Chinese Wine 101, with Emilie Steckenborn: S7E7

Chinese wine expert Emilie Steckenborn is the host and creator of the Bottled In China Podcast.

Emilie founded the podcast in 2016 to share the stories and adventures of passionate individuals in the Asian food and beverage scene.

Emilie has lived in Shanghai, China for more than nine years. She previously worked at Summergate Fine Wines & Spirits, the Chinese importer founded by Ian Ford, with whom we discussed the China drinks industry more broadly in Season Five of the Drinks Adventures Podcast.

Emilie oversees wine programs for top-tier businesses in Asia, including serving as the wine consultant for China Eastern Airlines.

And she’s also very knowledgeable about Chinese wine and the culture of wine appreciation in China.

Emilie joins us in this wine podcast episode to share her knowledge, and also tell us a bit more about Bottled In China.

Emilie Steckenborn of the Bottled In China Podcast
Emilie Steckenborn of the Bottled In China Podcast

The show is already on my regular rotation, and in fact I’ll be making an appearance in the coming weeks, so be sure to tune in and subscribe to Bottled In China, wherever you listen to podcasts.

But first up in this episode, I asked Emilie how she found her way from Canada to work in the wine industry in China.

China wine and spirits market: Expert Ian Ford’s insights – S5E8
Jancis Robinson on the changing world of wine: S4E4
Andrew Caillard MW on ultra-fine Australian wine: S7E4

Chinese wine 101 with Emilie Steckenborn: Transcript

EMILIE STECKENBORN: Right, so I’ve been in China for about nine years now and definitely it wasn’t my vision to be here for that long. But what ended up happening is after going to school and wine back in Canada, I had an opportunity to come out to China. And what turned from two years, became nine years. And I think a lot of people in China will tell you that as well, or living abroad. And you know, it’s been fascinating because you know, the Chinese wine market when I first arrived was really just beginning. And people were only drinking Bordeaux and it was a very segmented market. A lot of fake wines as well. But today it’s completely different. It’s quite a fast-moving market and so I’ve really been able to witness the change and see how quickly it all comes together. And yet it just, everyday changes. So, I think that’s what keeps me in China, is really the diversity, the pace of China and then also you know, it was really lagging, I think you would agree – ten years ago, it was really lagging in terms of wine knowledge. But today, it’s unbelievable. In the last three years, we’ve had five masters of wine in China. So that just tells you how quickly things are changing here in the industry.

JAMES ATKINSON: Had you studied Chinese language before you left Canada?

EMILIE STECKENBORN: Not so much. I mean, I did have a tutor growing up but that was something that I think, like anybody who learns a language, you can study it for years and until you go to the country, you can’t really speak right. So, it’s definitely when I arrived to China and then because work was so busy I never picked it up again. But now you know, all of our presentations are in Chinese. You know, if you want to do business in China, you need to speak Chinese. So, I’m glad that I was able to absorb that as I was working and just given the amount of time being in the country, I think it all kind of came together.

Chinese wine growing regions: Shandong, Ningxia, Yunnan

JAMES ATKINSON: Now, I think Australians and people in lots of other countries as well, would be aware that there is a Chinese wine industry. But we really don’t know anything about it. How long has wine been produced in China and where are the key regions, and what sort of styles of wine are being produced?

EMILIE STECKENBORN: Right, well that’s actually quite interesting because you know, wine in China if you look at fermented fruits, that’s been around for a very long time. In fact, a lot of people are saying that traces back you know, almost the same time when wine was being made thousands of years ago. But in terms of the actual commercial aspect of wine production, that wasn’t really until the 1980s. So first, the industry is super young and anybody, you know, Australia’s famous for wine. Anybody who has a winery or works in a vineyard knows that wine is not made over night, right James. It takes a long time, so to think that the industry started around the 1980s, it still is not at the peak of quality just yet. Some producers, have potential, they definitely are making good quality wine, but you know, we’re going to be able to see the development of the wine industry for another few years. And what I would say is the main regions kind of reflect that dynamic growth of the Chinese local and domestic wine production. It started off in Shandong. Actually, you’re a beer guy James, have you ever heard of Tsingtao beer?

JAMES ATKINSON: Of course, I have. Yes

How good is Chinese wine?

