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My advice to the Chinese: don’t classify

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I was reading the other day that Ningxia, the Chinese autonomous region (roughly equivalent to a U.S. State) in north-central China, “will introduce the first winery-based classification system in China within the next few months.”

The article explains how there will be “6 classes in this classification.” The director of the governing body [of the] Ningxia Development Bureau for Grape and Flower Industry explained its rationale this way: “In order to ensure quality, we raise the bar for entering the classification.”

Ningxia, in case you don’t know, is China’s largest-producing wine area, with a continental climate. Summer highs run to 63-75 degrees, with moderate rainfall. The foreign wine community is interested. Earlier this year the Portuguese government invested millions in the Ningxia wine industry. French companies that have invested in Ningxia include LVMH and Pernod Ricard, according to Jancis Robinson.

Jancis titled her article “China’s most promising wine province?” (but note that hedging question mark). She recently went to her first Ningxia Wine Festival–only to find that “Riedel got there several days before me.”

And whither Riedel goeth, so goeth sales.

Ningxia’s largest domestic producers are Changyu and Dynasty, who together own 20,000 acres of vineyard land. Meanwhile, the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation as well as the household appliance company Midea have begun investing in Ningxia’s wine industry. That oughta tell you how big the Chinese think this thing is getting.

I haven’t tried any Ningxia wines, but two years ago the Decanter trophy for red wine from the Middle East, Far East and Asia went to a 2009 Bordeaux blend from Ningxia province called Jiabeilan, produced by Chateau Helan Qingxue, which also won a silver for its Classic Chardonnay and a bronze for a Riesling.

But back to the point: does China need a classification system? Here’s China Daily’s argument that it does:

“it is still difficult for many Chinese customers to determine the class of that they are buying. According to knowledge of persons in wine business, this is due to the fact that nation-level wine classification does not yet exist,though some wine practitioners do follow their systems they developed on their own. It is obvious not convenient for general wine consumers.”

Given the notorious insecurity Chinese consumers experience about buying wine (unless it’s a world famous cult brand, which not even most upper-middle class Chinese can afford), it’s no wonder that local authorities will try to convey a golden halo on their wines, in the form of such classifications. There is, though, an arriviste mentality here: China is so anxious to be accepted on equal terms with the West that they’re importing our customs and traditions even before they have had time to develop organically.

China might take pause and understand the limits and dangers of classifying wineries. In France, it’s led to a rigid, price-based sclerosis that hasn’t really served the consumer. The Chinese might also look at California’s aborted attempts at classification. There was Roy Andries de Groot’s wackily ambitious 1982 effort, “The Wines of California.” The most notorious was Jim Laube’s 1989 attempt, “California’s Greatest Cabernets,” in which he created five “Growths,” like in Bordeaux. Jim’s intentions were honorable, but he proved, albeit inadvertently, that it cannot and should not be done.

And can you imagine the squeals of protest when some Chinese wineries are left off the classification list altogether, or earn a rank they feel is dishonorable? The Chinese no longer are a people to sit by mutely while “the authorities” make decisions from the top down. They want to have a say in things. For all these reasons, and more, I’d advise the Ningxia Development Bureau for Grape and Flower Industry to stay away from this sticky wicket. Let the market create the classification, not the government.

  1. doug wilder says:

    Steve,

    Thanks for sharing, as it is an interesting subject. Do you have any idea how many producers are in this region (subject to classification)? Another question, it seems that summer highs of 63-75 F would not be warm enough to successfully grow Cabernet Sauvignon even with the added ‘moderate rainfall’. How long is the growing season?

  2. Doug Wilder, I think I read they have 60 producers. As for the weather data, that’s right off the Internet, so there could be been issues of centigrade conversion or language translation.

  3. Tom Nemcik says:

    Steve,

    Your insights and cautionary advice are right on!

    One can understand from history why the hierarchy and prestige associated with a classification would have intrinsic appeal to Chinese wine regulators. But not nearly as much as the potential sums of “favor” money that will be involved in the codification of such a system. This alone may make such a system fait accomplis.

  4. Bill Haydon says:

    Tom, brings up a great point. Aside from attempting to classify a wine region with ZERO history or track record, which makes the entire endeavor, ludicrous from the start, the Chinese business environment of corruption, cronyism, political influence and–above all–a business culture which demands the getting over on the other guy above all else dooms this misadventure to not being worth the paper on which it’s written.

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