Forty-eight hours in China recently was not enough for any profound investigation of the exploding wine scene there but it was enough for me to realise that at long last there are some exciting new developments in Chinese-grown wine.
My two previous visits had been in 2002 and 2008 and on the second I had been deeply depressed by the fact that, while the rest of the world was making better wine with every vintage, the quality of the Chinese wine seemed to have stagnated. The typical Chinese wine still tastes like a very poor quality Bordeaux Rouge: sometimes not recognisably vinous, thin from overproduction, tart from under-ripeness, and often tough, thanks to an obsession with the unyielding Cabernet Sauvignon grape that has dominated vineyard plantings in China's new wine drinking era. This seems to me to be precisely the sort of wine least likely to woo a neophyte wine drinker, and least likely to be a good match for Chinese food.
But, at long last, I encountered a wine made from 100 per cent Chinese grapes that would surely be an absolutely perfect introduction to wine for anyone – such as the more than a billion Chinese who have, so far, never tasted it. And with its convincing core of fruit, easy grapiness and sizzling crispness, it would be a suitable foil for all manner of mild, spicy, sweet and sticky morsels destined for their chopsticks. The only trouble is that it is white, and therefore, in theory, of limited appeal to Chinese consumers.
Symphony, the wine in question, is a joint venture. It is made at Grace Vineyard, by far the most successful producer of Chinese red wine to date, based in Shanxi province, with an Australian winemaker and a Hong Kong fortune behind it. But the idea for this lively, young off-dry Muscat came from Torres China, one of the more successful distribution companies set up with great prescience by the dominant Catalan winemaker Miguel Torres as long ago as 1997. They made 10,000 bottles of the first, 2008 vintage and saw them sell out long before next month's launch of a slightly drier 2009. From the 2010 vintage there will be a red version.
I was also heartened to come across truly inspiring red wines from two new wineries. Jade Valley, a thoroughly modern spa resort and winery, also in Shanxi, is artfully set in a particularly bucolic valley, not far from the site of the famous terracotta warriors, by owner Qingyun Ma, one of China's most influential architects. It was their 2006 Pinot Noir that was the biggest shock of all: it was delicate, fruity, perfumed and did actually taste of Pinot Noir (quite a feat for a Pinot Noir grown anywhere, let alone in the wilds of China). This is clearly a small, newish Chinese producer that is worthy of anyone's attention.
Silver Heights, up in the Helan Mountain region of Ningxia province, west of Shanxi, is another bright light to have emerged on the modern Chinese wine scene. Silver Heights' Summit red Bordeaux blend is made by one of China's few female winemakers, Emma Gao. She trained in Bordeaux and it certainly shows. The vineyard, at an altitude of 1,200 metres, belongs to her family and the small quantity of wine made is distributed by Torres, for whom she once worked.
Ningxia seems to be the most popular province for the latest round of investment in Chinese vineyards. The climate here is much drier than that of Shandong province on the east coast where so many of the first vineyards of the modern era were located. Yet winter temperatures rarely fall as fatally low as in Muslim Xinjiang in the far west where vines have to be banked up for survival every autumn, and which is so far from China's main centres of wine-drinking population.