EMILIE STECKENBORN: Okay, right. I think sometimes I’ve seen it at Chinese restaurants in Sydney, so I feel like it’s kind of exported a little bit. But Tsingtao beer is in the province of Shandong and that area was really the first key wine production area of China. It still is – 40% of wine production is still in Shandong Province, but the problem is that’s a very maritime climate, a lot of water, a lot of problems with disease pressure. So, the thing is that area, although it started production, that is not today what I’d qualify as our premium wine region. So that’s one of the issues I see with China and why I don’t think the current wine exports out of China have been so successful. First, a very young country in terms of wine production. But most importantly, where it started off, people have had a really bad experience with Chinese wines. I’m sure you’ve heard of it – friends or guests said they came to China five or ten years ago, they tried Chinese wine and they’re never going to try it again. But I would invite them to try it again now, because the industry is evolving. So, Shandong is the key region. That’s right alongside the water. It’s a little bit north in a sense. And today the two other premium regions I just want to introduce to your listeners is really more in terms of Ningxia and then you have another one called Yunnan. So, you know, have you heard of those other two regions James?

JAMES ATKINSON: I don’t think so. No.

EMILIE STECKENBORN: And many people haven’t, so it’s all new. And even people in China don’t even know this. These are a lot smaller, they’re more up and coming. But those are the more of the quality regions in terms of good quality wine. Shandong still remains as the volume, as I mentioned. And I’m sure you’ve seen pictures when they talk about Chinese wines, those big chateaus that are replicas of Bordeaux, right? And if you go it really does look like that. You have hundreds of these fake, huge mansions lined up, replicating Bordeaux’s best estates. And they’re definitely there as a beauty and picturesque scene, whether or not they’re able to make great quality wine because it’s very difficult. But Ningxia has a lot of potential. This area is more isolated, so really continental climate. But the problem here is all about vine burial, so if you’ve heard of that, Is you literally have to bury the vines in winter because it freezes and so the work that is needed to make wine in that region… It’s not only expensive, it’s very difficult to make wine. And one region I’m excited about it, I don’t know if you guys have had Yunnan food before, but Yunnan is a province that borders Tibet, Laos and Vietnam. So, you know, it’s kind of west in China. South-western area. That’s actually an up and coming region and that’s really fascinating because it borders Tibet. So here altitude is really key.

Chinese wine grape varieties

JAMES ATKINSON: What are the key varieties in Chinese wine?

EMILIE STECKENBORN: Right so you know, something interesting is you would think that when you have altitude, let’s say Yunnan, that white wine would be best. Or if you have a rainy climate, you know, maybe a thicker-skinned white wine or a different varietal. But in China a lot of these productions were really based on commercial reasoning, right. So, cab is key in China. Cabernet Sauvignon and that’s still what we see as kind of the main driver for quality wine here. You know, in China a large percentage of wine consumed is red. Dry red wine. So that’s the key kind of varietal here. And then you have some other ones – Marselan and Cabernet Gernischt. So, Cabernet Gernischt actually turns out is Carménère. So, you know again, you’d think why is that there? And that was brought in a long time ago. And Marselan is something that’s really new and exciting here in China. This is a crossing between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. So, you know, that’s great for areas that are very dry and very sunny, and that’s what Ningxia has. Ningxia is very dry and sunny, given then it’s basically right next to the desert. So, you know, Marselan has a lot more potential than Cabernet Sauvignon, which seems to struggle a lot in China. So mostly dry red wine is what’s being produced and that’s also being consumed by the population and therefore, that’s what’s being made.

China wine brands

JAMES ATKINSON: And what about the companies that are making this wine. Is it big companies that are government owned that are behind the production, or are there small boutique players as well?

EMILIE STECKENBORN: Oh, I mean, that’s actually something that I would say is different than other countries. You know, coming from Canada – for us, all the wine that’s being produced typically come from really small producers, right. China is the complete opposite. When they started off making wine, it was only really from the government. So, it was huge volume wine. Insanely big. And so, quality was always kind of at the back right, back of mind. Because when you’re driven by more of a commercial aspect, we all know that quality sometimes might suffer. But there’s two things happening. First are people are understanding the soil, they’re understanding how to manage their vineyards properly and therefore quality is rising. And then the other thing is, as you’ve just mentioned, boutique producers. This is just starting. Really, really just starting and a lot of these boutique producers are Chinese citizens I guess, that have moved to France or studied winemaking in France, or even in Australia. A lot came back from Adelaide University and are now starting their own vineyards and their own projects. So, they’re getting inspired by the quality from abroad and trying to bring that in, back into China. And those are the exciting producers. These are people like XiaoLing Winery. Of course, Kanaan Winery who came back from Germany. You have wineries like [inaudible] who lived in France. Those are the exciting producers that I think will be representing and waving the flag of Chinese wine production.

JAMES ATKINSON: You mentioned about the rise of wine enthusiasm. Do people sort of go and visit cellar doors and taste at wineries and do that kind of thing in China?

EMILIE STECKENBORN: One of the things is that these areas are quite remote. So, Ningxia for example is ohh I’m forgetting now how long. But maybe four or five hours by flight and then it’s an hour or two away from the actual airport. And it’s in the middle of nowhere. There’s no restaurants. It’s not like you know, when you go visit Yarra and you have little restaurants or pockets of restaurants around. And Melbourne’s an hour away. It’s not like that. This is really in remote, isolated areas and I just made wine with XiaoLing Estate at Yunnan. And they say that it’s about a six-hour drive from Shangri-La. But it’s actually more like a 12-hour drive. So, you can just imagine, and this is from like going up and down, it’s 3,000m altitude. So, you can only imagine the amount of driving that’s needed. So, these areas tend to be really, really isolated for quality wine regions. And so, it really attracts a very specific crowd. Those who are probably a bit more adventurous. But of course, people who are in the trade who want to go see what’s happening. But I don’t see it attracting huge buses of tourism. And that’s an issue because you know, we’re trying to share quality wine producers with the rest of China. If they don’t see it you know, how do they even know it’s happening? Right, because all they really get to see when you go to grocery stores is of course, the big chain wines and the big wines that are being… that have the actual logistics to be sold throughout the country, because China is so big. You do need such a big you know, amount of wine produced to really be able to be national, I guess.

Ao Yun, LVMH's Chinese wine venture
Ao Yun, LVMH’s Chinese wine venture

Chinese baiju

JAMES ATKINSON: So, when you go into a Chinese wine retailer, what percentage of the wine that you would see in front of you would be locally produced?

EMILIE STECKENBORN: You know, that really depends on the you know, where you’re going. But I would say even at restaurants, less than 5%. So, here’s the thing. In China, baiju which is the white spirit is actually what’s being consumed, right. So, the real local alcohol sales are still baiju-driven and then they might have some wine to kind of showcase as an add on. Wine bars themselves in Shanghai, or even wine restaurants or bistros I would say, I’ve only see two or three examples or bottles on their wine list. And those are the ones I would say win the best wine awards, right. The best restaurant wine list awards, only have two or three producers max on their wine list for Chinese wines. And the rest of it, they might have 50 French wines, 20 Italians, right. 20 Australians. So, you can just imagine that it’s a really small number. One of the reasons is quality, consistency. You know China, like I said evolving wine industry right and it means that there’s huge… for the most part, I’ve seen in my personal tasting experience, really big waves of quality when it comes to vintage variation. That’s because everybody’s doing this for the first time, right and so everyone’s trying to learn how to adapt with the soil, how to work with the different vintage, how to work with disease pressure and a different way of working. So that’s I think the biggest issue is the consistency. And then also, the price. I mean that’s something I think we should maybe highlight. Chinese wines are not cheap.

JAMES ATKINSON: So, they’re not very competitive with some of the imported wines perhaps, that are coming into China from you know, South America, France, Australia. Places like that?

EMILIE STECKENBORN: Right and you know, here in China, New Zealand, and Chile benefit from a tax-free environment for their wines. So, I think there was a duty a few years ago a few years ago that actually approved that. And so of course, Chile if you’re looking for price and quality, and New Zealand you know. They’re a lot better than the wines… the Chinese wines, if you’re looking at the same quality ratio. So, for example, you can really… it really swings. But those big government, let’s say [inaudible] Great Wall Wine. That’s the name in English. That brand for example, you might find for around $10 Australian here. But most of the time, that’s not what you actually see. Most of the time the wines in China for a good value wine, a good Chinese quality wine and a good value, is around 320RNB, that’s around $50 Australian, is where you find good quality, good value. I mean, in Australia I feel like if I get a $20 to $25 wine, I get great value and so here, just to get a good value. I’m not saying it’s the best quality. I’m just saying good value, you have to spend $50 on a bottle of Chinese wine. And that’s just for entry level, right. If you’re looking into quality, it’s a minimum $300 Australian. So that’s about 1,300 RNB. And that’s… I’m talking about Ao Yun. Ao Yun is the project in Yunnan by LVMH, right. And that’s going for almost $200-$300 Australian. I don’t know how much it markets back in Australia, but you know, you can just imagine. I mean, that’s what the price is going for and I think first, people always underestimate that everything in China should be cheap, but it is very expensive to make wine in China. I guess one of the things is everything is imported into China, so the taxes and duties. That adds up. And then areas like Ningxia have to bury the vines every single year, and then have to dig it back out and that can only be done by hand. So, imagine digging every single vine and trying to protect your vineyard? That’s really a lot of work, a lot of cost associated. So Chinese wines first, I think they’re quite expensive. It’s changing. It definitely is changing. I’m seeing better value wines come on the market. But of course, you know, any new wineries trying to recuperate their loss right, so people are also trying to make money back from their investment. But you know, as you know, wine takes a long time and most wineries don’t even break even the first 10 years. So, people are not as patient here when it comes to many as perhaps back home where, you know, we’re very aware that wineries take a long time to recuperate cost.

