoe said: "It's also a matter of getting wines from new regions out there. There is a modest but not insignificant group of people who are very interested in anything new that comes along."
Last year the supermarket chain Waitrose trialled another Changyu wine – a cabernet gernischt, which retailed for a more affordable £9.99 – which was so popular that it sold out.
Why on earth would you buy a Chinese red costing £39? You probably wouldn't, but Berry Brothers & Rudd's listing of four Chinese wines says more about their own presence in the hugely profitable Chinese market than any serious intention of changing our wine-buying habits.
The Chateau Changyu Moser XV, made with the help of the Austrian winemaker Lenz Moser, is certainly better than the rather jammy cabernet gernischt (aka carménère) from the same winery that Waitrose stocked last year at £12.99 – but three times better? Not in my book. Although it's made from the same grapes as claret – cabernet sauvignon and merlot – it has a rich, slightly porty character that reminds me more of southern Italy than Bordeaux.
Of rather more interest are the sweet wines, which are made from frozen vidal grapes in the remote region of Liaoning. The cheapest, the Changyu Valley Ice Wine is a delectably sweet, citrussy dessert wine, beautifully presented for the £19 price tag. Perfect for those who like to torture their friends by serving wines blind.
Berry's Pardoe admits the initiative is about keeping a foothold in a promising new market rather than creating big volume lines. "We're not expected to sell the wine in huge quantities. There's not a lot made," he said.
"I'm not saying this is the best China can do, more that it's a stepping stone on the road down which China can go, which we've had little evidence of with Chinese wine in the past. It's the first green shoots but by no means a complete lawn."
The fact is that we should pay attention to what China is up to in winemaking terms as with everything else it is involved in. The worlds' eighth-largest wine producer, it learns quickly. It has recently built a chateau for Chateau Changyu Moser in a month. A month!
My bet is that in five years it will be producing significantly better wine than this at a much more affordable price. And that we'll all have some Chinese wine in our racks by 2020. Fiona Beckett
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk