What's China's Future Flaship Grape?

“Honestly, who wants to try Chinese Cabernet Sauvignon?” asks Julian Boulard, a Master of Wine Candidate, “but what about Chinese Marselan? I think there’s something here, an opportunity.” 


 Boulard has been residing in China since 2003. Born in Alsace, he studied Chinese in France and decided to master the language by moving to Nanning, a small town in China near the Vietnamese border. Years later, Boulard, a wine educator and wine judge, has become one of the most recognizable experts of Chinese wine in the world. 

 There’s so much mystery around Chinese wine, and yet the International Organization of Wine and Vine (OIV) ranks the country as the largest grape producer in the world. “When you see OIV’s figures that China is the biggest wine producer in the world, it’s misleading, since the data includes table grape growing”, says Boulard.

 Most of these grapes are not suitable for winemaking, but China still produces plenty of wine. As for the inevitable question: is it good? It depends. 

  “China is a big, big country, so you really have various regions spread over the place,” explains Boulard. There’s the rainy Shandong near the coast, Ningxia in the North, and there’s Yunnan, with very high altitudes, in the south. These might be the most promising wine regions in the country, but there are many more.

 If there is one thing in common across all Chinese wine regions, however, it is the struggle to grow quality vines. Ningxia is dry and cold, so producers need to bury the vines to avoid desiccation when the weather turns. “If you have to bury a vine to make it live through winter, maybe that’s not the best place to plan it,” remarks Boulard. 

 Shandong is problematic because it’s very rainy. Monsoons come in September, during the harvest. Yunnan is fascinating but hard to reach — although it is the home of Ao Yun, an iconic wine made by LVMH, so the region certainly has a future.

 China is currently all about Cabernet Sauvignon, by far the most commonly planted grape variety in the country, but it struggles to ripen in China’s extreme climate, which means that the grapes are often unable to shed their undesired unripe and green aromas. There’s also Cabernet Gernischt AKA Carmenere, Welch Riesling, and Marselan.

 As an expert, Poullard bets on Syrah and Cabernet Franc over Cabernet Sauvignon as the leading candidate for a successful Chinese variety. “I also had a pretty good Tempranillo,” he cheerfully adds. There’s potential for white wines, too. Petit Marsanne, late harvest and botrytized wines, ice wine and Viognier all have great potential. “There’s a lot of room to experiment in China, it’s a big country. People are willing to try new things, but there’s Cabernet Sauvignon everywhere.” 

 The problem with Cabernet is that people will always compare it to other Cabernets around the world, and China has a significant disadvantage in this regard. So why then is Chinese wine so expensive?

 It’s true that the costs are much higher than in other countries. Good quality barrels imported from France are expensive and hard to come by, and the logistics of production are very time-consuming. Everything is done by hand, there is no mechanization in the vineyards, and the weather makes meager yields. 

Ningxia Vineyards

Ningxia Vineyards

 Another aspect is the fact that vineyards in other countries can be bought and sold — or passed on to subsequent generations. But in China, you can only lease the land for 30 years, and you’ll start making good wine only after ten years of hard work in the vineyard. You have to make the most out of your time. You have to make a profit fast.

 There’s also the Chinese mentality to consider. “In China, people think that wine is very uptight, a very noble, and I don’t think it is,” says Boulard. “If you want to convince people that your wine is a top-quality wine, it has to have a price that matches this status.” Many Chinese producers want to compete with France’s Cru wines or top California wines, so they need to match their prices.

 But these Chinese winemakers are playing a risky game, setting high prices before there’s a demand for their wines. Chinese are not waiting for the market to develop a need for their products that naturally causes their prices to increase. Instead, they’re anticipating a demand that doesn’t yet exist.

 “Marselan is the new hot variety in China right now,” says Boulard. It’s a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. The grape variety didn’t work well in France; it often has low yields, even though it produces high-quality grapes. 

 Luckily, someone planted the first Marselan vineyard in China, and now most of the wine made from it is very tasty. “They just match the Chinese palate: luscious, broad, voluptuous, creamy wines,” says Boulard. And there’s no benchmark outside of China.

 Marselan is priced higher than Cabernet, as the low yields and the novelty of it push up prices, but it’s still under the 40-dollar category — and these are premium wines we’re talking about. 

 People tend to use less oak in Marselan too, addressing the over-oaking problem that permeates Cabernet production . People use oak to mask under-ripe Cabernet, but thankfully Marselan has no green aromas. 

 Try good Marselan from top producers like Grace Vineyards in Shaanxi, or Domaine Franco-Chinois, a very reliable producer for the variety.

 Can Marselan become the flagship variety in China? “A lot of people think yes,” explains Boulard. “It has a huge potential because it’s good and, also something very important, it adapts very well to Chinese climate, so it’s a very disease resistant grape variety.”

 Does the grape have potential in other countries? Every country seems to have its own grape varieties now: Argentina has Malbec, New Zealand has Pinot Noir, and California has Cabernet. So why bother bringing in another?

Author: Franco Salzillo, Certified Somm & Wine Writer