08 December 2015

Wine, women ... and a new song

As drinking habits develop in China and evolve elsewhere, there's a new emphasis on female clientele, from producers to consumers, Mike Peters reports.

None of the cliches about Chinese wineries seem to apply at Ningxia's upstart Kanaan Winery. There is no aura of French Bordeaux-any European vibe here is German. There is no faux chateau. The white-wine grapes in the vineyard are mostly chardonnay, but the vintages are riesling.

One thing about Kanaan, however, is suddenly starting to feel rather typical: The winemaking is not run by a somber, bearded consultant with a European accent but by a Chinese woman-Wang Fang, a vivacious redhead who delights in the nickname "Crazy Fang".

Her wines have won acclaim from international critics like Jancis Robinson and awards from Decanter magazine. More intriguing perhaps is not that Wang represents a new appreciation for wines of quality in China-she also represents an increasingly female face of the industry.

There are some big players in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region's wine business, says Austrian winemaker Lenz Moser, who consults for industry leader Changyu. "But the most interesting winemakers may be four ladies: Emma Gao at Silver Heights, Zhang Jing at Helan Qing Xue, Gloria Xia at Chandon and Crazy Fang."

That "fantastic four" join the founder of the winery in Shanxi province, long considered to be China's best, Judy Chan at Grace Vineyard.

The rise of women in winemaking reflects more than their formidable ability. It's an important indicator of market forces.

"Seventy percent of wine purchases are made by women, whether in supermarkets or online," observes Moser. "So having women at the front end of the process just makes sense."

Trends in those purchases are revealing: In China and around the world, the wine categories experiencing some of the most exciting growth are whites, sparkling wines and roses. Wine consumption is sliding in Europe, and a growing percentage of alcohol there is consumed at home instead of restaurants-two factors that have made women a bigger percentage of wine buyers in the last decade.

"Men buyers tend to be stimulated by elegant Grand Cru labels and equally fancy price tags-and not just in China," says critic and winemaker Robert Joseph. "Women more often choose based on a pretty label, an appealing flavor and a reasonable price for value."

Crazy for wine

A few years back, that woman shopper was Wang.

"I never planned to be in this business," says the owner-winemaker at the biblically named Kanaan winery. "My friends had a winery in Germany, and when I lived there for some years, it was normal to drink one or two glasses each day. But I never learned the trade there or had training-I bought wines pretty much by the pretty label or the price," she says with a chuckle.

Not long after she returned to China, her father turned 60 and retired.

"He worked in science and technology for the provincial government," says Wang.

"He knew a lot of professors who had told him: 'In Ningxia, we can produce very good wines.' One, Li Hua, was convinced Helan Mountain was the best wine area in China, and he brought vines from France. So my father did two things: He got a driver's license, and he started a winery with two partners."

That was Helan Qingxue, the winery that made the world sit up and notice Ningxia wines when it scooped up the top international prize from Decanter magazine in 2011, for its 2009 Jia Bei Lan Grand Reserve, a Cabernet blend. That winery is right across the highway from Wang's own operation at Kanaan. Wang's father, Wang Fengyu, helped her set up her own vineyard, and the two take a lot of pride in each other's achievements, though they have different outlooks.

"My father's interest is the vineyard, the field," she says. "I am more focused on the winery." They go their own ways in the final product, too: Whites made under the Jia Bei Lan label are chardonnays, typical of the area, while Crazy Fang makes the rieslings she learned to love in Germany.

Devoutly religious, she declares that her birth father and her heavenly father have been her twin inspirations. Religious art, including antique German woodcuts, decorate the public areas of the winery, where visitors find a homelike environment as well as her collections of antiques and wineglasses.

"I wanted my tasting room to feel like home, not like a laboratory," she says, indicating the massive wooden dining table surrounded by comfortable chairs.

"I call it my sitting room, a place to sit and talk. I wanted to share not only my wines but my collections, paintings and porcelains."

Her father's work at Helan Qingxue impressed her, she says, "but even then I didn't see myself as a winemaker."

When she got serious about her own project four years ago, she says, she was fearless: "I just didn't know how hard it would be."

Today, she says, the pressure is even greater. "Being rated by Decanter Wine 100 means you constantly have to meet expectations."

Looking ahead

Wang's ability to meet expectations is probably helped by the way she quickly developed wine appreciation. That reflects the experience of the Chinese marketplace, where there is not a tradition of drinking grape wines with meals like there is in Europe. It's also the experience of the new target market for the industry: women and young drinkers.

"I tend to encourage female wine drinkers myself," says Helene Ponty, who moved to Beijing nearly four years ago to handle importing, marketing and sales of wines produced by her family winery in Bordeaux. "I think they are a huge help in moving the Chinese market from drinking baijiu (white liquor) and beer to drinking wine.

"We have one of our reds that we present as being smoother and with softer tannins, well-suited for women who are starting to drink wine. We also recommend our white wine to them as they usually like the taste and side benefits of low alcohol and no stain on the lips and teeth."