JAMES ATKINSON: What about the way that wine is marketed and sold in China? One trend we’re really seeing in recent years is the focus on terroir and really championing single vineyards and those types of things. And then obviously in France they have the appellation system. In China, is there much focus on really telling the story of the particular site where the wine is from?

EMILIE STECKENBORN: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. I think there haven’t been too many examples where terroir is really the key factor of a sales point out here. Some wineries I know, again back to selling, they make individual like six plots of specific vineyard lots. That’s very rare, I’ve rarely heard wineries diving into vineyard sites. Right, making an exclusive vineyard site. And the way that they kind of market it is that it’s Chinese wines and more the story of the region, and the unique features of the region. So, right now we’re not even at the point where we can talk about soil or even trying to educate… and that’s what the Chinese government is doing, especially for Ningxia who has been heavily involved in trying to develop their region. Is just letting people know that this region even exists, right. What they did I think a few years ago was they brought in; oh, I’m going to be wrong on my number. But 15-25 winemakers from around the world, to come make wine for a year in Ningxia. So, they’re trying to just make people aware that the region exists. They’re not even at the point right now where soil is the top discussion.

JAMES ATKINSON: The Chinese government has big ambitions for the potential of its wines. Is there a lot of investment going into the industry though and there must be a lot of new vines being planted, just to try and sort of increase volumes over the next few years?

EMILIE STECKENBORN: Right, they’re definitely you know, as with any government around the world. They’re definitely trying to promote their product. In terms of re-planting, it is happening. There is actually quite a lot of wine on the market, which is hard to sell. And that’s actually a problem that I’ve been saying. It doesn’t mean it’s for everybody, but one of the things I’ve been noticing is you know, the prices are so high. Yes, people can afford a $300 bottle, but the question is if everybody you know, produces only 10,000, $300 bottles, imagine how much wine is on the market at that high price, right? So, there’s also that assumption that somehow wine if it’s priced higher will sell better and then at the same time, if it’s priced higher you can make more money. But everybody’s kind of done the same kind of strategy and therefore there’s a little bit of a top heavy when it comes to expensive wines. So yeah, the government’s definitely been trying to promote and that’s through different types of activations in terms of wine judging competitions or supporting wineries with helping to finance or even trying to give them resources. But you know, it’s still at the beginning of the game. So, there’s a lot of changes that are going to be happening in the next few years I can foresee. Hopefully if quality can improve, that would be the biggest step right. Because you can do all the promotion you want, but at the end of the day if quality is inconsistent, then that’s where you’re going to lose buyers.

Do Chinese people drink wine?

JAMES ATKINSON: Is there much to speak of in the way of wine bars, where Chinese people will come out and really get you know, excited about drinking wines from all around the world?

EMILIE STECKENBORN: Oh, for sure. I mean, one of the things that really, I think shocks a lot of the people when I bring them to China and show them around Shanghai, is that the amount of really great bistro’s and natural wine bars. And that seems to be the thing right now in China, is natural wine. I mean, they’re everywhere and they’re popping up. And a bit like the beer and cocktail scene a few years ago, you know, China was really lagging and now I think the cocktails that you find here in China are just as good as if you were back in Sydney. And you know, I really say that totally honestly. That if you did come out here, you’d be super shocked with how fast the country is moving. Now having said that, China’s really big, you know. So, if you tell me that you go to a small city like Changsha, I can’t assure you that you’re going to find a good wine bar. But in the big cities like Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing. I mean, Chengdu even. You are… have no problem finding some great spots for wine. Hong Kong’s a great example in its own right, you know. In terms of if you go to Hong Kong, the wine scene is really fantastic, and I think we’re learning… people have travelled around the world now. People in China have gone to Hong Kong. They’ve gone to Singapore; they’ve gone to Japan and have been inspired to open their own shops out here. So, they’ve seen the world, it’s not as closed as it used to be. When it comes to natural wine, I think the reason is because it’s really a point of differentiation amongst a very young and up and coming crowd, right. Whereas kind of the fine wine market is always going to have its people. But what I’ve seen recently is that new generation. They’re really excited to find something to differentiate themselves, right. And natural wine somehow speaks to that. It’s against the rules. It’s a little bit more fun and innovative. And it almost makes you a little click in a sense, right. So, it’s really interesting to see this develop. But definitely I think China in terms of the wine scene, is really developing rapidly. In the wine bar scene, as well as in e-commerce. And e-commerce is making everybody around China accessible to great wines from importers from around the country. And that’s exciting, is e-commerce as well.

