In 1997, Chinese wine-maker Legacy Peak started producing grapes more or less by accident. Now, it wins awards in international wine markets.
The winery represents the fast growth of China’s wine industry. However, at one point, the winemakers came close to giving up.
"We wanted to pull out all the vines and call it quits," said Liu Hai. As the company’s second-generation owner, he remembers the early struggles trying to grow them in infertile soil.
The government gave his family the land in the dry north-central area of Ningxia as payment for work. But there was a condition – they had to grow only grapes. They knew nothing about farming. But they started making wine about 10 years ago.
Since then, Liu says the winery has won many awards. It exports to markets in Germany, Southeast Asia and even France. They do this even though the winery makes less than 100,000 bottles a year.
Legacy Peak winery is not alone. From the hills of Shandong on the east coast to the deep valleys of southwestern Yunnan, Chinese winemakers are winning recognition.
"China is an up-and-coming fine wine producer. And its best wines can compete on the world stage," said top wine expert Edward Ragg. He studies wine for the Robert Parker Wine Advocate publications.
The wines of Chateau Nine Peaks in Shandong and, Silver Heights and Grace Vineyards in Ningxia, are rated "outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character" by Robert Parker.
Image problem in China
China's wine market is the sixth-largest in the world. Wine event organizer Vinexpo says that the market was worth $14.8 billion in 2018. It expects sales to hit $18 billion by 2023.
However, wineries in China must still fight an image problem. Chinese drinkers question local wine quality and think the prices are too high.
"It was always easier to sell to foreigners because they are more open-minded,” said Liu. “But it has been a tough sell with Chinese customers."
Modern winemaking in China began in the 1980s. Then-leader Deng Xiaoping opened China to foreign businesses and companies began investing in Chinese wine. One of them was an early form of the French company Remy Cointreau. This French influence meant that early Chinese wines were copies of French wines.
However, by the early 2000s, the quality began to improve. During that time Chinese vineyards started growing healthier grapes. Also, people in China began making more money, traveling the world and drinking more wine.
These days, home-grown wineries can satisfy Chinese wine drinkers. One such person is Yang Lu. She is in her 30s and owns a restaurant in the Chinese capital, Beijing. She left China for university and has traveled around the world.
Last year for the first time she drank Mountain Wave, a wine produced in Ningxia. She was surprised by the pleasant smell, or aroma, of the wine. "It had a nice color and was smooth with a long finish,” she said. In wine tasting, a long finish means the taste stays longer and is a good thing.
Until then, Yang had almost always ignored wines made in China. Instead, she would buy imports such as New Zealand wines made from pinot noir.
True homegrown Chinese wine
Some Chinese winemakers are looking for new ways to make a wine that is known only to China.
One such wine-maker is Ian Dai. His wine label Xiaopu from Ningxia is priced from $26 to $47. Dai said he wanted more natural methods of winemaking to let “grapes express themselves.”
Dai hopes to find the best grape for Ningxia's climate and that can best represent China. He expects that it might take about 20 years to produce such a wine.
I’m Anna Matteo.
Norihiko Shirouzu reported this story from Ningxia, China, for Reuters news agency. Anna Matteo adapted it for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.
Words in This Story
wine – n. an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented juice of grapes : winery – n. a wine-making establishment
grape – n. a green, dark red, or purplish-black berry that is used to make wine or is eaten as a fruit
vine – n. a plant whose stem requires support and which climbs by tendrils or twining or creeps along the ground : vineyard – n. a planting of grapevines
up-and-coming -adj. gaining prominence and likely to advance or succeed
stage – n. a center of attention or scene of action
character – n. a special feature that sets something apart from others
customer – n. someone who buys goods or services from a business
influence – n. the power or capacity of causing an effect in indirect or intangible ways
label – n. a brand of a commercial product issued under a usually trademarked name