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Doubts about the wine label

Wine could be the next category of consumer product to face charges of major fakery.

A little more than a year ago, I wrote an article saying that Chinese vineyards commonly fib about the vintage of their labels, and even about whether what’s in the bottles is actually wine or sugar water with some food coloring, alcohol and grape juice thrown in.

I noted that Chinese vintners commonly mix foreign bulk wine with local wine, and consumers are misled about what they drink.

Here’s an excerpt from that article:

Still to be resolved is whether local winemakers can mix bulk wine imported from countries such as Spain, Chile, Australia and Argentina with their own wines without telling the consumer. Such bulk wine can sell for as little as 40 cents a liter.

Bulk wine imports to China climbed 121 percent last year, hitting nearly five times the volume of imported bottled wine. Industry experts say most of the bulk wine goes into the bottled wine of China’s three big vintners — Great Wall, Dynasty and Changyu which label their wines as products of China.

A purchasing executive with a foreign supermarket chain operating in China, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he doesn’t want to antagonize local vineyards, said of China’s homegrown wines: “I believe nothing on the label.”

Now along comes the heartsick chairmain of a vineyard in Hebei province who’s spilling the beans about what happens. A blog posting of the anonymous vintner is making the rounds on the internet, and a translation popped up on China Digital Times (unavailable behind the Chinese firewall).

Here’s what he says in part:

According to the internal source, “wine made from grapes grown in China occupies only 20 percent of the Chinese wine market, and the remaining 80 percent is imported junk wine.” “The market size is about 300,000 tons today in China; however, only 20 percent is produced locally and 80 percent or more is from imports. What are the imports? They are ‘junk wines, so called ‘garbage-rank imported wine,’ just like the second-hand suits imported from Japan and Korea in the past. The compositions of these junk wines are unknown, and the quality and quantity of each gradient is difficult to monitor. Most of them are not qualified for the aging process or were manufactured during bad years for wineries.”

The Chairman admitted honestly, “I have no idea what my colleagues will say about this situation. However, as an entrepreneur who is passionate about the wine industry and is dedicated to creating a gold label in Chinese wine, I feel very pained to see this happen. Why do our Chinese consumers have to drink the junk wine that the foreigners do not drink?! Remixed wine occupies about 70 percent market share of the wine that is sold for under 30 RMB, 40 percent for that under 60 RMB and 50 percent on average for wine under 200 RMB. In particular, the wine sold at nightclubs (entertainment places) is extremely poor quality. (The manufacturers) add food coloring to dry white wine to make dry red wine.

I’ve visited a couple of vineyards near Beijing, including the Taillan vineyard that is was built with French investment and the Bolongbao vineyard that produces a high end wine.

But we generally never, ever drink Chinese wine. And it just boils down to one thing: I don’t trust what’s on the label.

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Frida

I work for China Wine News, and I know very clearly that what Chinese wines are like.
I think the biggest problem is Chinese people can't appreciate wine, they only believe in brand or they just believe that good wine are those that are made from pure juice and don't care about their taste.

Alberto Fernandez

Data from National Bureau of Statistics shows Chinese output is around 500,000 hectolitres while imports of bulk wine recorded by China Customs reached 105,000 hl in 2007 at an average of $0,56/litre (not $0,40 as stated). With these official figures maximum bulk wine inside a bottle of Chinese wine can’t be higher than 20%… never 80%!!.

If anybody wants them I can send them out!

Alberto Fernandez
General Manager - TORRES CHINA

igfleeb

I have exported millions of liters of bulk wine to China. I can say that the wine we send to China, while usually low priced, is not defective, and is subject to fairly rigorous quality controls. The wine is usually red bleded wine (meaning it is not from any specific wine grape variety), but is sufficiently superior to the average wine produced in China to e able to raise quality of the final product. So while I benefit from the lack of controls on Chinese labelling, I am sure that it will soon change.
I also take advantage to add that about 30% of our exports are of mid-range to high-range wines that are very good quality wines.
I think the hardest part will be to change the consumer, who has been taught since the beginning that older wine = better wine. Try to buy a bottle of Chinese wine with a vintage 2005 or later. Good luck!

boyce

Here are some clarifications of statements made in the original post about Chinese wine. These are by Professor Ma Huiqin, who followed up on the statistics and some of the claims made by the author and anonymous source:

http://www.grapewallofchina.com/2008/10/31/unbottled-a-foreign-reporter-misrepresents-chinas-wine-industry/

Cheers, Boyce

BEMIS

Still no comments on LEHMANN BROS? Interest limited to Alcohol? Small wonder then, that Finance CEO's are paid $400m, while Winemakers, with pickled brains, toil for what... (please enlighten me).

michael

Winemakers face the same problem as all liquor producers in China: fakes fakes fakes. Just look at the lengths that the makers of XO or Maotai have to go to show their wares are genuine: seals, barcodes, tamper resistant caps etc - most of which are soon copied by the pirates.
I don't see anything wrong with China importing 'junk' wine - it's not intrinsically bad, just not the kind of thing that consumers in the west are prepared to pay $5-10 a bottle for. Perhaps the winemakers will have to follow the example of Microsoft and work out a way to make pirated products turn black after 30 minutes.

boyce

Tim,

The Chinese wine industry has its problems, including the misrepresentation of vintages by some producers (which you note), but the backbone of your recent post is a single anonymous source and it will only serve to inflame people and fuel stereotypes. It is also being picked up by others like Steve Heimoff and Wine Business International, who seem to take it at face value.