JAMES ATKINSON: Now let’s talk about your podcast Emilie, Bottled in China. What led you to launch the podcast?

EMILIE STECKENBORN: Originally it was because I was a bit frustrated with the lack of knowledge of people out of China. And that’s completely understandable. I mean, I don’t expect anyone to really understand what was happening in the drink and food scene. But I recall I was doing some presentations for the Canadian government back home, talking about how to enter China and all these things… that was years ago. And people just had such a different idea of China and so I felt well, I wish I could explain it to people and first-hand experience. People that have worked in the market, like Ian who I’ve had the chance to interview as well. Or other people in the food and wine industry, share their stories. And one of the reasons is, for me Shanghai feels a bit like New York 20-30 years ago. You know, kind of like that wild west and the idea that everything is possible. And I wanted to capture these moments and these innovative, young, talented people in the market, who moved from their country to come here and start a restaurant. Or Chinese locals who moved abroad or got inspired by something and wanted to change the scene. So, you know, that’s who the podcast… that I really get to share the experiences and stories of really fascinating individuals. And actually in 2020 that changed a bit from only being China focused, to a little bit more of a global aspect. Just given that I thought there were more voices around the world that I wanted to share.

JAMES ATKINSON: What are some of your favourite episodes that people should look out for?

EMILIE STECKENBORN: Right, well I mean you know; we cover food and beverage. I would say a lot of it somehow always winds up as wine, and I don’t know why. I think you do a great job, where you balance everything out. And I don’t know if it’s because I’m more focused in wine, that somehow, I get to meet so many people. I’m like oh, I would love to talk to you about… more about what you’re doing in wine. I guess that’s one of the reasons. But you know, I try. I think try is a very loose term here, because if you look back at a lot of the podcasts, they dabble into alternative protein and food, beer, sake. But I would say 60% is probably wine. So, I mean, my favourite episodes. That’s really hard to highlight, but it really depends what you’re looking for you know. People probably listening to this podcast, if you want to learn more about Chinese wine, I did a podcast a few… I want to say a few months ago, with Christelle Chene from Xige Estate in Ningxia, that was a two-part episode where we dive into Chinese wine, Chinese wine production, why Chinese wines are expensive. So, I kind of answer those questions. And Christelle answers them in that podcast. And that’s really fascinating because she really breaks it down. She even talks about yields and how low the yields we have in China, which contribute to cost. And then of course, things you know, the future of food. I mean, I learn so much from the podcast. I think James, just like you, talking to people you get to learn an entirely new world. One that just opens up, right. We talk about Japanese sake, China e-commerce, how to make a great website SEO. Those are more global topics. And even bottled cocktails, you know, the rise of bottled cocktails with Laiba Beverages, which really started to soar during COVID. And the idea that you can’t go to grab a great craft cocktail by a mixologist. That it was all brought home. So, so many different podcasts. I think mine tend to be a little bit on the business side. I don’t know why. I think I might be boring, but I really do love those more business topics. So somehow, that’s kind of how they end up. But definitely a little bit of everything for everybody.

JAMES ATKINSON: Well that’s fantastic Emilie, and where can people find Bottled in China?

EMILIE STECKENBORN: Right, so Bottled in China is across any of the podcasts that you might listen to. iTunes, of course Google podcasts as well. Spotify and you can just connect with me on Instagram. That’s usually the best spot or LinkedIn as well. LinkedIn you can find me at Emilie Steckenborn. Mind you, my last name is really complicated so I won’t be sharing how to spell that. But those are the best ways. Instagram @BottledinChina and then on my LinkedIn @Emilie Steckenborn, if you wanted to connect further. But yeah, what a pleasure James.

JAMES ATKINSON: Thanks so much for joining me on the show.

EMILIE STECKENBORN: Of course. Cheers.

Phil Sexton: Wine and beer entrepreneur – S9E3
China wine and spirits market: Expert Ian Ford’s insights – S5E8
Noble Cut Gin, with head distiller Carla Daunton: S7E5

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