I wish you had talked to some people - such as Ma Huiqin and other wine industry experts - we both met met last year at that wine conference, to get their perspectives. I called several yesterday and they dispute that "80 percent" figure and other things said by the "heartsick" chairman. We'll post something on this soon at Grape Wall.

Cheers, Jim

Jack

Most of what has been commented on about Chinese consumers is true. There are still some who mix 7-Up with wines but that is slowly falling out of favor. One thing that needs to be pointed out is that the bulk wines being imported are for consumption only in China, not for export.

In fact there is very little wine being exported today. There is a company called China Silk Imports that are producing wines under the label of China Silk Wines and are the first Chinese varietal wine producer to blend and create wines for the “western” palate. The wines are “surprisingly good” with a taste described as between those of the old and new worlds.

The founder, Steve Clarke, after visiting all of the major wineries in China, selected the Suntime vineyards to produce the their wines. Operations began in 2004 and included development of the brand, packaging and exploring opportunities in the US marketplace.

In 2005, the Company imported 6,000 bottles of wines, blended by the vineyard’s French winemaker, for tasting by wine experts and consumers in the U.S. The wines were well received but CSW believed they could be improved and hired a “proven” winemaker in 2005, a former winemaker for Kendall Jackson. The decision resulted in the current offerings of five (5) wine varietals which have won several awards at international wine competitions.

More recently, the Company engaged Australian winemaker John Weeks to work with the 2006 vintage. According to Mr. Weeks, the 2006 vintage is the best vintage to date.
The Suntime International Ltd. (“Suntime”) winery and vineyards is majority owned by the Chinese government. The winery is located in the Manas Appellation of Xinjiang Uygur where the famous Silk Road passes. The geography is a mountainous region adjacent to a plain and desert step containing the main rivers of Bentoutin and Santun with moderately sandy, clay soils dominating. The vineyard is on the same latitude as Napa Valley and the Loire region of France and was established in 1996 when grafts from France were planted with the intent to develop wines for export.

The vineyard, approximately 25,000 contiguous acres, is located in a unique microclimate that provides a distinct advantage to the growth and quality of the grapes. Suntime produces more than 10 Noble vinifera from France including; Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Gernischet, Merlot, Syrah, Gamay, Chardonnay, Rhine Riesling, Riesling, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Blanc.

• China has a 5,000 year history of wine and fermentation and is the 5th largest producer in the world.

• China Silk Wines are the first varietals wines from China to win international awards (3) in US competition, San Francisco and Dallas.

So China is capable of producing a good quality/value wine for the global market if done correctly.

Tim J

I know of Dan, and I think his remarks about Chinese mixing wine with soft drinks are on the money. That might have been the case 10 or 15 years ago but not anymore.
That said, the more information that is on the label the better. If wine is a blend from many different sources, why not tell the consumer? Already, you see it on orange juice labels.

Dan

(I have been deeply involved in the China wine market since 2001) The comments on mixing wine with soda are unfair and condescending. I hope that someday the discussion on the China wine market can evolve beyond this overly simplistic issue. Kir Royal? Mimosa? Sangria? Gluhwein? Why are these long standing European traditions exempt to same criticism? Once on a trip to France with my team, we were given Kir Royals (with a cinnamon stick garnish) as an aperitif at a Michelin star restaurant. My Chinese colleagues were absolutely shocked “Don’t they understand that you don’t mix things with Champagne?” they asked me in disbelief “Are these people peasants?”

On the issue of importing bulk wine and labeling as Chinese wine, please review this practice as it exists in countries like Canada and Japan first before singling out China.

Until we approach the China market with fair and constructive questions, it will continue to be a mystery.

BEMIS

Oops, typo: LEHMANN Bros (Not Lahmann...). Sorry

BEMIS

Equally sad: "Products" sold by Banks: manufactured by Lahmann Bros, etc. Postal address: New York, U.S.A. (Not Commie Red China). Hasn't ANYONE heard of them?

Chris

Junk wine for a junk market. Keith is right, if people mix wine with soda then they will not know if it is properly mixed.

I don't see how this differs from any other product in China. The spirits are often faked, car parts are faked, milk has poison in it, household goods are often faked even when buying from major chains.

Sad, very sad.

HiK

That's just a poor comment Keith, Jay I completely agree with you we shouldn 't be sending our poor quality bulk wine. However having sold wine to the chinese in the past, they do hae a tendency to first look for Price and second the taste.

Keith

I dont see a problem here --junk wine is very fitting for a market where people mix their wine with 7-up soda.

Jay

so when a western enterprise knowingly imports cheap/substandard chinese parts or products for assembly or direct sales in its home country, the blame goes directly to the evil chinese if quality issues emerge.

similarly, shouldn't the suppliers of junk wine to china be held accountable? if china gets demonized for supplying cheap goods that are poor in quality in cohort with the greedy western corporations, then the same logic should hold in this case as well.

Erin O

I attended a wine tasting in Xinjiang Province's Turpan vinyards once and enjoyed a very good wine there...but the wine I purchased was nothing like that in the tasting. Whether it was poor storage or poor craftsmanship I couldn't say, but that was my last experience with Chinese wines.

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